Thursday, August 27, 2009

Hot Routes, Big Red Style

Can you believe we're only 9 days away from kickoff? That long wait through miserable basketball and baseball games, the tease that was spring football, it's all in the rear view mirror as we hurtle toward that first sweet fall Saturday and the feeling that all is once again right in the world.

Considering I've neglected to post much on Nebraska-related developments the past couple of days, I'm going to spend the bulk of today's Hot Routes focusing on the Big Red, then moving on to whatever conference and national matters I find noteworthy (or worthy of making fun of).

-The biggest news, at least in terms of buzz, is the announcement that Cody Green has taken the lead in the race to be the #2 quarterback. Green, the stud freshmen who some thought might redshirt this year behind Kody Spano before the latter's injury, has apparently grasped the intricate Nebraska offense quite well, and has gained the confidence of his coaches and teammates through nearly three weeks of fall camp.

The real concern here is that Watson has already said that he won't change his play calling to protect Zac Lee from injury, which means that we are one play away from having a true freshmen manning the most important position on the field. That said, Green is obviously no ordinary freshmen, and the days of worrying about an 18 year old kid not being able to do the job are for the most part gone.

With the advancements in year-round football camps and clinics, training, and the increase in kids getting on campus one semester early for spring ball, having a freshmen under center isn't nearly as scary as it used to be. Just look at Terrelle Pryor or Robert Griffin last year, I think both of those teams probably had few complaints about the quality of their quarterback play. The other thing that boosts my confidence about Green's rise on the depth chart is that Watson has said he won't dumb down the playbook for him, he's going to coach him till they feel he'll be ready to play with no drop-off from Zac, and it seems like the staff is confident he'll get to that level pretty quickly.

-After the dismissal of Quentin Castille, many bemoaned the fact that the Huskers now lacked a short-yardage battering ram for the goal line situations. I too, was a little concerned about it, since it's tough to find guys who are 235 pounds and can run like Quentin did. After reading this article by Jon Nyatawa over on the Omaha World Herald site, my concerns are put to rest, at least a little bit. Quoting running backs coach Tim Beck:

“It's still about reading holes and getting through there,” Beck said. “It does help sometimes if you're a bigger guy and somebody's in the way .... but you have these guys who can make big plays because they make people miss. Sometimes that 2-yard gain for the first down on third and 1 becomes a 50-yard touchdown.”

Here's my opinion on the usage of big backs like Castille: are they the be-all end-all for short yardage situations? Of course not. One of the best short yardage backs in history of the game was Marcus Allen, whose wiry 6'2", 210 pound build more resembles that of Lester Ward than Quentin Castille. Another instance of battering-ram tailbacks not assuring a first down is from the epic USC-Texas national championship game at the end of the 2005 season. Needing one yard to move the chains and keep Vince Young off the field, LenDale "Kripsy Kreme" White couldn't get it.

That said, my argument in favor of guys like Q is that the deeper you go into a game, the more it wears out the linebackers and secondary having to tackle a guy like that. Have you ever tried to stop someone like that when they have a head of steam? I have, and it felt like someone hit my shoulder with a sledgehammer. Extrapolate that over four quarters, and then you get an idea of what I mean. All of this of course is a moot point, because Quentin is gone, and now the task falls to Roy and Nebraska's stable of speedsters. As Beck pointed out, results are results, it doesn't matter how NU gets them as long as it's effective.

- To no surprise, Tom Osborne isn't really wild about Bud Light's "Fan Cans". Given T.O.'s opinion on underage alcohol abuse on college campuses, this was a given. All I really want to know is, what is the one place in Nebraska that DID get some of the cans? Because I'd like to call them and buy a case to be shipped up here. They have fan cans up here for the Vikings, but I fear that drinking beer out of a purple and yellow can may make me question my sexuality, whereas red and white would probably shoot my consumption to an entire new level on fall Saturdays. I mean, I'm going to be wearing a red shirt and a red have red and white Bud Light cans on top of it? That might put too much strain on an already-overburdened liver.

Still, my opinion aside, Osborne's request falls in line with nearly every athletic director and college president in the country, and I'm not going to argue with the logic in their arguments. Will this stop underage consumption? Well, no. It won't even slow it down. But if you're in their shoes, you have to make that move and speak out against it.

-While part of me feels for Latravis Washington being disappointed about getting passed by Cody Green, can he really be that surprised? Washington hadn't played quarterback since high school, whereas Green was coming in right after a ballyhooed career in Texas, both of them beginning their NU quarterback career at the same time. Furthermore, isn't competition what makes great programs great?

The most repeated phrase of camp thus far is that nobody- save Zac Lee's- job is safe, that every guy has to be sharp and busting his ass every day or he runs the risk of being passed by. While disappointment is understandable, the good thing is he seems to have the right reaction:

"I'm kind of disappointed in myself I didn't come out as the No. 2, but I'm going to just keep working and keep grinding, just keep on pushing forward.....It's whatever the coaches want. I'm a team player."

- Is anyone loving Bo's mentality and Pelini-isms through fall camp? After a sub-par practice, he comes out and says that "We're not a very good team right now." Which is exactly what needs to be said if the secondary is giving up deep balls, which is reportedly one of the big factors for Bo's surly attitude after practice Wednesday. After watching opposing wideouts fly by our defensive backs over and over again last year because of mental mistakes like biting on underneath routes, it's good to see that everyone is so focused on accountability. I've been one of Larry Asante's biggest critics, but to hear him say "We need to step it up" makes me excited to see what kinds of improvements we'll see from the pass defense.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Q is Out, Rex is In, and Thunder Goes to Prison

Give Bo Pelini credit: He won't bend his rules for talented players. That was the message made more emphatically than ever with the dismissal of Quentin Castille, a talented if somewhat oft-troubled running back who was going to be option 1b at the tailback position this year behind Roy Helu.

