Ok, so these are more Jeffie Husker’s expectations as I didn’t actually ask for input from the other contributors, but I stand by them nonetheless.
Finish in the Top 50 nationally in total defense.
I’ve tried to temper expectations regarding this topic before, and I stand by those claims. Teams that finish #112 nationally in total defense, just don’t make insanely dramatic jumps the following year (insert but we have Bo Pelini arguments here). For good measure, I’m actually not the only stat geek that thinks this way. There is no doubt in my mind that our defense will improve… A LOT. But I’m not ready to put us much higher than the Top 50 at this point. Whenever I start to feel a bit more confident about our chances, I remember our linebacker concerns and our frightening lack of depth at DT. But even despite those shortcomings, the Top 50 should be a reasonable goal for 2008.
Finish in the Top 25 in total offense.
After struggling in 2005 (#96 nationally), Nebraska finished 2006, ranked 14th in total offense and then 9th a year ago. Coming into 2008 I expect a drop off, but certainly not to 2005 levels. Those that view Joe Ganz as the messiah (see Sam Keller circa 2007), likely expect improvement over last season’s numbers. Right now, I just don’t see it. As I’ve warned before, Ganz’s numbers were inflated due to situational variables and the truth of the matter is, in close games, Ganz wasn’t that much better than Keller a year ago. We also have the added unknowns of Watson’s abilities and idiosyncrasies as a playcaller. As a result, the Top 25 looks reasonable at this point in time.
Find a consistent threat at TE.
This is something that failed to transpire during Callahan’s days in Lincoln other than Matt Herian’s efforts in 2004. During that season, tight ends accounted for just over 19% of the team’s total receptions. In 2005, they accounted for 9.2% and tight ends represented 14.3% of the receptions in 2006. A year ago, the number bottomed out as the TE position accounted for just 8.8% of the team’s total number of receptions. By comparison, Marlon Lucky’s 75 receptions represented just over 25% of the team’s catches in 2007. But 2008 could be the year that a tight end finally steps up and makes his presence felt. By all accounts Joe Ganz is developing a nice football rapport with redshirt freshman Mike McNeill. Ben Cotton could be a sleeper in 2008 and Hunter Teafatiller, who has somehow avoided drinking himself out of a spot, also returns. In other words, the talent could be there. In addition, Shawn Watson was a strong proponent of the throwing to the tight end while he was at Colorado. Guys like Daniel Graham and Joel Klopfenstein made a killing in the middle of the field. Couple Watson’s offensive system with the coaching of Ron Brown and Nebraska may finally have a go-to TE threat in 2008.
Win at least one game we’re not supposed to win.
Off the top of my head, Michigan in the Alamo Bowl is the only game like this that I can think of during Callahan’s regime. Oh sure, Nebraska was close with Texas Tech in 2005 and Texas in 2006 and 2007, but it seemed the team couldn’t get out of its own way when it really mattered. This realization was even tougher to take when Husker fans watched Ron Prince and Kansas State upend Texas not once, but twice in recent years. As a result, stealing a game that few expect us to win will be one way that I measure whether we start to turn the corner in 2008. Looking at the schedule I’d say the Virginia Tech, Missouri, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Kansas games best fit the bill for this particular achievement. But would anybody really be satisfied with a win over VT, which had no running backs at last check, or Kansas who we’ve railed against before? Honestly, I would at this point, as the alternative leaves us with Mizzou, Texas Tech and OU and that might be more than even wishful thinking right now. So then let’s go ahead and markdown Nebraska finally stealing a win against either VT or KU (which has pretty much owned us recently) at home. But don’t forget this achievement doesn’t preclude Nebraska also losing a game it shouldn’t in 2008.
Develop some young talent.
I’ve ranted before about Callahan’s redshirting follies and this is one area that Pelini could perhaps reconcile in a hurry. He has a chance to not only develop the class of 2008, but also a bunch of young guys who have been buried under the previous coaching staff. I’m talking about guys like Meno Holt, Niles Paul, Latravis Washington, Pierre Allen and Anthony West, as well as incoming talent like Baker Steinkuhler, Khiry Cooper, and Will Compton. It’s time for this type of talent to not only mature each season, but also to contribute in significant ways. It appears that Pelini’s practices are already more directed toward this goal than Callahan’s were, but Pelini and Watson also need to develop schemes and situational packages that allow guys to see the field earlier in their career. I’m sick and tired of watching guys burn their redshirts to chase kickoffs. If they’re ready to play get them on the field in a meaningful way. If they’re not ready, redshirt them with an eye toward ensuring they continue to get better.
Improve our turnover margin.
A year ago Nebraska finished next to last nationally (suck it Baylor!!) in turnover margin. The Huskers gave the ball away 28 times while forcing just 11 turnovers for a turnover margin of –17 (ouch!). In 2006, we broke even forcing 25 turnovers while also unfortunately turning it over 25 times. The 2005 season saw our turnover margin at –2 and in Callahan’s first season, in 2004 we were –12. In my mind this was the biggest issue under Callahan. With the game on the line we turned it over and when we needed a big break we just couldn’t get the ball back. Turnovers definitely matter. Consider that when Nebraska was destroyed by Kansas 76-39 we were –5 in turnovers. The next week, we were a home dog to Kansas State, but just being even in turnovers allowed us to win big 73-31. In addition, turnover margin was the statistic most highly correlated with winning in the Big 12 in 2007 and was the fifth most important statistic nationally. And fortunately help should be on its way. Bo Pelini’s defenses are known for causing turnovers at an alarming rate. In fact, a year ago his defense created 36 turnovers, helping LSU finish second nationally in turnover margin on their way to a national title. In addition, in his lone season at Nebraska in 2003, Pelini’s Blackshirts forced an amazing 47 turnovers, helping the Huskers finish first nationally in turnover margin at +23.
Have some success running the ball when it matters.
During Callahan’s time in Lincoln, Nebraska did have some success running the football as the Huskers finished #23 in rushing offense in 2006 and #34 in 2004. But the bottom line is we never found a way to move the ball on the ground when it mattered or when facing a top tier opponent. For instance, in 2007 we opened with 413 rushing yards against Nevada. That total would ultimately represent almost a quarter (23.8%) of our total rushing yards for the season. In all, we averaged 4.16 yards per carry in 2007. But against teams with a winning record that number fell to 3.39. Worse still, against ranked teams our yards per carry fell to 2.77 a year ago. Against USC: 31 yards rushing. Missouri: 74. Kansas: 79. Those numbers just aren’t going to win you many football games. But once again, we keep hearing about Shawn Watson’s “Nebraska Offense” and a desire to focus on the run game. This is nothing new, as the 2006 team espoused a “Pound the Rock” mentality and for the record the improved offensive balance resulted in a Big 12 North title. But what does this mean for 2008? First we have some horses in Marlon Lucky, Roy Helu and Quentin Castille at running back. Each back has their own strengths and weaknesses, but all should see some carries. In addition, I have more faith in our offensive line than in years past, especially since they seem to be in better shape. And lastly Barney Cotton, as maligned as his presence on the coaching staff might be, should actually improve the physicality of the O-line and has promised to once again start emphasizing “pancakes” rather than patty-cakes.