When Bo Pelini was introduced as the head coach of Nebraska football at the end of the 2007 season, fans of the Cornhuskers were, at the very least, elated. After all, this was the defensive guru that had led a resurgent Husker defense in 2003, made Oklahoma’s defense something to be feared, and coached LSU’s defense on their way to a 2007 national championship. There were shirts made with his name and likeness, ESPN and other sports companies lauded the decision by Tom Osborne to hire the fiery coach, and the Big 12 had another name from Youngstown, Ohio.
Over the next four years, Pelini led an up-and-down Nebraska team through the Big 12 and into the Big Ten. He coached Heisman finalist Ndamukong Suh, made Nebraska’s defense as a whole something to be feared again, started a freshman at quarterback the first game of the season, upset rival Oklahoma at home, was a second away from upsetting Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game, and, for the first time since 1999, shut out two teams in the same season.
Of course, most of that happened in 2009. Many people point to that season as the peak of Pelini’s coaching mountain so far. They point to 2010 as a team that could score quickly but not through sustained drived and to 2011 as a team with distractions and too much hype. That may be the case.
Pelini will lead Nebraska into 2012 with his own recruits. Every Cornhusker that receives playing time this year will be a Pelini player. His system has been in place since 2008. He has recruited bigger, stronger receivers. His defensive philosophy has changed, and his recruits have evolved with it.
The defensive players state they have a much higher understanding of the system now and are not merely playing and hoping to be in position. There are no preseason All-Americans heading into 2012, and there is no hype. This side of the football will need to play more as a unit in order to live up to their expectations. The defensive line will be led by Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meridith, but they lose very little. The linebackers lose All-American Lavonte David but retain Will Compton and Sean Fisher. The secondary will deal with the loss of Alfonzo Dennard by sticking one of the many Husker defensive backs on the field at any given time.
The offense returns almost fully intact. Taylor Martinez will be Nebraska’s first 3-year starter since Eric Crouch, and we all know how that guy turned out. Rex Burkhead has more fans than Ndamukong Suh could ever hope, and “Sexy Rexy” returns as the starting I-Back. Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed are back as tight ends, and Jamal Turner, Quincy Enunwa, Kenny Bell, and others will attempt to put fear into opposing defenses through the air.
Pelini is not, as some would absurdly suggest, on the hot seat heading into 2012. These are, however, his players. This is his system. This is the coaching staff he wants. The schedule is not overtly horrific. The Big Ten, after all, isn’t quite the caliber of the SEC. Nebraska’s image, however, has been tarnished. It’s been more than 12 years since the Huskers won a conference championship. We all know national championships don’t come along every year, but contending for and winning a conference championship is a Nebraska tradition. Very few teams have 43. Nobody in the Big Ten outside Nebraska does. The tradition seems like a distant memory to some. Some remember it like it was yesterday.
The pressure is all on Michigan this year. They are the media darlings. Nebraska has routinely checked in at around Nos. 17-20 in polls so far. That seems about fair. Nebraska didn’t exactly hit their stride at the end of the 2011 season. Things can change quickly in Lincoln, though. This team is Bo’s. His name is all over it. If they win, it will be Pelini’s doing. If not, he will take the credit for it. Either way, the only way he can look now is toward a mirror.