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May 21, 2010

Mailbag: Is Nebraska this year's Alabama?

Let's play "Name That Team."

This team was coming off a season with a double-digit victory total, but had gone more than a decade without winning a national championship. It most recently had faced Miami with the national title on the line.

Coming off a conference runner-up finish, it had questions at quarterback but was deep at running back. Its offensive line was rebuilding and had a junior college transfer at tackle. It also had a powerful defense featuring a defensive tackle and a cornerback with All-America capabilities. It had a dangerous punt returner and an extremely accurate kicker.

Furthermore, its coach was involved with a national championship team at LSU.

Obviously, last season's Alabama team fit that description.

This season's Nebraska team does, too.

Alabama coach Nick Saban was the head man at LSU when the Tigers won the 2003 title; Nebraska's Bo Pelini was LSU's defensive coordinator when the Tigers won the '07 national championship game.

Last season, Alabama was coming off a 12-2 finish in '08, when it lost to Florida in the SEC championship game. Nebraska went 10-4 last season, when it lost to Texas in the Big 12 title game.

Alabama hadn't won a national championship since defeating Miami in 1992. Nebraska hasn't won a national title since 1997, but it did face Miami for the crown in 2001.

Alabama's 2009 offense faced questions because of a rebuilt offensive line that had juco transfer James Carpenter at tackle and uncertainty with Greg McElroy at quarterback. But the Tide's running game was solid with running backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. An outstanding defense featured tackle Terrence Cody and cornerback Javier Arenas, who also was a dynamic punt returner. Kicker Leigh Tiffin was amazingly accurate.

Nebraska has uncertainty at quarterback, but juco transfer Jermarcus Hardrick is at tackle to boost the line. The Huskers also have a strong pair of running backs in Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead. The defense, which led the nation in scoring defense last season, features a star tackle (Jared Crick) and a stud cornerback (Prince Amukamara). Niles Paul is a dynamic punt returner. Kicker Alex Henery converted 85.7 percent of his field goal attempts in '09. (Tiffin had the same percentage.)

Could Nebraska duplicate Alabama's feat and win the national championship this season? That's a question to ponder in this week's mailbag.

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Huskers' year?

Nebraska is coming off a dominating win over Arizona in the Holiday Bowl. With enough pieces in place on defense for the coaches to say that the defense could be better than the 2009 unit and with 10 returning starters on offense, is this the year Nebraska returns to the national title game?
Bryan in Kearney, Neb.

There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the Huskers, who should open the season in the top 10. It would come as no surprise if the Huskers win the Big 12 this season.

But

I have to admit some skepticism about Pelini's claim that this season's defense will be significantly better than the '09 unit. Last season, Nebraska led the nation in points allowed (10.43). How much better can the defense be without tackle Ndamukong Suh, the second player selected in the NFL draft? Suh was the single most dominant player I saw last season. I'm betting some other players on that defense performed better because they were playing alongside Suh.

Pelini knows his team better than anyone else, so maybe the defense indeed will be better. We'll see.

That defense will ensure that Nebraska will be very top-10 worthy. But the offense must make significant improvement before the Huskers can be serious national championship contenders. Remember, Nebraska was held to fewer than 20 points in six games last season; three of those were losses.

Nebraska's passing attack was among the worst in the nation (101st, at 175.7 yards per game). And while it's true that quarterback Zac Lee was playing hurt, there is no guarantee that he'll be substantially improved this season. Indeed, he may not even be the starting quarterback.

Sophomore Cody Green may be ready to step in, and redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez made a nice impression during spring drills. But I've seen too many players who were great in the spring fade in the fall. There remains much to prove for both.

Offensive line play also needs to be improved, though the general feeling is Hardrick can be for Nebraska what was Phil Loadholt was to Oklahoma two years ago -- a massive tackle with NFL ability.

Still, questions about quarterback and the passing game are legitimate reasons to doubt the Huskers.

Of course, last season, they were legitimate reasons to doubt Alabama, too.


Conference expansion talk

There has been some talk lately of the SEC adding Texas and Oklahoma and possibly Texas A&M and Oklahoma State as well. Will adding high-powered teams like this actually hurt the chances of the conference champion playing in the national title game? Playing in the SEC is already hard; if you add teams the caliber of Texas and Oklahoma it would be nearly impossible to finish with fewer than two losses. Can the conference be made so hard that it becomes a detriment to its members? Would a two-loss SEC champ be bypassed by an unbeaten or one-loss team from an "easier" conference?
David in Washington, D.C.

Would an undefeated or one-loss team in a lesser conference be considered superior to a two-loss SEC team, or at least seen as more deserving of a chance at a national championship? That's a good question.

As of today, the answer is probably yes. For example, had West Virginia not been upset by Pittsburgh in 2007, the Big East champion Mountaineers, with one loss, would have faced Ohio State for the national championship. Instead, two-loss LSU beat the Buckeyes for the national title.

But if the conferences expand the way some have predicted, two losses probably won't be as devastating in the BCS standings. That is, if the BCS still exists. If multiple conferences expanded to 14 or 16 teams, some form of a playoff may be inevitable. All teams in expanded conferences would have a tougher road.

Even if the BCS remains, the formula for setting up national championship game opponents and the standards by which teams are judged would have to be altered. Strength of schedule would have to be an element in the selection procedure, just as it is in determining the field for the NCAA basketball tournament.


Next up

What is your take on Texas? I feel the next quarterback will be better than Colt McCoy.
Daniel in Texas

I'm always amazed by fans. Every December, we hear we're crazy if this guy isn't named an All-American or doesn't get our Heisman Trophy vote. Then by spring, the next guy is better.

I'm not buying that.

Texas posted 45 victories in games started by Colt McCoy, who was a threat as a runner and as a passer. That's an incredible standard that Garrett Gilbert won't reach.

But I do think Gilbert will continue an impressive streak of quarterback success in Austin. James Brown, Major Applewhite, Chris Simms, Vince Young and McCoy form an impressive streak of starting quarterbacks over the past 15 seasons. I believe Gilbert will fit in well with that group. While he won't be better than McCoy -- at least not this season -- he'll be good enough to help Texas continue its streak of nine consecutive seasons with at least 10 victories.

The Longhorns lost some excellent players on defense. Four were selected in the NFL draft. Still, look for Texas to be good on defense. Cornerback Aaron Williams heads a secondary that will be among the best in the country. Keenan Robinson is a rising star at linebacker. End Sam Acho, who had 10 sacks last season, often is overlooked but shouldn't be.

Offensively, the running game must improve. That was a point of emphasis in the spring, with changes in scheme and blocking assignments. The receiving corps will miss Jordan Shipley, but there still is a lot of talent and speed on hand and more coming in with highly regarded prospects Mike Davis and Darius White.

Look for Gilbert to emerge as a capable passer and expect Texas to mount a strong defense of its Big 12 championship.


Help coming

Where is Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino putting freshman Eric Bennett, and what are the expectations for Bennett?
Justin in Santa Maria, Calif.

Bennett, a three-star athlete from Tulsa, Okla., has a chance to play this fall. Hawgsports.com reported that he visited spring practice and kept a close eye on the competition at cornerback. That's where he figures to play, though he's likely to get a shot on kickoff and/or punt returns.

The Razorbacks need all the help they can get in the secondary. Last season they were last in the SEC in pass defense, and the transfer of cornerback David Gordon to Oklahoma State leaves the Hogs thin at corner.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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