Unless just about every college football writer in America has just gotten the biggest story on their beat freakishly, horribly wrong, Nebraska is going to be a member of the Big Ten as of, well, pretty much now. And since we've had so many Big Ten fans stopping by over the past week to offer their new neighbors a friendly welcome and proverbial loaf of home-baked banana bread, I thought it might be helpful to give all of you a quick primer on what to expect from your new conference comrade.
I grew up in Wisconsin - see, um, the username, I guess - and my Big Ten fandom predates my Nebraska fandom by a full decade. So I'll do my best to give you a Big Ten-centric view that's not colored with "All our teams are teh awesomest!!!!!!!1!!1@!" homerism.
The first thing you need to understand about Nebraska athletics is that the stereotype is true: There's really not a whole lot else to do in this state - and certainly no one else to cheer for - so the Huskers mean a lot to the folks here. A lot. This Dennis Dodds column is kind of ridiculous and overwrought, but it pretty well captures Nebraskans' attitude toward the team, as exemplified by the line: "Without Nebraska football, the state would be a slightly warmer South Dakota."
I grew up in the heart of diehard Packer country, and when I moved to Nebraska, I was still amazed (and, frankly, appalled) at how seriously Nebraskans take Husker football. They really do live and breathe this stuff. I have a hard time coming up with any other state in the country whose entire sports allegiances are so bound up with a single team. For most Nebraskans, the rest of the calendar year is just time in between Husker football seasons, and the second-, third- and fourth-most popular teams in the state are pretty much the other Husker sports teams. The devotion is still a bit disturbing at times, but it's really endearing for the most part: It's about as pure a fandom as you'll find in the U.S. For some weird reason, 11 guys running around on a field in Lincoln are a really big part of what it means to be a Nebraskan.
On to the teams:
You all know about the history (something something five national championships something Lawrence Phillips something), so I'll just skip to the program as presently constituted.
The offense: Bill Callahan and Steve Pederson have earned he-who-shall-not-be-named status in Nebraska after their awe-inspiring takedown of their own football program, but most Nebraskans, whether they admit it or not, are secretly thankful that those two dragged the Husker offense kicking and screaming into the 21st century. When he was hired before the 2008 season, Bo Pelini kept around Callahan's offensive coordinator, Shawn Watson, so we have a pretty similar offense to the one that Callahan ran.
It's kind of a weird hybrid of the West Coast Offense and a run-oriented spread, and it didn't work well last year. Senior-to-be Zac Lee did a mostly mediocre job running the show, showing little pocket presence or accuracy and getting benched in favor of true freshman Cody Green for a couple of games midseason. Lee had an encouraging Holiday Bowl, though, and at the end of the season, he revealed that he had been playing all season with a torn tendon in his throwing arm and missed all of spring ball after surgery. He'll probably be handed the keys to the offense again this year, though Husker fans are still kind of excited about Green and more excited about redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez (mostly because he's fast and he's new). If the offense isn't significantly improved this year, heads (basically, just Watson's) will roll.
The other guys to watch are senior RB Roy Helu (he's got a fearless running style, but gets hurt way too much), sophomore RB Rex Burkhead (aka Superman; Husker Nation has a collective mancrush on him, and you should be seeing him in the Wildcat this year), senior WR Niles Paul (fantastic athlete; some trouble off the field; it's taken a while to put it together) and senior WR/TE Mike McNeill (clutch receiver who runs well and has a knack for getting wiiide open).
The defense: The 2007 Blackshirts may have been the most embarrassing unit of any kind trotted out in Husker history, but Pelini took only two years to turn them into one of the best defensive units in the country (possibly the best, if you look at some deeper numbers). It wasn't just Ndamukong Suh - the Huskers played a ferocious, swarming, sideline-to-sideline defense that smothered pretty much every opponent. Pelini declared that it could be even better without Suh in 2010, and while that may seem like an absurd statement, it also may be true.
Here's who to watch for on defense: Senior CB Prince Amukamara finally came into his own last year, and he's projected by some as a top-10 draft pick next year. Junior DT Jared Crick is from small-town Cozad, Nebraska, and he busted out last year playing alongside Suh (five sacks against Baylor), and we're eager to see if he can keep it up as the d-line's lead dog this year. The rest of the defense is really not that star-heavy - just nine other guys doing exactly what they're coached to do, and doing it with an attitude.
