Is USC ‘06 Like NU ‘96?
Like many people, I tend to view the world though the lens of my own experience. Call it perception. Call it bias. Whatever. But, as I consider NU's upcoming opponents, I end up comparing them to the Husker teams I'm familiar with. The more I consider Southern Cal's team this year, the more they remind me of the '96 Huskers -- replacing their well-known players during the midst of a spectacular national run, but remaining ultra-talented at many other spots on the roster. Does this bode well for NU as they prepare to square off with the Trojans in September? Can NU do what Arizona State did in 1996? Can I ever believe I just wrote that?
On the plus side for NU, USC must replace two Heisman trophy winners and their leading touchdown rusher of all time. They also lost a myriad of other players to the NFL. From tight end to defensive line, USC has holes to fill. But, despite the loss of their "name" guys, USC remains loaded with talent.
USC returns ten total starters, two potentially great receivers in Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, and brings back many contributors from their 2-deep roster on both sides of the ball. To get a sense of their talent, I cross referenced their projected starters to their rivals.com star ratings as recruits. USC's average player star rating on both offense and defense is 4.0. On a 5-point scale, that is absolutely gaudy. NU's is 3.1 on offense and 3.3 on defense. I know recruiting star ratings aren't the best measure in the world, and that games aren't played on paper. But, it clearly illustrates that USC is by no means going to be out-manned in many contests this year.
The biggest negative factor for USC may be inexperience, not just among players, but in coaching. The candidates to replace Leinart at QB are both physical studs. John David Booty (all name team, for sure) and Mark Sanchez both have talent, just not many game repetitions. Sound like Scott Frost circa '96 to you? And, the best hope for USC at tailback comes in the form of two true freshmen (Stafon Johnson and CJ Gable). The key difference may be that USC lost their offensive architect, Norm Chow, to the NFL last year. USC Quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisan and Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin are both young and have one year of experience at their current posts. I don't doubt their potential. But managing last year's offense and developing players and schemes for '06 look like very different tasks.
NU's biggest disadvantage is that the game is played at USC. There will be a strong Husker fan migration. But, the Huskers will be facing a very serious USC home field advantage on September 16. Road upsets are rare, to say the least. NU has beaten a higher ranked opponent on the road just once since 1990 - Washington in 1997. And, it's a fair assumption that USC will be ranked higher that NU at that point in the season.
Because they are sandwiched between national title teams and had the upset losses to ASU and Texas, people forget that NU's 1996 team ran roughshod over much of their schedule (55-14, 65-9, 49-0, 63-7, 73-21, 51-7, 49-14), was ranked in the top 10 all season, and qualified for what is now a BCS bowl (Orange). Looking at their total talent and schedule, I think it's entirely possible that USC '06 squad could do much of the same. They could easily be a double-digit win team.
So, how can NU resemble ASU in '96 and shock one of the country's top programs on the way to a conference title run? Returning a quarterback helps. Is Zach Taylor our Jake the Snake? Being grounded in a strong defense is another great way to start. Defenses keep out-manned teams in games. NU also has USC early in the schedule, like ASU did to NU in '96. That may create for some early mistakes on which to capitalize. However, the game is being played at USC. And NU doesn't have the history with USC the same way ASU did with NU, having played them in 1995.
I'm not saying that Nebraska can't pull the upset when they travel to Southern California this year. But, those bullish fans who are predicting it may want to temper their enthusiasm some. All the same, if and when USC demolishes Arkansas to open the year, and those very same Husker fans get nervous, I may smile and point out that NU destroyed another "name" but unranked team (Michigan State) to open the '96 season. But, then they lost 19-0 to a very surprising 17th ranked team the very next game.