Castille, who showed his true potential in spectacular fashion in last year's Gator Bowl victory over Clemson, sat out his last three practices in street clothes before Pelini made it official on Saturday.

When I found out, I was camping with some friends, but the announcement put a cloud of disappointment over the rest of the day for my brother and I. We, like many Husker fans, were excited to see what Castille could do this year in a season where the running game was seemingly going to become the featured part of the offense.

Reactions from most of the fans, and the media community, have been pretty supportive of Pelini's decision. In an era when many teams would simply handle a non-legal issue internally, Pelini made a stand and showed that every player, no matter how talented, must abide by his rules, or he'll be shown the door.

Said Pelini on Jim Rome's radio show yesterday:

“When you’re setting up a program and you’re forming a culture, in my world it’s pretty black and white. There’s not a lot of gray. You’re going do what’s asked of you. There’s going to be repercussions when you screw up. "

"Unfortunately for ‘Q,’ he made some mistakes and he made one too many…one thing our kids understand here is it’s not about any one person, it’s about the “N” on the side of your helmet…our players understand why the decision was made.”

When I talked to my dad (the man most responsible for my Husker brainwashing), he seemed pretty disappointed with the move.

The way he saw it, if Johnny Rogers was allowed to stay on the team after robbing a gas station back in '72, or Lawrence Phillips after that whole situation in '95, then why should Quentin be booted? While I understand that argument, I think he fails to see the difference between Osborne and Pelini.

Osborne believed that by keeping them in the program, he could continue to help them change their ways and give them a chance to rehabilitate themselves, whereas if they were let go, they could continue a downward spiral. Osborne, in his 1996 book On Solid Ground:

"Permanently dismissing Lawrence from the football team wouldn't have helped any of my family members or anyone else's family. If anything, it might have made things worse. By not getting the needed treatment, something similar may have happened in the future."

"At least if he were on the team, I could make sure he would get the help he needed...I hope people understand that we tried to do what was best for Lawrence as a human being and not simply to win football games."

Pelini, on the other hand, has his own opinions on player discipline. Since he's taken over the program, over a dozen players have left the program, and while not all of them are for player discipline, you have to wonder how many of them knew they would not be able to tolerate the elevated expectations that came with Pelini's hiring.

At first, I was torn on the decision. I have personal experience with this issue, as I was booted from my football team in college for drinking (it was a Baptist school that didn't allow drinking, or for that matter, pretty much anything else). Now, I didn't disagree with my dismissal. I broke the rules, and I should suffer the consequence.

However, half the starters on the defense were the guys I was out drinking with, and they were allowed to stay on the team. I was a second-stringer, and by no means a game breaker. THAT I had a problem with.

With Pelini, you don't see that. It doesn't matter how integral a player is to the team's success, if he doesn't toe the line, he'll be gone, and kudos to Pelini for sticking to his guns.

That said, what now with the running back position? We all know that Rex Burkhead, the schoolboy legend from Texas, has been elevated to No. 2. While I am as excited as anyone to see what the kid can do, he is by no means a proven commodity like Castille was. In additon to that, at 200 pounds he can hardly be expected to be the goal line battering ram that Castille was.

Despite my reservations though, having watched all his high school highlight videos, I am interested in seeing if he can make an instant inpact, particularly in the passing game, as it seems he's a pretty adept receiver.

Another question is, if Burkhead is the backup at running back, then who's the No. 3? Lester Ward has been getting some good reviews out of camp, but he has yet to have a collegiate carry.

What about Marcus Mendoza, who was moved back to the position after practicing with the receivers all fall? It will be interesting to see what Watson and RB coach Tim Beck do with so many unproven players at their disposal.

Thunder Collins Convicted

I'm not going to get into the dirty details of Thunder's conviction. It's yet another sad chapter in an ongoing downward spiral, and it's one I don't particularly like to talk about.

Collins was a guy who never lived up to the hype that he arrived with after being a JUCO All-American. In his best season for the Huskers, he had 647 yards rushing and 189 yards receiving, and he left the team halfway through the 2002 schedule.

Here's what is really chapping my ass about this whole situation though: Why on earth is this getting major play on sports news sites and TV? I could understand if it was a game-breaker who contributed some great seasons and made it to the NFL, but this is a guy who was a blip on the radar for a couple of years and then disappeared.

Somehow, this is making it in the "top stories" sections on and ESPN. My personal belief is that ever since Lawrence Phillips, any time the national media can point out another troubled former Nebraska player, they'll do it.

Maybe it's because we're in a part of the year that is lacking sports news (preseason football, all they have to talk about else is baseball), but either way, it still pisses me off that this gives opponents and critics another reason to talk bad about the program.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Big 12 South Preview (Part I)

Due to time constraints today, I'm only going to publish the first half of my Big XII South preview. I know, the fans of Tech, Baylor, and Texas A&M are devastated, but we'll get to the bottom half of the division later this week, most likely after a Hot Routes and then some commentary on the Castille dismissal/Burkhead ascendancy for the Big Red. This should have been posted sooner, but alas, I was out of town.

The teams below are listed in in the order I believe they'll finish in the division race.


Is it just me, or is Colt McCoy the Big XII's Van Wilder? He's one of those guys who has been in the spotlight his whole college career, and, as a result, it seems like he's been in school for the better part of a decade.

It's unfortunate for the rest of the Big 12, because during that tenure he's been pretty damn good. Holding 42 school records and a 32-7 career mark in the win/loss column will make you a near-deity at a school like UT, but to get on Vince Young's level, McCoy will have to take the Longhorns to where the pollsters didn't allow them to go last year, and that's to a national title.

