Members of the Big 12 Conference for the past 15 years, Nebraska joined the Big Ten in the massive conference realignment movement last summer and will get a crack at the Badgers in their first Big Ten conference game. This is considered a crossover game between divisions in the new-look Big Ten, but there's no question that both teams have a lot on the line in terms of reputation.
The Huskers are expected to step in and challenge for the Big Ten title right away, and while head coach Bo Pelini has had to shuffle some roles with coaching changes, the style of Nebraska's defense won't change, as fourth-year defensive coordinator Carl Pelini believes the unit is as strong as it has been in his tenure. The Cornhuskers return seven starters, including tackle Jared Crick, who posted 9.5 sacks and 17 TFLs last season. Although the Blackshirts are known for defense, Nebraska was 45th in the nation in sacks, 63rd against the run and a 112th in tackles for loss last season, numbers that were uncharacteristically poor.
It's a reason that Nebraska has been encouraged with the work of junior defensive end Eric Martin, who has spent the last two seasons making plays on special teams and who Bo Pelini thinks the Huskers can mold into a, "guy that's going to be a force to be reckoned with on our defense."
"I think we can be real stout against the run, and I think our secondary is going to be really good," Carl Pelini said. "I mean, there's potential for us to have our best defense we've had here. Potential, of course, means nothing, but we have all the pieces in place, and I like our depth."
If there is one area that is of concern, it's the linebacker position. Although senior Lavonte David (team-best 152 tackles (84 solo) and 15 TFLs) is an All-American candidate and junior Will Compton recovered from injury to start at the end of the season, Nebraska is lacking depth in the middle of the field, something that may come to play against physical conference teams that like to pound the football.
Nebraska's defense isn't the only unit hoping for a rebound, as it was apparent that the Huskers' success was closely tied to the performance of sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez. One of college football's breakout stars over the first half of last year, Martinez started out with 421 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in the first three games, 241 yards and four touchdowns in a blowout win at Kansas State and another five touchdowns against No. 14 Oklahoma State. Then he ran into the proverbial freshman wall.
Martinez had various injury issues, as well as problems with Bo Pelini, and the quarterback simply couldn't be counted on. He ran for just 95 yards over the final seven games of the year after running for 112 yards or more in five of the first seven games. With the passing game averaging just 151 yards per game (113th in the nation) last season, the quarterback position is open for competition, especially with the new coaching staff installing a lot of new things offensively and another quarterback stepping up to the plate.
Redshirt freshman Brion Carnes led the White's quarterbacks with 11-for-15 passing for 173 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. Sophomore Ron Kellogg III also played well, completing 11-of-19 passes for 124 yards for the Red squad.
"He did some good things," said Bo Pelini on Carnes. "He shows flashes. He has a lot of ability, but he's still swimming in it a little bit. Even as basic as we were today, there are a lot of things he needs to improve upon and can get better at. But you see signs that he's going to be a good football player in time. I think he's had a pretty good spring."
Martinez should factor into the offense, because Nebraska returns just five starters, lost their leading rusher in Roy Helu Jr. and has only two players on the roster that had more than 37 carries last year, causing Pelini to say that some freshmen most likely will see action in the backfield. At receiver, while the Cornhuskers return last season leading pass catcher in Brandon Kinnie, there is a lot of youth and inexperience behind him. Coming out of spring, it appears that freshman Jamal Turner, a four-star quarterback from Arlington, has transitioned well to wide receiver and will be a factor.
"Jamal Turner has a lot of ability," Bo Pelini said. "He's going to be a good player for us, and he brings a really good element. I think you see a lot of those young wide receivers do. We have some playmakers at the wide receiver position."
Nebraska started off 9-1 last season, but lost three of its final four, averaging just 11 points in those defeats. The Cornhuskers are going to be out of their element this season, but arguably could provide the Badgers with their toughest test this season. Good thing it's coming under the friendly Camp Randall lights.
Overall Record: Nebraska leads 3-2-0
Record in Madison: Teams tied 1-1-0
Last Meeting: Wisconsin won, 21-20, in Madison in 1974