CHICAGO — Nebraska's first venture into Big Ten land ended with neither triumph nor failure.
There were the high moments in the Cornhuskers' 9-4 season, such as a 24-3 pasting of eventual Legends Division champion Michigan State and beating Ohio State in the greatest comeback in school history. But there were downers as well in a 48-17 Big Ten-opening loss to Wisconsin and a 28-point defeat at Michigan.
"Last year we were new to the league and new to teams," Nebraska linebacker Will Compton said. "The game prep was a little different because you knew in the back of your mind they’d throw some things at you that you haven’t seen before because we were a new team. This year we’ll have that going moving forward."
Nebraska had to adapt each week to new styles of play and different venues. The league schedule was front-loaded with an initiation to recent juggernaut Wisconsin followed by a home debut against six-time defending league champion Ohio State. There also were games against perennial powers Michigan, Penn State and Iowa plus Michigan State and always-pesky Northwestern. The result was a better-than-average 5-3 league mark but a record that didn't meet the traditionally high Nebraska expectations.
Nebraska tight end Kyler Reed said adjusting to the Big Ten dealt more with the film room than the football field. Nebraska's coaches had decades of tendencies to disseminate with their former Big 12 opponents. Against the Big Ten, Nebraska's coaching staff had to spend more time each week breaking down video.
"I think that’s more of a challenge to the coaching staff because with the Big 12 teams you had years of film lined up in archives," Reed said. "Now you’re searching for film, you’re obviously getting game film from the week before but you don’t necessarily have … in the Big 12 we had stuff from the 2002 if we wanted to watch it."
What Compton and Reed did find through their first Big Ten go-around wasn't surprising. Both touted the league's physical nature, but both eschewed stereotypes about lead-footed speed and unimaginative offensive style of play.
"You can make the argument for the Big Ten being a little bit more downhill, more physical," Compton said. "But from a players’ standpoint every week brings a difference challenge. You just have to prepare each and every week.
"We’ll just have to anticipate being attacked differently. Then again, you have your Northwesterns, you have those teams in the Big Ten that do the things that people think the Big 12’s all about. Then, the Big 12 you’ve got K-State, and they’re downhill and come at you. I guess it’s an argument, but I think it’s overrated."
"It’s not a league that does a lot of crazy things," Reed said. "Usually you get a good dose of running the ball and pretty simple defenses. It’s just who’s going to win. It’s football."
Compton said his team has shifted its recruiting priorities at outside linebacker to accommodate the Big Ten's more physical running games. Just two years ago, Nebraska's three starting linebackers weighed 210, 210 and 225. This year, the four returning lettermen at linebacker all weigh 230 pounds.
"We're running more linebacker-heavy defenses," Compton said. "They do run the ball a lot more and are in more running situations. Our personnel fit better with the Big Ten, compared with the Big 12. A couple of years ago we had some very, very talented secondary guys and we had a few hybrid guys that could do both play in the box and outside the box. This past year we had more linebacker depth so we played with more linebackers. So that’s really the transition we made."
There's still excitement in Nebraska for the Big Ten, although now it's more subtle than last year's red-carpeted entrance. This year it's about football and, more specifically, winning.
"It’s my fifth year. Who’s going to be able to leave and say they’ve played Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, all of those schools, K-State, all those venues," Compton said. "Nobody will be able to say that, and we’ve been able to do it two different conferences. Hopefully we’ll be able to come out on top with a Big Ten championship so that way we can say we played in both the Big 12 and the Big Ten championship games."
- Division: Legends
- 2011 record: 9-4, 5-3
- Returning offensive starters (8): QB Taylor Martinez; RB Rex Burkhead, TE Ben Cotton, WR Kenny Bell, WR Quincy Enunwa, OL Seung Hoon Choi, OL Andrew Rodriguez, OL Spencer Long
- Returning defensive starters (7): DE Jason Ankrah, DE Cameron Meredith, DT, Baker Steinkuhler, LB Will Compton, CB Andrew Green, DB Ciante Evans, DB Damion Stafford
- Key losses: C Mike Caputo, T Marcel Jones, DT Jared Crick, LB Lavonte David, CB Alfonzo Dennard
- 2011 review: Nebraska faced the typical ups and downs associated with most schools moving into a new league. The Cornhuskers were thrashed 48-17 by Wisconsin in their Big Ten debut and needed the greatest comeback in school history to rally past Ohio State. Gradually Nebraska put it together despite stubbing their toes against Northwestern and suffering a shell-shocking 45-17 loss at Michigan. But Nebraska did beat divisional champ Michigan State and border opponent (but not yet rival) Iowa en route to the Capital One Bowl, where the Huskers were beaten by South Carolina.
- 2012 schedule: S1 Southern Miss; S8 at UCLA; S15 Arkansas State; S22 Idaho State; S29 Wisconsin; O6 at Ohio State; O20 at Northwestern; O27 Michigan; N3 at Michigan State; N10 Penn State; N17 Minnesota; N23 at Iowa
- Key stretch: The Cornhuskers open Big Ten play with six consecutive bowl opponents, but most crucial is a two-game stretch against Michigan and then at Michigan State. A sweep likely sends Big Red to the Big Ten title game, while a split makes it tough with this schedule.
- Trap game: Iowa. The Cornhuskers could have a shot at a division title coming to Iowa City. There's some question about the level of respect many Nebraska fans and some media have shown for the Hawkeyes. But most Big Ten teams can attest it's never easy playing in Kinnick Stadium.
- Glass half-full: QB Taylor Martinez is a three-year starter and Rex Burkhead finished third in Big Ten rushing last year. There's plenty of experience on both sides of the ball.
- Glass half-empty: Nebraska lost arguably its three best defenders in DL Jared Crick, LB Lavonte David and CB Alfonzo Dennard to the NFL. The Cornhuskers ranked seventh in Big Ten total defense.
- Quotable: "We've done what we've needed to do up to this point. The players have been great. The leadership's been great. But now it's time to take it to another level." -- Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini