Normally, I cringe when I see the Huskers schedule a 1-AA opponent, but in 2011, I'll make an exception. The 2011 schedule is quite strong, as the Huskers caught no favors from the Big Ten's schedule makers. Plus, non-conference games against bowl teams Washington and Fresno State means that the Huskers have one of the more difficult schedules in recent memories. And if you needed to schedule a 1-AA opponent, you could do far worse than scheduling the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Last season, Chattanooga finished 6-5, but four of those losses were to BCS national champion Auburn and three top-ten 1-AA opponents. The Sagarin rankings at the end of the season slotted the Mocs at #103, ahead of Wyoming (#108), Kansas (#119), Vanderbilt (#126), and Western Kentucky (#165). The Mocs should be even better in 2011, returning 19 starters from last season.On offense, it all starts with senior B.J. Coleman, a two-year starter and second-team all-conference quarterback who directed the eighth-ranked passing attack in 1-AA last season. Coleman completed 56% of his passes last season for almost 3000 yards and 26 touchdowns. Against Auburn, Coleman went 20 for 39 passing for 210 yards and a touchdown. Recruitniks might remember him as a 4-star prospect who originally signed with Tennessee, then transferred after his redshirt freshman season to his hometown school. He's a pro-style quarterback who isn't a threat to run.
His favorite receiver is 1-AA third-team all-American Joel Bradford. Coleman and Bradford were high school teammates as well. Coleman caught 81 passes for 1,284 yards and 8 touchdowns as a junior last season. As a sophomore, Bradford made a midseason switch to safety after injuries depleted the depth there. Last season, he twice topped the 200 yards receiving mark in a game. Junior receiver Brian Sutherland should also be a prime target for Coleman; he caught 50 passes last season for 729 yards and five touchdowns. Look for sophomore Marlon Anthony as well; the 6'5" caught 14 passes for three touchdowns, earning him a spot on the Southern Conference all-Freshman team.
Like most pro-style offenses, they have more success when the running game contributes. The Mocs will likely use a running back-by-committee approach. Look for junior J.J. Jackson, sophomore Keon Williams, and junior Chris Awuah to split the carries. Williams was named to the conference all-freshman team last season. They may struggle for running room behind an offensive line that only returns two starters. Junior Austin Wilson moves from left guard to center, while Adam Miller will remain the right tackle. This looks like a mismatch in favor of Jared Crick and company, which doesn't bode well for the Mocs.
On defense, the Mocs return ten starters from a middle-of-the-pack defense in 1-AA. The defensive line is led by senior defensive end Chris Donald, a second-team all-conference pick last season who led the team with 7.5 sacks. Donald missed the end of spring practice after surgery on his wrist, but is expected back in the fall. Donald transferred to Chattanooga from Tennessee after his sophomore season; coming out of high school, Donald was a Parade all-American and a Rivals five-star prospect. He's a converted linebacker, and at 6'1" and 225 lbs., he still is built like a linebacker.
The linebackers are led by senior Ryan Consiglio, a second-team all-conference selection in 2010. A two-year starter, he's totaled 201 tackles in his career. Barring injury or a lackluster season, he'll likely finish up in the school's top ten tacklers of all-time. Consiglio was second to Donald on the Mocs in tackles for loss with 9.5 in 2010.
The secondary is led by sophomore cornerback Kadeem Wise, a second team all-conference pick and freshman of the year last season. He contributed 29 tackles and six interceptions last season. The lone new starter on defense will be sophomore cornerback Chaz Moore, who played in every game as a true freshman last season.
The Mocs will likely be one of the better season-opening teams that Husker fans have seen in recent years. Only Nevada in 2007 would be a better opponent than 2011 Chattanooga. But let's not forget that the Mocs are a 1-AA team...and a team that likely won't match up well with the Huskers. The Mocs offensive strength is a pro-style passing attack, something that the Blackshirts have proven to be very effective in shutting down. And while the Mocs return a lot of experience on defense, that defense was 80th out of 126 1-AA teams in total defense and 95th in scoring defense. That 75th ranked rushing defense will be sorely tested by Tim Beck's new offensive scheme. So when you boil it down, the game will be determined by how well the Huskers bounce back from the collapse from last season.
If you are looking for a sign of optimism for 2011, it's worth mentioning that Chattanooga lost to both national champions Alabama in 2009 and Auburn in 2010.