So we are through the Illini non-conference schedule in our previews and today we take a look at the first Big Ten opponent, Nebraska. Which is something that, looking at future schedules, looks like it might become a tradition of sorts as the Cornhuskers are the team the Illini will open conference play against at least through the 2017 season.
Of course, just because we're going to be seeing Nebraska ever season from this point on, this is also the first time the Illini and Cornhuskers will have met as Big Ten foes. So we have an awful lot to learn about our newest Big Ten member.
So let's get to learning.
Name: Nebraska Cornhuskers
From: Lincoln, Nebraska
2012 Record: 10-4 (7-1) Legends Division Champs
Returning Starters: Eight offense, four defense, no specialists
Here's what most people know about Bo Pelini: he yells a lot. It seems like every time he's shown on television during a game he's yelling about something. Well, it seems to work for the man, that's for sure.
After serving as LSU's defensive coordinator for three seasons Pelini came to Nebraska for the 2008 season, taking over a program that had been rather mediocre in recent times and was looking to get back to its winning ways. Pelini has helped that happen. In his first five seasons the Huskers have gone 49-20, never losing more -- or less -- than four games in a season while at least tying for first place in their division in four (three Big 12 North, one Legends) of those seasons.
Of course, division titles aren't what Pelini wants for his team, and he's still searching for that first conference title.
History With Illinois
This year's game will be the first time these two teams have met as conference opponents, but it will be the tenth time the schools have faced off on the gridiron. It'll also be the first time they've played since 1986 when Nebraska beat the Illini up pretty good in a 59-14 win. And beating up the Illini is pretty much what Nebraska has done throughout their history, as they hold a record of 7-2-1 in the first nine games.
Those two Illini wins? Yeah, those came in 1923 and 1924, though that 1924 win did take place in Lincoln as the Illini pulled out a 9-6 win in what was surely an offensive display to be talked about for decades. Both teams would play to a 21-21 tie in 1953, but in the last sixty seasons the teams have met only twice with Nebraska winning both games by a combined score of 111-39. So, yeah.
What Do We Know About The Offense
While it's not the old Wishbone offenses of Tom Osborne, Tommie Frazier -- one of my favorite college football players of all time -- or Eric Crouch, this is still a Nebraska team built on the run. They just do it out of the shotgun now. Last year Nebraska ran the ball on 62% of its plays, and did so very effectively even without starting running back Rex Burkhead for most of the season.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez and running backs Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross -- all of whom return this year -- combined to rush for 2,480 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. As a team the Illini rushed for 1,504 yards and 12 touchdowns.
And while this is a running team, they can still get you through the air thanks to receivers like Kenny Bell. Also, while plenty of jokes have been made about Taylor Martinez's throwing mechanics, this is still the guy who led all Big Ten quarterbacks in passing efficiency last season. So they don't throw as often as a lot of teams, but they're effective when doing so.
What should be mentioned, though, is that this offense was turnover prone last season, leading the Big Ten with 35 last season. Five more than the Illini.
How About The Defense?
You know, this could be why Bo Pelini is mad all the time. He made his bones as a defensive coordinator, and Nebraska's defense has allowed more points with every season he's been in charge. From a sterling 10.4 points against in 2008 to 27.6 a game last year. Of course, while that's a lot of points, it should be pointed out that Nebraska's 5.24 yards against per play wasn't terrible, and this defense was on the field for more plays (963) than any other defense in the Big Ten last year. So those turnovers I mentioned while talking about the offense certainly had something to do with the defense's struggle.
But as Ohio State and Wisconsin showed the world last season, you can run against this unit. Considering the Huskers only have four returning starters on defense this season -- they lose six of their seven leading tacklers from last year -- and only one returning starter in the front seven, that could easily be the case again this season. Though you can also argue that so many new faces might be a good thing, but on the whole this should be a pretty young defense.
Some good news for the Illini is that only 6.5 of Nebraska's 31 sacks last season return as well.
Who On This Team Should I Be Aware Of?
I think Ameer Abdullah is going to prove to be one of the best running backs in the conference this season, but the show is still all about T-Magic, Taylor Martinez. Martinez enters his senior season, and he's improved every year he's been out there. All of which means we could be on the verge of seeing a spectacular senior campaign.
Martinez has improved by miles as a passer, and as we all saw on this play...
...and this one...
...he can scoot too. At this point of the season he will be the most talented player the Illini have faced, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see Martinez in New York this December as a Heisman finalist. Stopping him is not going to be easy.
Where Will They Finish In The Big Ten?
In my predictions at CBSSports.com I actually have Nebraska winning the Legends Division again as I feel the offense will be that good. What will likely decide things, though, will be whether or not the defense can improve and keep opponents out of the end zone a bit more often. I also don't see the Huskers having a turnover margin of -12 again this season, which will improve things on both sides of the ball.
Now, road games at Michigan and Penn State in November could prove to be trouble, but I think Nebraska can get through those games with a 1-1 mark and if they do they'll be division champs.
Can The Illini Win This Game?
You know, I'm a lot more optimistic about the Illini than most, and this is the offseason where optimism reigns supreme. All that said, no I don't think the Illini can win this game. Nebraska has gone 30-6 at home under Bo Pelini and 55-15 over the last ten seasons. They just don't lose at home very often, and if the Illini were able to pull off a win in this game it would be one of the biggest shockers of the 2013 college football season.