Nebraska faces tough task in new-look Big Ten

Nebraska faces tough task in new-look Big Ten
September 2, 2011, 7:01 pm
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It's been asked about and anticipated for over two decades, ever since Penn State was invited into the Big Ten in 1990, leaving the conference's name inaccurate and its membership locked at an unwieldy prime number.

Well, even if the league moniker remains absurdly the same, a 12th member and divisional play are finally here. Nebraska will officially begin conference play in several sports this fall, most notably football. And the conference will inaugurate a title game when its divisional winners meet the night of Dec. 3 at Lucas Oil Stadium in centrally located Indianapolis.

Those divisions? A typically complicated and pompous solution from Big Ten chieftains for what could have been one much more elegant, easy to grasp, geographically sensible and conducive to rivalries.

Anyway, they are:

The Leaders Division
Indiana
Illinois
Ohio State
Penn State
Purdue
Wisconsin

The Legends Division
Iowa
Michigan
Michigan State
Minnesota
Nebraska
Northwestern

If you get stuck, just remember the Ms and Ns are all together (with Iowa) and the one legendary coach is, um, in the Leaders Division. Makes perfect sense, right?

And those pretentious names. Apparently the My Daughter Just Received A Fellowship From Vassar Division and the I Abhor The Heat Of Monaco In The Summer Division were narrowly discarded.

To be fair to league suits, simply making it East and West divisions understandably wasn't preferable because they had to split up the four athletic revenue heavyweights. Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State all in the East and only Nebraska in the West wasn't going to work.

But a simple remedy to that would have been a NW-to-SE axis: Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Minnesota in a Lakes Division. Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue, Illinois, Nebraska and Iowa in a Plains Division.

Love it? Of course, you do. Great Lakes? Great Plains? All the regional rivalries preserved. Competitive and fiscal balance maintained. A new sense of rivalry engendered with the geographic personalities of each division. You could even give the conference a sensible new name like The Great Twelve.

Hey, they didn't ask me. This is what we're stuck with.

As for the new guys, Nebraska's entry and immediate installment as a Legends Division favorite by a majority of media has, among others, much of the Cornhuskers' own media clucking. Many in the Cornbelt aren't buying it. And when you take a close look at NU, it's apparent why.

The Huskers are not and have not been a balanced team and their finish last season under combustible head coach Bo Pelini was less than assuring.

Nebraska's percentage of pass attempts from overall plays (.307) is something out of a time warp. The Cornhuskers managed 163 completions in 2010, ranking ahead of only UCLA and Georgia Tech (which runs the triple option) among 66 BCS-conference members.

NU's offense can't be expected to help much against better defenses. It's too dependent on the running of sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez, a speedy ground weapon and ordinary passer. Martinez wrenched an ankle in Week 8 against Missouri last year and three weeks later had to endure a sideline tirade from the delightful Pelini.

When Martinez was hobbled, Nebraska's offense essentially ran out of ammo. NU went 3-3 the rest of the way, including an OT win at Iowa State and an embarrassing 19-7 loss in the Holiday Bowl to unranked Washington, a team it had thrashed in Seattle in September.

A lot is heaped, then, on the defense. To win the Legends, they'll likely need a dominant performance from a resistance that, while very good, has never seen anyone on its conference schedule.

That's asking a lot. No matter how aggressive a defense, it needs to react reflexively to perform at optimum level. Unfamiliarity can inhibit such alacrity.

That said, the Nebraska defense is back in Black Shirts mode and has lots back including senior tackle Jared Crick and big-hitting linebacker Lavonte David.

Finally, there are those great expectations dovetailed with a very disadvantageous schedule. Lots of pressure on Pelini, a guy who doesn't handle it with much control. And he got no favors from his new league office, drawing road trips to Wisconsin (in a primetime conference opener at frenzied Camp Randall Stadium), Penn State and Michigan. The only soft touch on the league slate is Minnesota in Week 8.

As was true of Penn State's entry 18 seasons ago, Nebraska might have better success after a year of acclimation. Its inaugural season could be a rougher ride than many expect.

David Jones is columnist for The Harrisburg Patriot-News. Email him at djones8681@verizon.net. Follow him on Twitter @djoneshoop.

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