Special teams: Senior Alex Henery is the best kicker in college football you've never heard of, and probably the best one, period. He owns the longest, most clutch field goal in modern Nebraska history (57 yards in 2008 against Colorado), and last year, he volunteered to do the punting duties, too, and played a huge role in a few wins. The kid has liquid nitrogen in his veins.
Players from Big Ten country: Incoming freshman S Corey Cooper, Maywood, Illinois; sophomore backup TE (and coach's son) Ben Cotton, Ames, Iowa; incoming freshman RB Braylon Heard, Youngstown, Ohio; sophomore long snapper P.J. Mangieri, Peoria, Illinois; sophomore WR/special teamer Tim Marlowe, Youngstown, Ohio; incoming freshman DE Tobi Okuyemi, Maple Grove, Minnesota; incoming freshman OL (and coach's nephew) Mark Pelini, Youngstown, Ohio.
Let's be honest: Nebraska basketball sucks. The team had a great run under Danny Nee in the early '90s, but it hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 1998. It's a pretty consistent NIT participant, though, having made it four of the last seven years, so it's got that going for it, which is nice. As a program, I'd say it ranks behind Penn State and maybe slightly ahead of Northwestern. Have fun taking turns pummeling the Huskers.
The coach since 2006 has been Doc Sadler, a plain-talking, defense-oriented Texan who came from UTEP. Nebraska's basketball teams under Doc have pretty solid defensively (at times extraordinary), and absolutely brutal offensively. Nebraskans seem to like Doc, but he just can't seem to recruit a team full of competent ballplayers (some of that hasn't been his fault), and after his worst season yet with a young team in 2009-10, his leash is getting shorter. Nebraskans really don't care about basketball enough to be calling for his head, though. One upshot: The team is scheduled to get a new downtown Lincoln arena in 2013.
There really aren't any stars on next year's team, just a lot of young guys with varying degrees of potential. The returning leading scorer is sophomore guard Brandon Richardson.
Nebraskans actually care about college baseball (you can credit that to the College World Series being in Omaha for the last half-century), and Nebraska's had some historical success with its baseball program, going to the College World Series three times in the last decade and producing a couple of star players like Joba Chamberlain and Alex Gordon. They should raise the Big Ten's baseball profile a bit.
That said, the last two years of Husker baseball have been miserable, though, and Husker fans aren't as patient with coach Mike Anderson as they are with basketball's Doc Sadler. He'll be back in 2011, but if the Huskers struggle again, he's out the door.
The Huskers play at Haymarket Park, a wonderful little stadium that's just across the highway from Memorial Stadium. It's a great place to catch a game.
Players from Big Ten country: Sophomore starting SS Chad Christensen, Cedar Rapids, Iowa; redshirt freshman RP Nick Dolsky, Apple Valley, Minnesota; redshirt freshman RP Zach Hirsch, St. Charles, Illinois; senior RP Mike Nesseth, Windom, Minnesota.
Volleyball is actually a pretty safe bet as the Huskers' second-most-popular sport. You'll hear Nebraskans refer to the team as "the ladies" or "Coach Cook's girls," and it's always with loads of respect, even from the most cud-chewing football fan. The team's home games have been sold out for years, and the three most-attended volleyball games in NCAA history have all been Nebraska games at the Qwest Center in Omaha.
There's a reason why Nebraska fans care so much: These girls are good, and they have been for a long time. They've been to 11 NCAA Final Fours - five since 2000 - and they won national championships in 1995, 2000 and 2006. Penn State fans will remember their epic 2008 five-set win over the Huskers in the national semifinal - a match that was typical of Nebraska's incredible heart and determination. The Lady Huskers are coached by John Cook, who came to the Huskers in 2000 from Wisconsin.
Nebraska has historically had a mediocre women's basketball program, but the Huskers had an out-of-nowhere miracle season this year, going 32-2 and becoming the first Big 12 team to go 16-0 in the conference. They're bound to fall back to earth next year, as they're losing their three best players (including First Team All-American Kelsey Griffin). It's been fun to see some excitement coalesce around a different Husker team, though.
Next year, they'll be led by senior guard Dominique Kelley, who's started all three years after coming in as a prep standout from Lincoln.
Players from Big Ten country: Sophomore forward Katya Leick, Grey Cloud Township, Minnesota.