LINCOLN — Take heart, Husker fans. If the 2012 Big Ten title game debacle was one of the worst losses in recent school history, the 2013 version in Indianapolis is some foreign source of hope. And not just because Nebraska handed Michigan State five turnovers and a win in Lincoln last month.
Everything that the Big Ten champ Spartans are, the Huskers can be. Soon.
In a 34-24 win against Ohio State, Michigan State immediately popped the chirpy favorites in the nose and found some fourth-quarter grit when OSU made its push. There wasn't anything starry-eyed about Mark Dantonio's template for this season. Michigan State's last five recruiting classes, according to Rivals, were ranked 40th, 41st, 31st, 30th and 17th, respectively. Aside from defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, Dantonio doesn't feature a pricey, hotshot staff. And fan support? Michigan State has a strong core of fans, but it struggles to fill its stadium most weeks.
And yet these Spartans won nine Big Ten games by 10 points or more with a sophomore quarterback who may have to battle to keep his starting job next year. How?
Ľ An aggressive, daring defense featuring a physical front seven and long corners who stayed in Ohio State's grills.
Translation: Nebraska has the front seven talent in 2014. More, in fact, than Michigan State does. I've watched both teams, a lot, and I'll take NU's athletes. And while Nebraska needs to develop more corners, a guy like Auburn transfer Johnathan Rose has all the talent.
Ľ Michigan State employs a boring, nod-off-to-sleep offense that focuses on power runs and play-action passes. The key: just 49 Spartan giveaways in three years. Stanford, heading to its fourth straight BCS game and second straight Rose Bowl, has 52 giveaways in three years. Nebraska has 82 in three years. Let it sink in and know this: Nebraska had 19 in 2011, when Rex Burkhead carried more of the load and offensive coordinator Tim Beck asked considerably less out of quarterback Taylor Martinez. And Nebraska was a combined minus-6 in its three double-digit losses of 2011 (Wisconsin, Michigan and South Carolina).
Translation: Nebraska has to find a surefire, no-fail way to drill its skill players to protect the ball, change the offense to make it less risky, or rely on less talented players who will protect the ball at all costs and won't throw the defense to the wolves.
Ľ While the Spartans had a punt partially blocked Saturday night by All-America linebacker Ryan Shazier, they excel in special teams and keep opponents on their toes with the threat of trick plays. Dantonio obsesses over the value of a punt.
Translation: NU coach Bo Pelini can have special teams units as excellent or as average as he desires. Nebraska's not bereft of talent or walk-ons who'd sacrifice their bodies for a handful of plays. Pelini may have to put more of a personal touch on it, though, or assign someone to devote all of his time to it.
Ľ After a year of abject struggles in 2012, Michigan State's receivers became a strength this year. They're big and not particularly fast, but Bennie Fowler, Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphery, Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings saved quarterback Connor Cook's bacon a lot this year, especially on third down.
Translation: Whoever starts at quarterback next season — Tommy Armstrong, Johnny Stanton, Zack Darlington or a walk-on — he'll need more health and consistency from the wide receivers. The odds of so many injuries hitting the Huskers again are unlikely. But Kenny Bell, Jamal Turner and Jordan Westerkamp may have several junior college guys pushing them to stay sharp.
Ľ Michigan State is not Michigan, and it never will be, and neither team forgets that. The Spartans thus play with a big chip on their shoulders, an underdog mentality that plays into a slogan (“Spartan Dawgs”) and a style of play. But in the new Big Ten East Division — and in the state of Michigan — that identity fits MSU. It's natural. And its fan base pulls in that direction.
Translation: Nebraska wants to work the underdog/chip on its shoulder angle, too. But that'll be hard in a West Division where NU by far has the strongest football pedigree since 1960. Is Husker football really an underdog to Wisconsin and Iowa, its two primary challengers in the West? Do NU fans feel slighted by Badger and Hawkeye fans? No. Nebraska's a blue blood in this division. It wouldn't have been invited to the Big Ten otherwise. The Big Ten wouldn't otherwise be so confident in NU's ability to prop up the West.
