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THE BIG TEN'S NEWEST TEAM MAY ALSO BE ITS BEST, COMING off consecutive Big 12 title game appearances. Though fourth-year coach Bo Pelini won't come right out and say it, this year's Huskers could be the most talented of his tenure. "I think we're going to be a better football team [than in 2010]," he says. "We have a chance to be a little deeper than we've ever been, but we've got to be more efficient."
Nebraska fans have come to count on Pelini's teams to produce suffocating defenses, and the 2011 Blackshirts should be no exception. With a stacked line led by veteran tackles Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler, record-breaking tackler Lavonte David at linebacker and shutdown cornerback Alfonzo Denard pacing the secondary, the Huskers are not lacking for talent; the only question is whether they're built to withstand the more physical offenses they'll see in their new conference. "It's the same game," insists David. "That's what football is, being physical."
Turnovers and inconsistency have plagued Nebraska's offense the past two seasons, bottoming out with an embarrassing 19--7 Holiday Bowl loss last December to 6--6 Washington. The Huskers' descent (they lost three of their last four games) mirrored that of freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez, who elicited Heisman buzz with his sensational early performances (he ran for 241 yards in a 48--13 rout of Kansas State on Oct. 7) before recurring ankle and toe injuries hampered him the second half of the year.
After the season Pelini junked former coordinator Shawn Watson's West Coast offense and promoted running backs coach Tim Beck, one of the architects of the pass-happy attack that helped Kansas go 12--1 in 2007. Pelini remains secretive about the Huskers' new offense but says he wanted a simpler, "more user-friendly" playbook. There will still be plenty of running, with versatile I-back Rex Burkhead (951 yards in '10) taking on a featured role, but with Martinez still primarily in the shotgun. Now healthy, the quarterback is excited about Beck's up-tempo attack—for himself, and for Huskers fans. "It should be more fun to watch," he says.
Otherwise, Pelini said the program made no major changes to adapt to its new league. "We're out to win a national championship," he said. "We feel we have a roster built for any conference."
COACH Bo Pelini (4th Year) 30--12 (17--9 in Big 12)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Tim Beck
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR Carl Pelini