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What To Do With: Nebraska, or, Fighting the Last War

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There’s a pretty strong consensus so far about how things are going to play out in the Big 12 North:

Switch Nebraska and Kansas State (which lost to the Huskers by six touchdowns in one of the conference’s many bizarre November shootouts), and this is exactly the order of finish in the division last year. We’re led to believe, then, that 2007 was in fact the best available model for predicting 2008. The Sporting News, for example, besides picking the Huskers fourth, specifically lists the team’s "stock report" as "Steady."

The Huskers have been truly Blackshirt-esque on defense a couple times since falling off the national radar following the high profile, back-to-back blowouts that closed 2001, once in 2005 but to a much greater extent in 2003, when they led the nation in pass efficiency D, were second in scoring D and finished in the top 25 in every major category. They’ve struggled to reach the top 25 in any single category since. The defensive coordinator in 2003 (and only 2003): Bo Pelini.

It’s not possible to say last year’s defense was "on the brink," when it was so clearly in a freefall into the abyss as early as September; the Big Red was humiliatingly crushed by USC, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Kansas and Colorado, and the only somewhat close loss, at Texas, ended with the Longhorns running for well over 200 yards en route to 19 lightning-fast, decisive points in the fourth quarter alone. If anything, it was close to being an even greater disaster, just a late interception at Wake Forest and a missed field goal by Ball State away from 3-9 and a strong bid for Worst Team In Husker History. It was certainly the worst Husker defense anyone could remember, by many, many miles.

All numbers according to Rivals. Red indicates best in category for an individual year.
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Nine of the projected starters on this year’s defense were top 50 recruits at their respective positions, what Phil Steele would call at least an "HT," in some cases a coveted "VHT." As you might expect, that’s about as many as the rest of the division combined. I wouldn’t mention this if it was close.

This is not exactly par for the course.
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So: steady? As in "expected to allow 475 yards and 38 points per game," steady? With potentially the most physically gifted unit in the division, under the fresh guidance of the architect of the best Nebraska unit (on either side of the ball) of the decade? Who was also the architect of three straight defenses at LSU that all finished first or second in the SEC by any relevant measure, as well in the top five nationally in yards allowed all three years, and that visibly dominated three straight top ten teams in consecutive bowl wipeouts? Nebraska’s defense may not be LSU’s, personnel-wise -- really, outside of maybe USC, nobody’s is -- but "steady" means "last in the conference," and it deserves a little better than that.

In terms of hemorraghing of yards, points and turnovers (Nebraska was a horrendous –19 in turnover margin, worse than all but two other teams in the country), "steady" does not even seem like a possibility; they literally cannot be worse. If the offense is merely steady -- it finished the season on a tear with Joe Ganz at quarterback, averaging 53 points over the last three games -- and Pelini’s initial efforts are good enough just to progress back toward the mean defensively -- that is, to split the difference between the best-case scenario of his lone season as coordinator and the worst-case scenario of last year’s collapse -- this is unavoidably one of the most improved teams in the country, and an impending threat to Missouri’s supposed stranglehold on the division. Or, you know, if you’re talking about Nebraska from any perspective beyond the worst single-season implosion anyone could have imagined, just steady as she goes.