The Huskers, uncomfortable as they may be in doing so, have to lead from the front for the first 12 games of each year. As favorites. As the “helmet” program. With the 15,000 fans on the road and a target on their backs. With the self-confidence and tough self-inventory that comes with it.
Any reason Nebraska can't do that with its manageable schedule in 2014?
“We're not that far off,” Pelini said during his Gator Bowl teleconference Sunday night. “We're right there.”
On with the Rewind.
I see you
Running back Ameer Abdullah: First-team All-Big Ten, and perhaps only fumbles kept him from being running back of the year in the league. Ohio State's Carlos Hyde had a fine year, but he had a healthy offensive line and Braxton Miller as a zone-read dance partner, too.
Defensive end Randy Gregory: Nebraska should get one more year from the first-team all-conference stud. Time to gain some weight. Gregory didn't miss a game, though, and got better as the season progressed.
Nickel Ciante Evans: NU's other first-team all-conference player made his first big play in the 2010 Missouri game with a goal-line stop on quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Evans developed into a complete player from there, especially after defensive backs coach Terry Joseph joined the staff.
Right guard Spencer Long, tight end Jake Long and fullback C.J. Zimmerer: Three more academic All-Americans for the Huskers, who integrate school and sports as well as any program in the country, and perhaps better. But a university alone doesn't raise a great student, so a nod to Elkhorn High School (the Longs) and Omaha Gross (Zimmerer) for laying the groundwork.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong: Get healthy. His biggest audition for 2014 is the bowl game.
How badly does Florida State beat Auburn in the BCS national title game?
I correctly predicted routs in the last two BCS title games. Here's a third. The Noles by 30. FSU is FSU again. The SEC run is over. And it could be over for years to come. Asked on the radio a few weeks ago which were the best jobs in college football, Florida State immediately came to mind because of the local talent pool, the league and the nature of Seminole fans. They just want to win and win and win and will expend every necessary resource to do so.
If it was were 2014, which teams should make the four-team playoff?
I'll answer this question two different ways.
How the committee sees it: Florida State, Auburn, Stanford, Michigan State. Since conference titles will be weighed in the equation, and the SEC team with the best collection of wins (Auburn) is already in, Michigan State gets a nod over Bama because of the way the Spartans played in league action. Beating every opponent by more than 10 points? Only Florida State could boast that. If Alabama's strength of schedule were better, perhaps the Crimson Tide would be a better inclusion, but scheduling Georgia State, Colorado State and Chattanooga is kind of like a middle finger to the process. (I'm confident the Rams are only on the schedule to help former Bama assistant/CSU coach Jim McElwain make $1.5 million per trip for his program to sell the trip to recruits).
How I see it: My Associated Press ballot ranks Alabama fifth behind South Carolina. (The Gamecocks won at Central Florida, Missouri and beat Clemson.) But if I'm judging the four teams best equipped to win a playoff along with the other criteria of “just desserts,” then I'll pick FSU, Auburn, Stanford and Bama. Why the difference? Because a ballot is a glance backward. A playoff selection is a look forward. And that human element of projection — a sublime pleasure — tells me Bama's better, and South Carolina's win at Central Florida doesn't change that. Either way, Florida State is my champ.
Who should win the Heisman?
We already know FSU quarterback Jameis Winston will win it. He's surrounded by an embarrassment of riches — like six pros on offense — but he's darn, darn talented. You can't argue against it. I don't have a vote for the Heisman, but if I did, he probably wouldn't be it. For me, it'd still be Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. Blessed with a great left tackle (Jake Matthews) and an even better wide receiver (Mike Evans), Manziel nevertheless had to run around getting in adventures, trying to will a team with no defense, a brand new offensive coordinator and a coach who spent most of the season getting rumored for other jobs. And he did that against a brutal schedule under the fiercest microscope of any player until Winston faced the scrutiny during the last month for an alleged sexual assault, for which he will not be charged. Give Winston Manziel's toothless defense and schedule and tell me he produces the same numbers Manziel did.
21: Nebraska's offensive plays that went for 30 yards or more. That's what injuries did to offensive coordinator Tim Beck's attack. Last year, NU had 33 such plays through 14 games, and 11 plays of 50 yards or more. The Huskers have three so far this year.
