The Missouri Tigers will kick off their Big XII schedule this year with a very interesting Thursday night showdown against the media's pick to win the Big XII North, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Although they lost both their starting receivers, their starting running back and quarterback from a year ago, the Huskers still return 13 starters from 2008 and are looking to build on the improvement they have shown in the last 2 seasons. Let's take a look at what the Tigers will be facing under the lights this October.
Joe Ganz was a pretty solid player for the Huskers last season, recording a 153.62 passer rating. He has graduated so community college transfer Zac Lee will take his place as the starter this year. Lee has good size for a quarterback (6-2 210) and by all reports had a spectacular spring game, going 15-18 for 214 yards and 3 TD's. Ganz was a good pocket passer for Nebraska and he didn't make too many mistakes as a starter. On the other hand, Lee will probably be a bigger threat to put a hurting on defenses with his feet than Ganz was, but he will also make his fair share of mistakes through the air as a first-year starter in the Big XII. The Huskers situation seems similar to Missouri's except for the fact that Lee doesn't have huge shoes to fill.
Marlon Lucky was the starting running back for Nebraska for the past 2 years and ended his career with over 2,000 rushing yards and 22 TD's even while seeing reduced playing time in 2008. The main reason Lucky saw his workload go down in 2008 was because of Roy Helu's breakthrough in his sophomore season. Helu rushed for a team leading 803 yards and 7 touchdowns last season so he should be more than ready to carry a bigger load in 2009. Quentin Castille is the Huskers bruising back, weighing in at a hefty 235 pounds. He will be used mostly in short yardage situations, but he can also rack up the yards. Castille rushed for 467 yards last year and could get more looks this season now that Lucky has graduated. The Huskers will rely heavily on their running game this year as the young players at quarterback and receiver get used to playing meaningful roles on a Big XII team.
Nate Swift and Todd Peterson, both seniors last year, combined for 125 receptions and 1,727 yards in 2008. The Huskers lose that production coming in to 2009 and they will no doubt find it tough to replace. The top target returning for the Huskers in 2009 is their tight end, Mike McNeil. Last year as a sophomore, McNeil caught 32 passes for 442 yards and 6 touchdowns. He should see a considerable spike in his numbers this season because he figures to be a much more important piece of the offense. Nebraska fans are counting on junior Niles Paul to become a playmaker for the receiving corps, something they lack right now. Other players that should make a big impact on the Huskers success this year include Menelik Holt, Chris Brooks and tight end Kyler Reed.
Jacob Hickman started last year at center for Nebraska, but he will be moving back to offensive guard this year because they saw a desperate need for a left good left guard this year. Hickman was a very good starter at guard for the Huskers 2 years ago so he has experience playing the position. Taking his place at center will be a former walk-on who impressed this spring, Mike Caputo. Mike Smith and Marcel Jones both have minimal starting experience, but they should be able to hold down the fort pretty well at the tackle positions this year. Pelini has done some shuffling on his line because he saw it wasn't very good last year, but with all the inexperience at certain positions, you have to wonder if it was the right move. Inexperience across the whole offense could end up crippling the Huskers chances at a Big XII North title.
Now we move along to the strongest unit on the Huskers entire team, the defensive line. Featured in this group is expected top-10 pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (good luck pronouncing that). Suh had one of the best statistical seasons for a huge defensive tackle last season when he led the team with 76 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and 2 interceptions returned for touchdowns. A huge anchor at defensive tackle is the most important aspect of a good defense so the Huskers are on the right track. Suh's compliment at the other defensive tackle position is a bit of a toss-up, but Huskers fans have their eyes on Jared Crick who has had pretty good offseason. Pierre Allen and Barry Turner will be more than adequate starting at defensive end for Nebraska as both have had a history of success in college.
This group is so full of question marks, no one really knows who is going to end up starting in the three linebacker spots. Probably the surest bet to earn a starting nod is senior Phillip Dillard who will either play in the middle or on the outside. Other possible starters include stud 4-star prospects Will Compton (redshirted last season) and Blake Lawrence who is a now a junior. Lawrence has tons of talent, but he hasn't come close to producing the way Nebraska thought he would when they reeled him in as a highly touted recruit. The Huskers are hoping Compton will actually realize his talent and become a playmaker for the defense. Sophomore Matthew May is a former safety that has turned into a linebacker who could get a long look for a starter position this fall.
The secondary of the Huskers is full of juniors and seniors, but those players really haven't had successful college careers. The best player out of this group looks like it will be All-Big XII honorable mention safety Larry Asante who recorded 67 tackles last season. Seniors Matt O'Hanlon and Ricky Thenarse will battle it out this summer for the right to start at free safety this season. Both players are experienced so either one will be a pretty good option. At corner, juniors Anthony West and Prince Amukamara were fairly solid last year and are entering this season with expectations of being the Huskers best overall cornerbacks. A young player that could make an impact at corner is Anthony Blue, a former All-Big XII freshman member who is looking to recover from a serious knee injury last season. Expect this unit to not be terrible, but don't think they will carry the defense at any point this season.
When thinking about the Nebraska Cornhuskers, many think that they have a legit chance to win the Big XII North (see pre-season media poll), but that kind of baffles me. The Huskers are in a similar situation to the Tigers as they have to replace a starter at QB and both starting receivers from a year ago, yet no one is talking about the lack of experience that the Nebraska offense will have while everyone is focused on Missouri's inexperience on offense. With that said, Nebraska will have a pretty solid defense to go along with a so-so offense this year, which I believe will lead to Missouri having a fairly good shot to win the Thursday night game between the 2 teams, especially since the game will be played at Farout Field.