Fortunately for McCoy, he'll have plenty of help on the offensive side of the ball, where eight starters return from an offense that put up 42 points and 475 yards per game last year. What sets UT apart from Oklahoma this year is that, whereas the Sooners have to rebuild their offensive line, Texas brings back four of their five starters from last year, among them All-Big 12 tackle Adam Ulatoski and center Chris Hall. The 'Horns hope that this experience in the trenches will lead to a running game with a feature back who's last name isn't McCoy, which was the case last year.

Look for the ball-toting duties to be shared among three backs, as was the case last year. This year's edition will feature Vondrell McGee (likely starter), Fozzy Whittaker (change-of-pace-guy), and Cody Johnson (short yardage). Whether or not that will lead to a better rushing game is anyone's guess. The real question here is, with it's fertile recruiting ground, how on God's green earth does UT not have a beast in the backfield?

The receiving corps, while losing Quan Crosby, still has Jordan Shipley, though it doesn't help that the Longhorns have lost four (that's right, four) tight ends to season-ending injuries thus far this year. Shipley is a legitimate Belitnekoff award candidate, and it's well deserved, as he's a beast.

UT's defense returns six starters, the most prominent being LB/DE Sergio Kindle, who is expected to get a lot of snaps at defensive end to shore up a unit still dealing with the loss of three starters, including Nagurski/Lombardi award winner Brian Orakpo. If the defensive line loses anybody to injury, there will be a significant depth issue there, and finding able bodies to prevent that is high on defensive coordinator (and head-coach-in-waiting) Will Muschamp. The good news is that the unit was bolstered by another boffo recruiting class, including Alex Okafor, the No. 1 ranked strongside defensive end, according to

The rest of the defense wasn't hit as hard in terms of graduations and NFL decisions, and will return some able-bodied playmakers in Roddrick Muckelroy and a pair of stud safeties in Blake Gideon and Earl Thomas, who both excelled as freshmen last year.


For a team that has won three consecutive Big XII championships and played in five national title games in the past 11 seasons, the Sooners still have a problem with closing out with a victory. If you look back, the last time that OU won their final game of the year was back in 2005, when they beat Oregon in the Holiday Bowl, and as a result, there has been a little bit of OU backlash in recent years, especially last year after Texas was denied a chance to compete for the national title despite having beaten the Sooners in the Red River Shootout.

Say what you want about Oklahoma, but their consistency this decade is nothing short of amazing in this era of parity in college football. Only once in the 2000s have the Sooners finished with fewer than 11 wins. The question is, when will they get over the hump again and raise the crystal ball?

Last year's Sooner offense was the most prolific (at least in terms of scoring) in college football history, scoring 50 or more points in seven of their games and failing to break 40 only three times. That said, the Sooners face a challenge in restocking an offensive line that lost four starters, in addition to Sam Bradford's go-to receiver, Juaguin Iglesias. Luckily for Bradford, he still has plenty of playmakers to choose from, including a pair of 1,000 yard backs in DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown and tight end Jermaine Gresham, who may be the nation's best at that position.

Bradford faces stiff competition from McCoy and Jesus, er, Tim Tebow for the Heisman Trophy, but as we've seen, OU usually finds a way to simply reload with former five star recruits when they lose any weapons. As long as the line keeps Bradford upright, the offense will keep on rolling.

The defense, as is usually the case in the Bob Stoops era, will be a highly-regarded unit. Anchored by all-everything tackle Gerald McCoy, as well as defensive end Auston English and linebacker Travis Lewis, the Sooners are expecting great things from a squad that expects to return it's front seven from last season intact. According to Stoops's media day interviews, he thinks that this unit has a chance to be one of the better ones that the Sooners have had during his time at OU.


While everyone else may be predicting that OSU is this year's Texas Tech, I'm still not sold on them making that kind of a jump. The offense, though overshadowed by its peers in the South last year, is as good as any in the country. Not only is the attack extremely potent, it's also extremely balanced, as it rushed for 3,191 yards and passed for 3,149 yards last season.

The triggerman for the juggernaut is multi-threat QB Zac Robinson, who has no shortage of weapons at his disposal on the offensive side of the ball. The Cowboys return the Big XII's leading receiver and rusher, with All-American Dez Bryant doing the catching (1,480 yards, 17 YPC) and Kendall Hunter doing the running (1,555 yards, 16 TD's).

The only real losses for the offense were All-Conference center David Washington and first-round NFL draft choice Brandon Pettigrew, a tight end who last year had 42 catches for 472 yards

With all that firepower returning, you may wonder why I'm not sold on the Cowboys living up to their lofty pre-season rankings (No. 9, AP). For any knowledgeable college football fan, you already know the answer: their defense is, well...bad. Last year, the Cowboys lost four games, and in those games the opposing team averaged 47 points.

The reason for so much optimism by the Okie State faithful is that the Cowboys brought in Bill Young as defensive coordinator. Young, an OSU alum, is highly regarded in coaching circles, coming off his experience with Miami last year and Kansas the previous year, as a man known for turning around inept devensive units.

The question is, can one guy really flip the switch for a team that allowed over 400 yards of offense a game last year, lost three starters from a secondary that struggled mightily, and ranked last in the league in sacks? The Cowboys' aspirations of a Big 12 breakthrough hinge on it.

In addition to not being sold on their defense, I still don't think that the Cowboys can get through a brutal schedule that includes Georgia in the non-conference slate and then sends them on the road to face OU, Baylor, and Texas A&M. I think that OSU might be one of those teams that sprints out of the gate and then falls back to earth with another four or five-loss season.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Hot Routes

I was contemplating posting my Big 12 South preview today, but I didn't feel that I had put quite enough into it yet, and considering I my attention span is shorter than the average Oakland Raiders head coaching career, I thought today would be a good day to do a Hot Routes and look around not only some news from the Big 12 but also some stuff that is either entertaining or noteworthy from around the country.

