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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

The Times' college football countdown: No. 14 Nebraska

Bo Pelini's Cornhuskers should contend for Big Ten Conference title.

August 15, 2012|Chris Dufresne
  • Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, left, hands off to running back Rex Burkhead during a team practice session on Aug. 4. Nebraska wants to make a bigger impression in the Big Ten Conference this season.
Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, left, hands off to running back… (Nati Harnik / Associated…)

Nebraska's Big Ten Conference indoctrination last year at Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium was more like a boot camp. The Badgers kicked the stuffing out of the Cornhuskers, 48-17, in a game in which everyone was seeing red.

"I'm embarrassed," Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini said afterward. "I apologize to the fans of Nebraska."

The goal this year is to not need an apology.

Nebraska's first year in the Big Ten was, um, probably a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. The Cornhuskers finished 5-3 in conference and 9-4 overall after a season-ending thumping by South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl.

Nebraska fans are now just about over the honeymoon period they afforded Pelini simply because he wasn't coach Bill Callahan. It was Callahan, you might recall, who failed in an attempt to culture-shock the program with his West Coast offense.

Pelini has a record of 39-16 in four years at Lincoln. Not bad, but mundane enough to lead fans to conclude it's time to start thinking again like it's 1995, when the Huskers ruled all.

Nebraska is one of only eight Football Bowl Subdivision schools to have won at least nine games the last four years, which coincides with Pelini's arrival. Everyone donning a giant cob-of-corn hat would agree, though, that it's time to move the ball forward.

Nebraska should contend for this year's Big Ten crown, although it was unlucky to be stuck in a Legends Division lopsided with contenders Michigan and Michigan State.

Nebraska's defense needs a return to a time when it is not ranked No. 37 nationally and allowing opponents 350 yards per game.

The offense needs more consistent play from dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez, who launched his Big Ten career by having three of his passes intercepted at Wisconsin.

Martinez is one of the fastest quarterbacks in college football, rushing for 965 yards as a freshman and 874 last year. He really hasn't been right, though, since injuring an ankle his freshman year against Missouri. Martinez said last week he hasn't felt this good physically in two years.

"I think this year I should be running the ball a lot more," he told reporters at Husker Fan Day.

Martinez also thinks extended work on his throwing mechanics and an off-season trip to the Manning Passing Academy will drastically improve on his career 57.4 completion percentage.

The junior from Corona Centennial High can't wait for the Sept. 8 trip to the Rose Bowl to face UCLA, rumored to be one of the schools Martinez was considering as a transfer spot after a rough-patch freshman year.

Pelini, in 2010, berated Martinez on the sideline during a game against Texas A&M, leading some to speculate Martinez might quit.

Yet, the quarterback and the coach are still together after all these years.

"It seems like he's been around forever," Pelini said at Big Ten Media Day. "I'm glad he's our quarterback."

Lost sometimes in the soap opera has been rock-solid Rex Burkhead, who ran for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. Burkhead is only 5 feet 11 but can dunk a basketball and probably set a pretty mean pick.

If he had a fancy nickname, or more breakaway touchdowns, Burkhead would get more mention as a Heisman Trophy candidate.

Said Pelini: "I wouldn't trade him for another player in the country."

The countdown so far: 25. Notre Dame; 24. Texas Christian; 23. Utah; 22. Kansas State; 21. Louisville; 20. Boise State; 19. Clemson; 18. Stanford; 17. Michigan State; 16. Oklahoma State; 15. Wisconsin.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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