Five burning questions for the Cornhuskers

August, 26, 2008
8/26/08
10:44
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

 
 Bruce Thorson/US Presswire
 Nobody knows how Bo Pelini will handle adversity as a head coach yet.

After an embarrassing defensive skid last season, Nebraska coach Bill Callahan was fired and replaced by Bo Pelini, a one-time Nebraska defensive coordinator who went on to greater fame and fortune as the defensive coordinator for LSU's national championship team last season.

Pelini's expertise is defense and he's got his work cut out with a unit that was blistered for more yards than any Nebraska unit in history last season. His old-school, no-nonsense approach appears to be ideal for the Cornhuskers' program heading into the season -- particularly after hiring several familiar assistants from Frank Solich's old staff to bring a sense of normalcy back to the program.

The Cornhuskers should have a punishing offensive attack that should allow them to dictate the clock and keep that defense off the field. A bruising offensive line, several potential I-backs and QB Joe Ganz gives them a nice offensive start.

But the ultimate litmus test for Nebraska this season will be how much their defense improves. It will determine how competitive they will be heading into Saturday's opener against Western Michigan.

Here are five pressing questions that will dog Pelini heading into the season.

1. Can Pelini bring some life back to the moribund defense? The Cornhuskers' defense was so bad last season that they took their Blackshirts away from the starters. Pelini still hasn't given them back. Maybe he's heard too much about producing a Big 12-low 11 turnovers last season or how they allowed 172 points in their final three games. But the unit has to improve and make more big plays or it could be a long year for the new coach.

2. Do they have enough depth at defensive tackle? After Kevin Dixon was kicked off the squad before camp began, it left Pelini scrambling for inside players. Pelini needs to light a fire under Ndamukong Suh, who badly tailed off last season. Ty Steinkuhler's back injury has been a concern. Perhaps the biggest show of panic at the position came when little brother Baker Steinkuhler was switched to defense. He was expected to be one of the Big 12's premier young offensive linemen. Oh well.

3. Who will emerge at I-back? The Cornhuskers have some of the best depth in the conference with Big 12 returning rushing leader Marlon Lucky sharing his No. 1 position with Roy Helu and Quentin Castille. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has called Lucky his starter, but watch for Helu and Castille to also get a lot of early work.

4. Can Joe Ganz cut down on his turnovers? Ganz posted pinball-like numbers in his three starts, rolling up 1,399 yards and 15 touchdown passes. But he was also victimized by seven interceptions and can't afford to be nearly as reckless this season. Keeping the ball away from the other team will be Nebraska's most important task offensively.

5. How will Pelini handle an extended period of losing? It's all good now for Pelini, who's the nearest thing to a rock star that can be found in Nebraska. He's even bigger than "Larry the Cable Guy."

Books have already been written about Pelini before his first game. But how would these fans handle a slump or a couple of surprise losses? More importantly, how would Pelini react to it? I still remember him going after Bill Snyder following a 2003 loss against Kansas State. And that was back when he had some good defensive players. Imagine this year's defense after facing teams like Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas or Texas Tech. Bo might have an aneurism, unless he's learned a lot of patience over the last five years.

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