Where Nebraska Fits In

Last week, we took a look the point differentials of the Big Ten teams throughout the 2010 season, and I made what I believe to be quite a few useful conclusions. Chief among them was the idea that the Big Ten could be tiered. These tiers, at least as they applied to the 2010 season, are the elite (Ohio State and Wisconsin), the good (Illinois, Michigan State, and Iowa), the mediocre (Penn State, Michigan, and Northwestern), and the bad (Purdue, Indiana, and Minnesota).

This only covers 11 of the 12 teams who will be partaking in Big Ten play next season, as Nebraska is nowhere to be found. Of course, much can change and much will change by the start of the 2011 season, but to get a sense of where the conference’s newest member fits in, let’s add Nebraska to our original graph of point differentials.

The Cornhuskers were dominant under freshman QB Taylor Martinez through the non-conference season, including a road 56-21 blowout of Jake Locker’s Washington Huskies. Nebraska was brought back to earth by Big 12 play, losing close games to a very down Texas team at home and to a good Texas A&M team on the road. They also had a shockingly close game in Ames against Iowa State, pulling in a 31-30 victory.

There were bright spots, of course, as Nebraska’s 6-2 Big 12 record was enough to take them to the conference’s championship game. Double digit victories against Missouri at home and Oklahoma State in Stillwater were impressive, and although Kansas, Kansas State, and Colorado weren’t very good, Nebraska’s domination of all three deserves credit. The last two games of the season weren’t kind to the Huskers, as they lost a thriller to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship before falling, somewhat shockingly, in a flat rematch against Washington in the Holiday Bowl.

Taylor Martinez and his 2730 yards and 21 touchdowns combined between passing, rushing, and receiving garnered much of the attention from the Huskers, but their defense was the real story. The Blackshirts 17.4 points allowed per game ranked 9th in the country. The offense lagged behind a bit, as Martinez’s seven interceptions against only 10 passing touchdowns left a bit to be desired. Roy Helu Jr. packed some punch as a running back, but the total package only managed to rank 39th in the country with 30.9 points per game.

Many pundits have the Cornhuskers as contenders for the Big Ten title in their first year in the conference, and this data hardly presents a compelling argument otherwise, although their relative struggles late in the season aren’t encouraging. Overall, it looks like Nebraska could fit in anywhere from the “good” tier to the “elite” tier. Between the growth of young players like Martinez, the departure of seniors like Helu Jr., and the transition from the Big 12 to the Big Ten, there’s enough change involved to potentially stump even the most grizzled analyst. But, even though we may reject it at times here in the Great Midwest, change can be a good thing, and the introduction of Nebraska doubtless makes the conference a stronger one.

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