February 12, 2010

Mailbag: Can Nebraska take the Big 12 title?

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It's not that Nebraska has anything against Wisconsin and Stanford ; it's just that the Huskers don't want to be grouped with them where college football is concerned.

After all, the Huskers have won five consensus national championships and rank among college football's all-time winningest football programs. Wisconsin and Stanford do not. Yet, they share the designation of winning a conference championship in 1999 but failing to win another one since.

It's no surprise that a decade has passed since Wisconsin last won the Big Ten or Stanford won the Pac-10. But is it somewhat of a surprise that Nebraska hasn't hoisted a trophy in 10 years, especially since the Huskers played Miami in the 2001 national championship game.

The championship drought is Nebraska's longest since 23 years passed between its Big Six title in 1940 and its Big Eight crown in '63. But this week's mailbag shows there are reasons for Nebraskans to be optimistic in 2010.


Nebraska dreams

Do you think Nebraska will be a legitimate Big 12 title contender and a BCS-caliber team this fall, given that the offense was dismal at best in '09? Also, losing Ndamukong Suh and three other defensive starters might set them back, right?
Calvin
Lincoln, Neb.

After last season, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said the Huskers could be five times better in 2010. That's hard to believe, but I'd rate them as the team to beat in the Big 12.

Nebraska will miss Suh, who was the most dominant player in the country at any position in '09. The Huskers also must replace both starting safeties and a starting defensive end.

But remember where Nebraska's defense was in 2007 - 112th nationally in total defense. Now, look where the Blackshirts were last season - seventh. That's how much the Huskers have progressed in just two seasons under Pelini.

Now that Pelini has established his defense, it doesn't figure to slump much - especially with highly regarded prospects such as tackle Baker Steinkuhler stepping into starting roles. The Huskers will be solid defensively, count on it.

The question marks are on an offense that averaged 17.7 points in games against Big Six conference opponents and just 175.7 passing yards overall (101st nationally).

After the season, it was revealed that quarterback Zac Lee played with an elbow injury most of the year. Lee had surgery after the Holiday Bowl win over Arizona. That at least provides a measure of optimism that Nebraska's passing game will be boosted by a healthy quarterback this fall.

Highly touted junior college transfer Jermarcus Hardrick is expected to take over a starting job at tackle in what projects to be an improved offensive line.

Overall, the offense should be better. The defense probably won't be as dominant, but still will be good enough for the Huskers to be the favorite to again win the North Division. Nebraska could also challenge Texas and Oklahoma for overall league supremacy.


Comparing some favorites

Maryland fans have to wonder where their team is going after a 2-10 season in '09. South Carolina fans can't find any consistency from their team. UCLA pulled in a top recruiting class but has yet to do anything with it. Purdue fans don't know where Danny Hope will take their team in 2010. Of those schools, which do you see doing the best in 2010 and why?
Grant
Eau Claire, Wis.

Of the four teams mentioned, I'd anticipate South Carolina having the best season in 2010.

The Gamecocks return nine offensive players and eight defensive players with starting experience from this past season's 7-6 team. That includes junior quarterback Stephen Garcia, who figures to be improved. Sophomore wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who's among the country's most underrated players, also returns next season.

Marcus Lattimore, the nation's top-rated running back prospect, is coming in, and he figures to upgrade a running game that ranked 91st among the 120 FBS teams.

Defensively, the Gamecocks took some significant hits with tackle Nathan Pepper and linebacker Eric Norwood completing their eligibility. End Clifton Geathers also left early for the NFL. Still, the bet here is coordinator Ellis Johnson will field a solid defensive unit.

South Carolina actually looks good in comparison to the other teams in the SEC East.

Florida loses Tim Tebow, Aaron Hernandez, Riley Cooper and Maurkice Pouncey from the offense and Jermaine Cunningham, Carlos Dunlap, Brandon Spikes, Ryan Stamper, Joe Haden and Major Wright from the defense. The Gators always have good players ready to step up, but that's still a lot of talented players to replace.

Georgia is unsettled at quarterback and has to bolster a defense that has struggled the past two seasons. Tennessee is in rebuilding mode. Kentucky has a lot of questions. Vanderbilt is coming off a 2-10 season.

South Carolina has an excellent chance to finish as high as second in the SEC East. And with some luck - a lot of luck - the Gamecocks may even challenge Florida.


Coming up Magnolias

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen has been crowing non-stop about "winning" the recruiting battle in Mississippi because MSU landed more in-state prospects than Ole Miss or Southern Miss. Looking at the rankings, though, I don't see how he "won" anything other than the numbers game. Are his claims at all legitimate?
Chris
Lake Charles, La.

Someone once told me - actually, it was Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt - that if you can get the top players in Mississippi, you can compete with anybody.

Well, Mississippi State picked up 12 of the top 30 players in the state; Ole Miss signed six. So, yeah, Mullen has every reason to be elated. Keeping top players in-state often is a key to a successful program.

For example, in the '90s Texas and LSU often struggled because they couldn't consistently sign the top players in their states. Now, they usually do and they're both national powers.

That said, Rivals.com did rank the Ole Miss signing class No. 17 in the nation, 21 spots higher than Mississippi State's class. Nutt's class included players from Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia and Alabama.

The bottom line is both programs had reasons to be happy with the classes they signed. But as far as who actually "won" in recruiting ... that will be decided by the outcomes of games in the next few years.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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