-This Wednesday practice recap got me extremely fired up about Niles Paul. It's crazy (and depressing) how fast time flies, as he's already a junior and we're still waiting for him to break out. If you read this blurb, however, it seems that the explosion is coming. Up until this point, the former high school All-American has been a special-teamer and the 4th receiver. However, his off-field issue this spring has obviously refocused him, and he seems determined to live up to they hype this year. I'm going to do a feature on the receiving corps at some point, but let me say this: Niles Paul has me giddy with anticipation about seeing some deep balls this fall in Memorial Stadium. To quote Shawn Watson from the article:

“Niles Paul is the guy, no doubt.”

What does Paul bring to the table?

“Plays. Big plays,” Watson said. “Respect is earned. You earn it by performance. I think everybody here, everybody on this team — offense, defense, coaches, managers, everybody who sees practice — goes, ‘Wow, he’s done a nice job.’”

- Came across this Pat Forde article over on ESPN via the guys over at Double Extra Point, and it lists his 40 worst college football villains from the past and present. As DXP points out, Matt Davidson is at #5 on the list because of his season-altering, national title-saving catch off of Shevin Wiggins' foot. He goes on to bitch and moan about how the officials should have called the play illegal because of the kick. Perhaps he's right, as technically, that was indeed illegal according to the rule book.

Then again, if we're going to nitpick, the media should have voted Nebraska #1 after they trounced (Peyton Manning-led) #3 Tennessee 42-17, while Michigan scraped by (Ryan Leaf-led) #8 Washington State 21-16, with the game coming down to the final play. So you'll have to forgive me if I think the Miracle at Mizzou simply enabled the better team to continue it's march to the national championship. Pat Forde, as pointed out by DXP, is a Missouri graduate. Shocking.

Other notables (pertaining to the Huskers) on the list:

#16 Bernie Kosar, Miami QB
Supposedly hated by the Huskers for his Orange Bowl derailment of the '83 juggernaut that both lost the Big Red the National Title and established the fact that Tom Osborne has testicular fortitude on par with the Gods.

#33 Barry Switzer
We all know why most consider this guy a villain. Husker hatred for him, while still present, has subsided over the years due to his praise of the rivalry and Tom Osborne, who he for the most part owned during their time at OU and Nebraska, respectively.

- I thought this article on the ACC by Mark Schlabach was interesting for a couple of reasons. The ACC is often regarded, as Schlabach points out, as perhaps the 4th or even 5th-best BCS conference in the country. The SEC and Big 12 are always at the top of that list, followed by the Pac-10, Big 10, with the vomit-inducing Big East bringing up the rear. Schlabach points out that the ACC has produced more 1st round NFL draft picks than any other conference the past four years, as well as the fact that it sent 10 teams to bowl games last year, an NCAA record.

While I don't refute that those are impressive stats, my question is, at what point does a conference's depth take away from it's ability to put teams in national championship games? Sure, they sent 10 teams to a bowl game. However, if you look at the standings, you see that only one team (Virginia Tech) finished with a double-digit win total (10), and that was helped by the Huskers giving them 30 yards on their game-winning drive with personal foul penalties.

After Va Tech, you have a bunch of teams with anywhere from 6-9 wins, and while that may get you into a bowl game, doesn't mean your conference is at the table with the Big 12 and SEC. Furthermore, how hard is it to make a bowl game? The field gets more diluted every year, and what's sad is that they keep trying to add more games. In my opinion, a .500 record should not be rewarded with a trip anywhere, even if the game in Boise, Idaho. If you only did your job right 50% of the time, would you get a bonus? I doubt it, and I don't think these schools, in this economic climate, should be paying to send their players and band anywhere either.

The other side of this argument is, would you rather have top-to-bottom depth, with no national title contenders, or would you rather be the Big 10 and be essentially a two-team conference? Both sides have advantages and disadvantages. The good thing for the Big 10 is, all it takes is to run the table in your conference (which reeks of Garbagio Armani), and you're assured a spot in the national title conversation. The downside of that is that you then get embarrassed in those BCS games on an annual basis. Well what about the Big 12, you say? They're as top heavy as the Big 10, right? No, they're not. Sure, we have OU and Texas. In addition to them though, we have top-10 Okie State this year, followed by respectable teams such as Nebraska, Kansas, Mizzou, and Texas Tech. Heck, even Baylor is becoming decent, and it's just a matter of time before Texas A&M comes back to the pack. So the Big 12 is the best of both worlds. That's right, I went through all those arguments just to tout Big 12 supremacy.

- Speaking of the Big 2, er, Big 10, Stewart Mandel's latest over on SI discusses the lack of parity in the conference and three teams that could be "sleepers": Iowa, Michigan State, and Illinois. While I'll be honest and admit that he makes some valid points about Iowa, I refuse to jump on either the Spartans or the Illini's bandwagons. Sure, MSU finished 6-2 in the league last year, but as Mandel points out, the two losses were one-sided woodshed beatings at the hands of the only two good teams in the conference. So you're telling me because they whooped the junior varsity, that this year they will break out?

I have my doubts. What makes the Big 10 the Big 10 is that there will always be the Indianas and Minnesotas to beat up on, and until the teams like the three Mandel mentioned bring back some kind of middle class to the league, it will continue to be an annual punchline. My favorite sentence of the article: "Of late, though, the league has been lacking in depth, as its putrid 6-16 bowl record over the past three seasons shows." Pointing that out never gets old.

I had to put this in, and no, I don't care that it rips off the "Rudy" song:

Monday, August 17, 2009

Big 12 North Preview

Like taxes and death, it feels like Big 12 North bashing is one of the certainties in life. It's hard to think of more oft-maligned group of teams, mainly because even when the division isn't that bad, the South is so good that it makes the North look like terrible in comparison. The thing is, it really is warranted, particularly if you look at the conference in this decade. Sure, there was Colorado's defeat of Texas in 2001 and K-State's upset of OU in 2003, but those aren't the games the nation remembers. They think of the fact that the South has won the Big XII title game 5 years in a row, and by a combined score of 233-51 at that (thanks in large part to Colorado's 42-3 and 70-3 losses in 2004 and 2005).

