NU Prepares To Run the Gauntlet
These 12-team "super conferences" are - pardon the language - a bitch. Sure, you get the bowl-like revenues generated by a championship game. But, it also makes the schedules very rigorous. For instance, look at the suddenly average-looking ACC, with "name" programs like FSU and Miami struggling when faced with a schedule filled with good (not great) teams. Even with a lack of top-10 teams, that conference beats up on itself something fierce. It's just tougher than it was in the 1990's. That is certainly the case for Nebraska post-Big 12, too. Just ask Frank Solich if he would rather have played a Big 8 schedule. Or never mind that, and just look at what NU has in front of it right now. Coming off of a tough loss to the 5th ranked team in the land, they are looking at a run of four games against opponents with an 18-5 record, two on the road in the South. And, the one "bad" team is a genuine rival who will play as hard as they can when they face the Huskers. How can NU survive such a gauntlet run?
The Run Down
In consecutive weeks, NU must face:
- Oklahoma State on the road. Their quarterback is one of the statistical leaders of the entire NCAA and NU lost the last time they play in Stillwater (2002).
- Missouri at home. Missouri is the clear challenge to NU in the North division, and ranked in the top 25. This is probably the game of the year for the Huskers.
- Texas A&M on the road. This is another ranked team, and one who plays a very physical style of football. Oh yeah, Kyle field is one of the 10 toughest places to play in America.
- Colorado at home on the day after Thanksgiving. CU is better than their record, in my opinion. I can only offer their close loss to Georgia and win over Texas Tech as evidence. Not much, I know. But...trust me. They will play NU tough because they always do, and they won't have anything else to play for. We're their bowl game.
Collectively, these teams are 13 games over .500. And, NU hasn't yet beaten a team with a winning record.
How Can NU Run the Table?
Frankly, what I just wrote should make any fan skeptical of NU's ability go run the table to the title game in Kansas City. So, how can NU run the table? In a word: depth. I think the right players are emerging at the right time. For the sake of comparison, consider the 2004 and 2005 seasons.
In 2004 -- NU collapsed at the end.
To put it mildly, NU's 2004 team lacked depth, and it showed in November. They only had three defensive tackles that played meaningful time. They played the same five offensive linemen all season, and the same trio of linebackers with little exception. By the end, this team was worn down to a nub. I remember reading practice reports at the time that detailed how Callahan was backing down practice in terms of physical play, and thinking how it smacked of a coach trying to preserve his team. Then, when the biggest part of their passing attack left the field when Matt Herian got injured against Missouri, it is pretty obvious why this team finished out the season on a 0-3 skid. Sure, the loss to Oklahoma was likely inevitable. But the losses to Iowa State and Colorado were not. Just think of how Barrett Ruud and Cory Ross must have felt physically at season's end. Or just think back to those images of Ross during the OU game. NU just wasn't deep enough for November.
In 2005 -- NU finished strong.
Following an embarrassing 40-15 loss against Kansas on the road, NU found a way to finish strong with three consecutive wins including a bowl victory over Michigan. I'd argue it was because players emerged during the season. For starters, think of the maturation of Zach Taylor at quarterback. Throw in Nate Swift's rise up the receiving depth chart, and (perhaps most importantly) fresh offensive linemen. There were other bit players in there, like Phillip Dillard getting reps at linebacker, Todd Peterson getting some catches, and Cody Glenn playing a roll on short yardage. It all ads up to a team growing up for a stretch run.
In 2006 -- There are good signs.
The 2006 team is clearly deeper than either of the teams that preceded it. NU has 5 wide receivers and 3 tight ends that play a lot. They have 4 running backs that all play. They have 5 linebackers that all played well against UT. And, most importantly, they have true rotations on both the offensive and defensive line. They have regularly played 8 offensive linemen and 8 different defensive linemen this year. Best of all, big time playmakers are starting to emerge at the right time. Mo Purify looks like a tough man to handle. And, Steve Octavien lived up to his sizable hype against Texas. Ndomukong Suh and Barry Cryer both are playing their best ball along the defensive line. Heck, NU even is playing a few more defensive backs now than they did at the start of the season. Genuine depth is a great sign, both for now and the future.
As downright pessimistic as I am about NU's chances to win all four of their remaining games, I'm equally optimistic about the depth of the 2006 team. The Huskers will need every man they can get as they run their remaining conference schedule gauntlet.