I've been asked why Beck didn't dial back the spread stuff and run more power, like Shawn Watson did in 2009 when the offense crumbled to pieces. My take: As banged up as the 2009 line was — swine flu, full-body bruises, knee injuries — Nebraska had it even worse this year. Guards are a key part of power football, since they're often the pullers, and while NU had decent depth, it wasn't a unit that could “Stanford” its way through games.
587: Rushing yards in November for Abdullah. That ranked fourth in the Big Ten behind Hyde (700), Wisconsin's James White (665) and Penn State's Zach Zwinak (588). Abdullah had more carries (121) than all of them. That November carries total ranked sixth nationally. His 4.85 yards per carry average for November did not rank in the top 100. He needs a little more help for the stretch run next year.
224: Combined touchdowns between Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez. Murray's out for the Gator Bowl with a torn ACL while Martinez is doubtful with a two-toe injury.
52.2: Penalty yards for Nebraska per game. That's 82nd nationally and last in the Big Ten. Michigan State inched ahead to 80th. But NU's number is also the lowest per-game average since 2008. In 2010, 52.2 penalty yards per game would have tied for fourth in the Big 12.
23.21 percent: Nebraska's third-down defensive conversion rate on the road. That's No. 1 in the nation. Opponents converted 13 of 56 third downs into first downs in their home stadiums against the Huskers.
A rematch against Georgia — and a third straight trip to Florida — won't move a ton of Husker fan needles. But from a straight pigskin perspective, Nebraska's better off playing a pro-style offense and an SEC class of athletes than a Kansas State team that runs a weird hybrid offense. The Bulldogs have been just as pummeled by injuries as the Huskers were, especially at the offensive skill spots. Georgia's defense is young and vulnerable to a good passing game — and the occasional miracle play at Auburn.
But the story of the game will be junior Bulldog quarterback Hutson Mason, who waited for years behind Murray and finally gets his chance to start. Mason was sharp in a comeback 41-34 win over Georgia Tech, throwing for 299 yards and two touchdowns. He has three top targets in wide receiver Chris Conley, hybrid receiver Michael Bennett and tight end Arthur Lynch. But the big draw is running back Todd Gurley, whose injury absence in the middle of the season likely accounted for losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt.
In nine games, Gurley averaged 138.6 all-purpose yards per game — 7.2 yards per play. He averaged 151 all-purpose yards in November. With a month of healing, Gurley will be the best back Nebraska faces all year.
On my World-Herald Facebook page, I'll ask fans to submit comments after each game and post select responses here. This week, I asked a slightly different question: What part of the team has you most encouraged? What part needs the most growth? Who are the top divisional and league rivals Nebraska must beat in recruiting, development and on-field to best get where it wants to go?
Aaron Britton: “We all agree on turnovers, special teams and strength and conditioning. Those would be good places to start. But, I'd offer that the most important thing is how can Bo have a balanced team this year. He's either had great offenses (2008, 2012) with bad defenses or elite defenses (2009, 2010) with awful offenses. Is there a way he and Tim Beck can craft gameplans on offense to 'not lose' those games with turnovers while letting our athletic defense make a few plays for us? I don't see a game next year outside of Wisky on the road that we couldn't win that way.”
Ryan Cameron: “As far as wins and losses go, we are spinning our wheels. But most fans can look past that and see the potential in our youth, especially with our front seven. Gary Anderson proved to be the right hire, and Wisconsin will be the favorite until proven otherwise. The expectations haven't changed, as we should contend for a division title on a yearly basis with Wisconsin, along with an occasional Iowa squad.”
Steve Wooden: “The D should be stout for the next few years. If they continue to improve game to game, we may actually see a traditional Nebraska defense next year and years after. The offense and punt returns is where improvement must be made. The turnovers must stop, as I'm sure everyone would agree. If Armstrong makes a decent step forward and we actually find a punt return game, this team has the potential to walk all over the western division next season.”
Well, it snowed way too much this weekend. So a couple snow football games at the local park.