When you put up stinkbombs of Hindenburg-ian proportions, people are going to be skeptical any time you claim that the North is rebounding. The thing is, I really do think that the next two seasons will go a long way in rehabilitating the division's image. Kansas and Mizzou have put together a couple of good years now, and Nebraska's continued improvement may finally balance out the conference to a certain extent. Today I'm going to look at the other five Big 12 North teams and make my predictions for their respective 2009 campaigns.

What sets the Jayhawks apart from the other main contenders for the North crown (Nebraska, Mizzou) is that they have an established and proven trigger man coming back in Todd Reesing, who by the end of his career (barring injury), will own every passing record that KU has. 20-6 as a starter, including two bowl victories (albeit one of them was over Minnesota, so nothing special there), Reesing will have a bevy of weapons to pick from this year.

He returns one of the best receivers in the country in Dezmon Briscoe, who put up a jaw-dropping season last year when he hauled in 92 catches for just over 1,400 yards and 15 touchdowns. In addition to Briscoe, Kerry Meier, the former backup QB who turned into a more-than-serviceable receiver, is back and now can focus solely on honing his ball-catching skills. To top it off, Jonathan Wilson (43 catches) and Jake Sharp (860 yards rushing/12 TD's) return as well. So barring Briscoe getting suspended or Reesing getting injured, this offense has the potential to be pretty powerful.

The KU defense, like much of the Big 12, is adapting to deal with the proliferation of the spread offense. Formerly a predominately 4-3 defense, most of the time you'll only see two linebackers on the field with an additional safety subbed in to deal with all the receivers. The secondary and defensive line returns a great deal of depth, led by safety Darrell Stuckey in the back and Caleb Blakesley at defensive tackle. The only downside for the Jayhawks is that they lost all three of their starting linebackers, including leading tackler James Holt.

Despite having 18 starters back, expectations are likely being tempered by a schedule that is downright brutal in the second half of the season. KU could very well start 6-0, but then has to face OU, Texas Tech, Nebraska, Texas, and Missouri in 5 of the last 6 games, and that's not counting if they make it to the Big 12 title game. Maybe I've been drinking too much Husker Kool-Aid, but I see the Jayhawks finishing 9-3 with losses to Oklahoma, the Huskers, and Texas.

While Mizzou's ascension the past few years has been difficult for me (and all Husker fans) to deal with, the one upside is that now there is a palpable hatred between these teams, something that was absent before due to NU's one-sided dominance. Now that Mizzou has had their day in the sun (22 wins the over the past 2 years), the question is, can they maintain it? Losing Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, and Chase Coffman will test this team, even if it does have talented players to step in. Blaine Gabbert, the much-ballyhooed former Husker commit, will take the reins of the offense this year, and it will be interesting to see how he'll respond. He certainly has all the physical tools, but high school accolades don't always mean assured stardom in the college ranks.

Losing the top 2 receiving threats is painful, but capable players remain in the form of WRs Brandon Gerau (who stepped up in spring practice), Jared Perry, and Danario Alexander. Notice, I said capable. There's a big difference between capable and electric, which is what Maclin was. The good thing for the Tigers is that they return RB Derrick Washington, who established himself as one of the best all-around backs in the conference last year (17 TD's).

While the offense may still be serviceable, the defense is, shall we say, um....screwed. Only 3 teams in all of Division I (and yes, I still call it that, I'm not going to cave just because the I-AA had it's panties in a bunch) had worse pass defenses than Mizzou, and that doesn't bode well in the most pass-happy league in the country. To top it off, not only was the secondary horrible, it lost 3 starters...which, if you think about it, might not be a bad thing. I mean, it's not like there can be that much of a drop off, right?

The defensive line only returns one starter (NT Jaron Baston), but at least the linebacking corps is solid, anchored by Butkus candidate Sean Witherspoon, who has 1st-round talent. Unfortunately, one defensive stalwart can't save a defense that laid a season-long B.M. last year. Sadly, I can't really say much because they mopped the floor with Nebraska. In Lincoln.

That said, this year doesn't look promising. They are looking at a potential 3-4 start due to their season opener against Illinois and then playing NU, Okie State, and Texas in consecutive weeks, and it could be even worse than that considering they have to play OK teams Nevada and Bowling Green in their non-conference slate. Due to what should be a porous defense, I'm predicting a 6-6 record, not counting whatever garbage bowl game they make.

"Ten wins and no excuses." That's the gauntlet that coach Dan Hawkins laid down at the awards banquet after last year's 5-7 season, which ended in spectacular fashion with Cody Hawkins on the turf courtesy of one Ndamukong Suh. Few things are better than keeping the Buffs out of a bowl game, especially since I watched them do it to us twice during the Callahan era. Anyways, with that warm memory out of the way, back to this year. Colorado fans are getting restless, as Hawkins' team has yet to finish above .500 in any of his three seasons at the helm. Those aren't the kind of results fans or pundits expected when Hawkins arrived from Boise State, and if he wants to stay off the hot seat he'll have to at least get back to a bowl this year.

One thing I will say for the Buffs is that they were decimated by injuries last year, as the final two-deep featured 27 sophomores and freshmen. Then again, this is FOOTBALL! IT'S THE BIG 12! And as such, those excuses ring hollow. If CU is going to turn it around, they have to get more consistent play from the QB position. Hawkins has some competition from Tyler Hansen for the starting QB job, though Hansen's spring practice injury set him back a few weeks.

