And in the third year, the Big Ten scheduling gods finally rested on Nebraska's football team. The hazing portion of NU's entry into the gilded league appears over. Now the Huskers settle in to a year without Ohio State and Wisconsin staring them in the face, and embrace the arrival of Purdue and Illinois, two programs with intermittent periods of success. The schedule — which will feature two byes and just one Top 25 foe (UCLA) in the first nine weeks — is tailor-made for Nebraska's young defense to grow at a suitable pace while the offense — against defenses that, aside from the Bruins, should be little match — can lube up for a stretch run against many of the Big Ten's best teams.
But first, there is preseason practice, dubbed fall camp for years despite taking place in the dog days of August. The Huskers will aim to shore up weaknesses, stay on schedule with their strengths and stay healthy at positions where it really counts. Here are five storylines to watch:
Developing the defense
Some of Nebraska's critics consistently point to and harp on the Huskers' misses in recruiting without acknowledging the hits or the decent talent on hand. Fact: Seventeen of Nebraska's defensive players were four-star recruits according to one, several or all of the four major recruiting services. NU's defensive coaches aren't working with chopped liver. It's a pretty good cut of steak, in fact. Time to make a meal with it. Nebraska has complete defensive assistant coaching continuity for the first time since 2010, and head coach Bo Pelini seems ready to mold his philosophies around the athleticism he has on hand. He, defensive coordinator John Papuchis and assistants Rick Kaczenski (defensive line), Ross Els (linebackers) and Terry Joseph (secondary) may need the balance of the preseason to coach redshirt freshmen and sophomores into patterns of consistency. Then again, it's what the coaches are paid to do. Pelini has great confidence in himself and his relatively young staff to create one of the best defenses in the Big Ten. If, over the course of this season, the unit doesn't make much progress, it'll be reasonable to ask whether Pelini could use a more experienced set of eyes as a counterpoint to his vision. As it stands: The coaching band's back together, ready to rebound from a poorly received album.
Turning around the turnover margin
As a January study by World-Herald reporter Dirk Chatelain showed, Nebraska's struggles with turnovers — particularly 112 fumbles over the last three years — have been a consistent thorn in Pelini's side. That the Huskers' high-risk, high-reward offense has overcome those turnovers is a testament to coordinator Tim Beck's explosive attack, but even he would like to see a large-scale reduction. NU's minus-20 turnover margin over the last five years is tied for second-worst in the Big Ten with Illinois, just ahead of Michigan (minus-34). Over five years, Nebraska has a minus-76 turnover margin when compared with Ohio State (plus-56) and a minus-48 margin with Wisconsin (plus-28). It's indisputably a problem. Quarterback Taylor Martinez probably holds the solution. He has average ball security skills when running or dropping back to pass. In the past, he's tried too hard to force plays — especially on third down — when there were none to make. But shaky punt returning and I-back Ameer Abdullah bear some responsibility, too. Wide receiver Jamal Turner — not prone to fumbling — said Friday that ball security will be a top emphasis of the preseason. It needs to be. The Huskers have to stop giving away free points and great field position to opponents.
Finding an extra offensive gear
You won't find Husker fans complaining about the 460 yards and 35 points Nebraska's offense averaged in 2012. Add in the thrill-a-minute quotient to the unit — 11 plays of 50 yards or longer, several second-half comebacks — and they keep defenses wary from start to finish. But offensive coordinator Tim Beck wants more efficiency in the passing game — especially on third down — and wants to convert more red zone opportunities into touchdowns. Forty points and 500 yards per game are goals well within reach with Martinez, Abdullah and three top receivers (Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Turner) returning to build on the chemistry they've created in the last two years. The better Nebraska's offense hums, the more room for error the Husker defense has. And the NU defense could use a little room at the start of the season.
A completed Pipeline?
It's taken five years to build, but Nebraska offensive coaches believe they finally have an offensive line that can do it all: mash, pull, protect and avoid penalties. The unit could feature four senior starters — tackles Brent Qvale and Jeremiah Sirles, center Cole Pensick and guard Spencer Long — and projected starting left guard Jake Cotton is respected enough to earn an assistant captain role heading into the fall. This bunch dominated during portions of last season — the first three quarters of the Capital One Bowl vs. Georgia, the final three quarters of the Penn State win — with agile power blocking. But the line also gave up 35 sacks — the most since the 2005 line allowed 38 — and NU fell apart in losses at UCLA, Ohio State and in the fourth quarter against Georgia. With John Garrison now handling most of the offensive line duties, there's a sense that the line's finally mature enough to correct some of its own mistakes and leave Garrison to work more on talented-but-inexperienced depth behind them. This is no longer the headache-inducing, false start-prone bunch from 2009. But it has yet to achieve excellence.
Special teams revamp
On the subject of headache-inducing: the Huskers' punt return unit last year. NU strained so hard to find a worthy return man that it stuck Tim Marlowe — who was essentially playing with one shoulder — out to return punts against Penn State. Marlowe promptly fumbled. Nebraska was the gang that couldn't catch straight. While punting philosophies have evolved in the last 20 years, a rugby-style kick shouldn't befuddle the Huskers. And, at times, it has. Five turnovers on punt returns in a single year is five turnovers too many. The coverage units haven't been bad, but they've lacked a little dynamism. Nebraska has been spoiled throughout the Pelini era by two in-state walk-on kicker/punters, Alex Henery and Brett Maher; now, NU plans to attack those roles with separate players.