LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska’s initiation to the Big Ten is over and the Cornhuskers, with an assist from the schedule, may be set up to make hay.
Coach Bo Pelini starts his sixth season in Lincoln with one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses and a young defense that will benefit from playing its first five games at home.
After having to cope with rigorous conference schedules their first two years in the Big Ten, the Huskers are set up for success. UCLA is the only real non-conference test. Big Ten favorite Ohio State and three-time defending champion Wisconsin aren’t on the regular-season schedule, replaced by Illinois and Purdue.
It probably will be November before anyone knows how good the Huskers are, after they play Northwestern at home and Michigan and Penn State on the road.
“It would be really great to go out as a champion,” senior offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles said. “That’s the expectation we have, to win the Big Ten championship. That’s what we came out with last year and that’s what we’re coming out with this year. Win them all the way. That’s the way we’ve set out, to be perfect.”
The Huskers open Aug. 31 at home against Wyoming.
Five things to watch as the Huskers bid for their first conference championship since 1999:
1. MARTINEZ MAGIC: Taylor Martinez already has started a quarterback school-record 39 games and has helped lead Nebraska to 29 wins. All that’s missing is a championship. Martinez needs 2,409 yards passing and 142 yards rushing to join Colin Kaepernick as the only other player in FBS history to reach career marks of 9,000/3,000. Martinez’s speed and elusiveness are his calling cards, but he’s an improving passer. His accuracy went from 56 percent to 62 percent.
2. HANG ON TO THAT BALL: Considering Nebraska was 108th nationally in turnover margin last year, it was nothing short of amazing the Huskers had the eighth most-productive offense. The Huskers committed 35 turnovers — only Idaho had more — and just two players in the nation had more than Martinez’s 20. Over the past three seasons, Nebraska is 18-1 in games in which it is plus-turnovers and 11-11 when it is even or minus-turnovers. “It’s an astounding stat,” running back Ameer Abdullah said. “You hear that and see how deadly we are when we don’t turn the ball over. It kind of fuels your fire and makes you want to cut down on those turnovers.”
3. ON THE LINE: Nebraska has its most experienced offensive line in a long time and goes two deep at every spot. Spencer Long is an Outland Trophy candidate after making first-team All-Big Ten and second-team All-American in 2012. Sirles returns at right tackle and has started 28 games. Brent Qvale started 13 times at left tackle last season and has played in 40 games. Junior-college transfers Matt Finnin and Chongo Kondolo could be factors early.
4. THESE GUYS CAN CATCH: Kenny Bell, Jamal Turner and Quincy Enunwa lead what might rank among the nation’s best receiving corps after combining for 124 catches for 1,750 yards and 12 touchdowns. All eight of Bell’s TDs covered at least 25 yards, and he could make a run at becoming the first Nebraska receiver to go over 1,000 yards in a season.
5. FRONT SEVEN QUESTION: If there’s a major concern, this is it. Defensive end Jason Ankrah is the only returning starter on the line. Randy Gregory is a celebrated junior-college recruit who figures to start opposite Ankrah. Gregory was so impressive in early practices that linemate Thad Randle called him “a freak.” Randle is pretty much a lock to start at one tackle spot. Six young players are vying for the other. David Santos and Zaire Anderson are the most experienced linebackers.
Big Ten Legends Division: First.
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