In addition to the play of the quarterbacks, the Buffs also need former #1 overall recruit Darrell Scott to live up to the hype and have a big year running the ball, it's the only way they are going to take some pressure off of Hawkins/Hansen. Scott had a huge spring game, and also has Rodney Stewart to help him carry the rock, so the running game should be much-improved. In addition to a solid running back tandem, the Buffaloes also have a dangerous weapon in Josh Smith, who racked up nearly 2,000 all-purpose yards last year playing WR and returning kicks.

While the defense lost a couple of key players, they return a solid back seven, including standout linebackers in Jeff Smart and Shaun Mohler, as well as (according to Colorado promoters, anyways) Thorpe award candidate Cha'pelle Brown at corner. Looking at the schedule though, I don't see the 10 wins that Hawkins promised. I think they will finish 6-6, though I have a gut feeling that even that may be a stretch. It all depends on the QB position developing, because without that, a promising running game won't have a chance and this team will be too predictable for opposing defenses.

20 years ago, Kansas State was awful, a running joke in college football. Then a guy named Bill Snyder was hired to coach the Wildcats. We all know the rest of the details about the Manhattan Miracle. The question is, can lightning strike twice? The game has changed a lot since then, and it'll be interesting to see if Snyder can even get K-State back to respectability, let alone to the level they were at in the mid-to-late 90's. The team is largely devoid of high-end talent, thanks in large part to Ron Prince's habit of assembling JUCO-only recruiting classes, and compounding the problem is that the offensive tackle who was playing QB last year is gone. Yeah, I just busted out a Josh Freeman-is-fat joke. I mean, c'mon, it's almost too easy.

Taking Freeman's place is Carson Coffman, who actually was a pretty good player in high school. The younger brother of former Missouri TE Chase, Coffman steps in behind a thin offensive line and has few weapons to distribute the ball to. The best he has is most likely WR Brandon Banks, a diminutive-but-speedy player who averaged over 15 yards a catch last year in addition to being the primary kick returner. Also look for TE Jeron Mastrud to have a decent year, considering Coffman will probably be looking to get rid of the ball in a hurry.

The defense has a few decent players, among them DE Brandon Harold (10.5 sacks as a true frosh last year) and CB Joshua Moore, who was among the leaders in pass breakups in the Big 12 last year. Unfortunately for Snyder, the schedule is devoid of the non-conference patsies he enjoyed pounding during his first go-round. Surely in the coming years we'll see St. Mary's School for the Blind and a few D-II teams, but this season they have UCLA to deal with. While my gut is telling me that the Wildcats are in for a 4-8 season, I'll predict they match last year's 5-7 season. What will be more telling than the record, however, is to see if this team starts to right the ship under Snyder after Prince's reign came to an ugly end.

For those of you outside of Ames wondering what that awful stench is, that would be your football team. ISU, who in the past three years has gone a combined 9-27 (topped off by a 2-10 mark last year), once again have a new coach after Gene Chizik got the hell out of Dodge and headed to greener pastures at Auburn. Enter former Auburn defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, an Ankeny native and former ISU assistant coach. While that may sound sweet and nostalgic, that doesn't matter when your playing in the best football conference in the country (and yes, that's what the Big 12 was last year).

Just how far has Iowa State fallen? An unidentified Big 12 South player, being polled on the best and worst mascots in the conference at this year's media day, gave this answer for worst mascot: "The worst mascot is the Iowa State Tornadoes, or whatever they're called." Any time that an opposing player doesn't even know what you're called, that's a bad sign.

While he has an uphill battle, Rhoads is a very good coach who directed some great defensive units at Pitt before going to Auburn for last season. He's going to need it too, considering the Cyclones gave up 42 points per game in conference play last season. The secondary has a lot of experience, though I'm not really sure if that matters or not. Returning starters, in my opinion, can be a misleading factor, because sometimes those starters weren't that good to begin with. Safety James Smith is a decent presence at safety, and Jesse Smith (no relation) has been a consistent presence at linebacker, though he's no game-changer.

The offense, led by the capable Austen Arnaud, will be switching to the spread this year, and he'll be joined in the backfield by Florida transfer Bo Williams at running back. 8 other starters return on offense with Arnaud, and Rhoads brought in highly-regarded offensive coordinator Tom Herman from Rice. The thing is, as much as I've ripped on ISU here, they played well at times last year. They were up 20 on Kansas at halftime last year before collapsing, and they lost to UNLV in overtime. In addition to those games, they played a few other teams really tough. But playing teams tough doesn't keep coaches employed, winning does. A soft schedule could get them off to a 3-1 start in non-conference play, but after that they have their work cut out for them. I'm going to predict that they'll steal at least one game they shouldn't and finish with a 5-7 record.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Swagger is Sweet

Of all the story lines coming out of fall camp, there is one that has me trembling with anticipation more than any other, and that's the confidence that is emanating from the Husker football team. Every day brings another quote, another snippet, of an attitude that for too long has been absent from the program. To highlight a couple:

RB Quentin Castille:
"I always have high expectations for myself, and I know I have high expectations for the team," Castille said."We're not going to back down."

"We're not going to be that one team that everybody's all, 'Yeah, we can run over these guys.' It's not going to be any of that stuff like last year. Let's just say I'm not here to win just nine games."

DC Carl Pelini:
"Nine wins isn’t what we expect at the University of Nebraska, so there better not be any complacency going on.”

Throughout camp, despite the naysayers always pointing to the QB situation, there seems to be an air of calm over the Huskers, a sense that this team knows it has the potential to come out of nowhere and be something special. It's especially refreshing to see even compared to last year's camp, when guys still didn't know their calls or responsibilities and the emotional scars of 2007's collapse were still fresh in their mind.

A perfect example of confidence is when USC came to town in 2007 to play against the then-#13 ranked Huskers. I was watching the game at a Husker bar in Minnesota, and throughout the pregame, I could sense, in myself and my fellow fans, a sense of foreboding. Not that we knew we were in for an ass-kicking, but almost a feeling of "Please let's just keep it close". And that, my friends, is not the mindset of a good football team, or it's fan base. As sad as it is to say that, I think there were some players that had that look in their eye that night as well. We all know how that game turned out, but as painful as it is to rehash it, that was the beginning of a long road that led us to Bo Pelini and the Big Red's (ongoing) return to prominence.

Last year's 6-1 run to end the season, in my opinion at least, seemed to turn on a light above this team's head, and the players realized that they can beat anyone when they do their job (obviously nobody did their job against OU). Now, with another year in the system, the mental breakdowns will be less frequent, the Blackshrits will force a lot more turnovers, and I really think we'll see a team that on both sides of the ball is ready to physically impose their will on opponents.

The best teams are so confident that they are just a little bit cocky. While I do believe it's important to practice humility, I believe that there has to be that attitude, just a slight air of arrogance that one can only see when they really study a person. That swagger is the difference between NU football in the 90's and the mid-00's. A great team doesn't believe it can win, it knows it will. In the 1995 Orange Bowl, when the Huskers were down 17-7 to Miami, you could look at the Nebraska sideline and you'd have swore that they were in the lead, not the Hurricanes. It's epitomized by Tommie Frazier, who had been out for the 2nd and 3rd quarters, telling Warren Sapp "It ain't where I've been fat boy, it's where I'm going" before leading the Husker comeback to win the national title.

That's why I think all of the pundits and experts out there are making a mistake penciling us in for 8 or 9 wins. I'm not saying their foolish or anything, to someone who isn't a fan of the program, all they have to do is look at the loss of Ganz and write the Huskers off. To me though (and apparently Steve Sipple as well), there seems to be a steely determination to this Husker team, an attitude that 9 wins and a Holiday bowl berth isn't what they have planned for this season. And damn, do I like it.

And now, a few quick links for the weekend:
- A must-read by Stew Mandel over on SI about the upcoming bowl tie-ins shakeup that would put a Big 10 team in the Gator Bowl instead of a Big 12/ACC team. This would then trickle down to the Alamo, which would replace the Big 10 with a Pac-10 team, therefore upstaging the other Pac-10/Big 12 game, the Holiday bowl. Anyways, Mandel has the ins and outs handled a lot better than I do, so you should probably just click the link. The real question here is, if you're the Big 10, do you really want more publicity for a bowl game in which you'll probably get your ass kicked?

- Sports Illustrated ranked Nebraska #34 in their preseason issue. Pretty much the only thing mentioned about the Huskers in the whole magazine is a miniature paragraph about Suh and a small blurb about Pelini being the "Coach on the Rise" in the Big 12. Both were about the size of one digit of my thumb, which I guess goes to show that we'll be flying under the radar to start the season. One more aside on this issue: This is why the only rankings I actually care about is the coaches poll, because even if it isn't filled out by the actual coach, it's probably done by someone on his staff with actual football knowledge, not a writer who has never stepped between the white lines.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Hot Routes & Spano Injury

For those of you not familiar with my writing, sometimes in lieu of an actual column, I'll contribute what I call Hot Routes, just snippets of things I'm thinking about pertaining to the Huskers or other areas of college football. I'm still working on my next real column, but I thought this would be a good time to dust off the Hot Routes just to get the rust off my writing.

- Kody Spano tearing the same ACL he hurt earlier this year is a huge blow for the Huskers. It seemed like he had been playing really well in camp and had the confidence of his teammates, and then to see this happen to him, you can't help but feel for the kid. Now it comes down to Cody Green or LaTravis Washington for the backup job, and putting a redshirt on Green seems like a no-go after this news. That said, as we saw last year, this staff is not above keeping a redshirt on guys when they believe it will help them in the long run (Will Compton). Furthermore, does this force Pelini and Watson to leave Taylor Martinez at quarterback when it still wasn't 100% he'd stay there? This injury changes a lot of things for this team and makes protecting Zac Lee all the more important. I mean, with no proven backup behind him, can you even attempt to run the option? That seems like you're inviting fans to have heart attacks every time he carries the ball.

- Darren Evans, the beastly running back and reigning Orange Bowl MVP for Virginia Tech, is out for the year after tearing his ACL. Obviously by now, unless you're living under a rock or aren't a huge college football fan, you've heard about this. I do feel bad not only for Evans but for the Hokie fans, because they had a legitimate shot to make a run at the national title. Va Tech must now choose between Ryan Williams or Josh Olson, both highly regarded freshmen (albeit Williams is a redshirt frosh), or Josh Oglesby, a redshirt sophomore who is the only one of the three to have a college carry. This will make it easier for the Huskers to focus on Tyrod Taylor, but you still hate to see a guy's season end that way. Just a reminder of what Evans was capable of:

Given our shoddy-at-times tackling last year, that would have made me nervous.

-The nation's #2 defensive end in the country (and #19 overall player according to Rivals) Owamagbe Odighizuwa has confirmed that the Huskers will be one of his five official visits. This is a coup for the Huskers staff and a testament to the kind of work John Papuchis is doing recruiting. I'm not one to get all that wound up about recruits who have never played a snap in college, that has a way of not panning out sometimes. That said, it's key that Nebraska is starting to get kids of this caliber to travel to Lincoln, especially when his other schools include Oregon, USC, and Florida. Do we land him? Tough call, especially when it's no sure thing that he'll make it to an actual game. The appeal of Nebraska can only truly be seen in Memorial Stadium on autumn Saturdays, not on a tour of an empty complex on finals week. Still, progress is being made in recruiting, and I think this staff knows how to relate to kids really well. Plus, any defensive lineman should salivate at the thought of being coached by the Pelinis.

- Just stumbled across this article and was excited to see that former Husker cornerback Zach Bowman, finally free from injury long enough to recover, is making some headlines at Bears camp. This is awesome for me on two levels. The first is that few people deserve success like Bowman does. His injuries at NU, his fall in the draft because of them, the limitless potential that hadn't been realized, he's making up for lost time now. This is welcome good news after Stew Bradley injured his knee and is out for the year, stopping him from joining Barrett Ruud as one of the best 'backers in the game. The other reason Bowman's ascension is fun for me? It's nice to have one more guy to cheer for against the Vikings.

-Really liked Stew Mandel's opinion here on Notre Dame. Every year, we're subjected to the Irish getting an asininely high (and unwarranted) ranking. Luckily, they've been atrocious enough that they are quickly forgotten about. However, coming off of last year's bowl win in which Jimmy "I should change my name to Jim to be taken seriously" Clausen threw for 400+ yards and 5 touchdowns, everyone seems to be penciling in this year as a potential 10-win season. Obviously, this would be a nightmare, because once again a potentially more deserving (and higher ranked) team would be left out of the BCS. The thing is, when you've been as irrelevant as Notre Dame the past couple of years, people are usually hesitant to chalk up wins before you've played the games. And as Nebraska fans know, that can be an extremely bad decision (remember 2007?). So I'm going to hold off my criticism of the Golden Domers for now, because if I were to bitch and moan about it, it would only give them more undeserved attention. Let them gain relevancy the way we have to: win games.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Watson is Gonna Wow Us

I struggled to think of what to write about with my first real posting since my reentry into blogging. However, after thinking about it for all of about 10 seconds, I realized that the thing I am most curious and excited about this upcoming season is what offensive wrinkles Shawn Watson will be implementing in the Husker game plan.

The point most often brought up by Husker doubters this off-season has been the loss of Joe Ganz and the fact that Zac Lee only has 3 more pass attempts in actual games than I do. The thing is, (and this may just be the sunshine coming out of summer and camp chatter) I really do believe the hype. I think that Zac Lee is going to come out and surprise some people, not only with his running ability, but with his (according to reports) 70-yard arm. I seriously have daydreams of seeing Lee in the shotgun, Castille at his side, Mendoza and Helu at the slots, and Meno and Niles on the outside. Or maybe you have Helu in the backfield and put McNeill as an H-back? There is a bevy of options when you have a bevy of athletes, especially when you have the football acumen that Watson has.

Some things I wouldn't be suprised to see:

1) More elements of the spread-option game. I know we saw a little bit of this last year, but I think with Lee's speed and Mendoza's move to receiver full-time, I think this element could be utilized to higher degree this year. That's part of why the above paragraph mentioned putting Helu in the slot. When you have two beast tailbacks, why not get them both on the field. Imagine a play where we can bring Helu in motion to the right, snap the ball and fake the zone read to Castille going left, and then have Zac and Roy in perfect option relationship with Mendoza coming inside from the other slot for a potential shovel pass. How do you defend against that? Is it even possible? The one factor that makes this option less attractive is protecting Lee's health, given the lack of proven depth behind him.

2) As Sam McKewon mentioned in this article, with McNeill being such a versatile weapon (as well as having developing players like Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton behind him), the potential is there to go no-huddle, making our offense even more hard to defend. Ideally we pummel Florida Atlantic and Arkansas State with our ground game and save the no-huddle for Virginia Tech. Though now that I think about it, breaking out an unproven offensive system that relies heavily on on-field calls in Lane Stadium probably doesn't sit too well with the coaching staff.

3) The deep ball. We gotta have it. I keep hearing about this blazing speed we have, Lee's cannon arm, and all the bombs they'd been completing this summer in workouts. Then again, hitting them in 7-on-7 in front of 20 teammates and a bit easier than doing it in front of 85,000. That said, I'm not going to let it temper my enthusiasm for the potential of Niles sprinting under a gorgeous 60 yard play-action pass from Zac against Oklahoma in prime time. In addition to how exciting the plays are themselves, they serve another purpose in the recruiting area. Kids want to play at places where they go for the big play. Big plays make in on SportsCenter, and they get people talking about us more than they otherwise would. Obviously, our dink-and-dunk offense is great because it keeps opposing offenses off the field, an especially valuable factor with the video-game offenses the Big 12 has. But you can't put a price on seeing a gorgeous go route completed just like it's drawn up.

Monday, August 10, 2009

I'm Back

And with that, the most inconsistent Husker blogger has announced his return. Surely, the blogosphere will buzz with the return of my posts. OK, so that's probably not true. But what I have come to realize is that I miss writing. I miss sharing my thoughts about everything Nebraska football with fellow Husker fans. And almost as much, I miss making fun of the Big 10. Regardless of the reasons though, I wanted to say that I'm returning to blogging about the Huskers, the itch was too much to ignore now that camp is in full swing and the second year of the Bo Pelini era is looking to further Nebraska's resurgence. My first real report will be tomorrow, but expect a few things:

1) I promise. Seriously, I promise: No less than 3 postings a week.

2) Let me state first that I hate twitter. The fact that the human attention span has gotten so small that we can only keep up with 140-character updates makes me have serious doubts about the future of our species. That said, the platform is perfect for doing in-game updates of what I'm thinking about NU's performance or other random thoughts I might be having. And I promise you, I'm not going to be updating you about when I'm grocery shopping or taking a deuce, which is apparently what some people seem to think twitter is for.

3) Expect Nebraska to return to greatness. More on this in the coming days.

And let me conclude my return press conference (attendance: 1) by saying that as excited as I am about this year's Huskers, I am almost equally giddy about Kevin Cosgrove being the defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Golden Gophers. This is going to be too easy.