Once again, the Huskers were so, so close. Not quite as close as last year, but Nebraska's late stumbles will leave a bitter taste in the Huskers mouths heading into a yawn-worthy rematch with Washington in the Holiday Bowl.
Through five games, Nebraska was looking the part of national championship contender, with Taylor Martinez spearheading a dynamic running offense to complement a defense once again looked dominant, especially against the pass.
That ended with a shocking home loss to Texas. That was the week after a very public beating of Kansas State that featured 241 rushing yards from Martinez which injected him into the Heisman discussion along with frontrunner Denard Robinson. Whoops.
Nebraska added a couple quality wins in the weeks that followed -- at home against Missouri and on the road against Oklahoma State -- but a late loss to Texas A&M proved this wouldn't be the Huskers year just yet. Questionable penalties and ugly incidents during and after the game marred the night, but a loss is a loss. Thanks to a clinching win over Colorado in the season finale and a big play by Eric Hagg in overtime against Iowa State, the Huskers were still able to win the North for the second consecutive season.
Nebraska is most definitely back by Bo Pelini's definition -- they won't play anyone anywhere they can't beat -- but without offensive balance to go along with a defense that gives up very little, it'll be hard to beat those elite teams with consistency.
Offensive MVP: Taylor Martinez, QB. Injuries and passing inconsistency aside, Martinez gives Nebraska's offense a game-breaking aspect that was missing for all of 2009. The best defenses Nebraska faced this season -- Texas, Missouri, Texas A&M and Oklahoma -- all reined in the speedy freshman, but unless he's turning the ball over, Martinez makes it hard for inferior teams to upset the Huskers.
Defensive MVP: Eric Hagg, DB/LB. I'll go with the coaches' pick on this one, even if cornerback Prince Amukamara and linebacker Lavonte David collect the awards and recognition elsewhere. Hagg holds together Nebraska's defense from the versatile Peso position, a hybrid safety/linebacker, and gives the offense speed and power from the position. Players with his strength and speed are rare, and 38 of his 46 tackles were solo stops. Consider this, also: If he hadn't been in position to intercept the pass on a fake extra point in overtime against Iowa State, Nebraska doesn't go to the Big 12 title game.
Turning point: Taylor Martinez's ankle injury. Martinez had to sit out the second half against Missouri, and really never looked the same after. He re-aggravated the injury when he had his foot stepped on as he tried to make a move against Texas A&M, and the injury had a negative influence on his passing mechanics as well. If he stays healthy all year, my guess is Nebraska is 12-1 and headed to the Fiesta Bowl.
What's next: Stability off the field in the Big Ten, but uncertainty on it. Nebraska's defense is built to shut down the spread offenses that are everywhere in the Big 12, but they'll need to recruit bigger players up front to have similar success in the Big Ten. For all of Eric Hagg's talent, 210-pound linebackers don't work against running backs like 255-pound John Clay. Offensively, Nebraska's offense should fit right in. Nebraska will still be unlike many of the teams in the Big Ten. It'll be interesting to see what aspects of that work to their advantage, and which work to their disadvantage. The Huskers should be faster than most teams in the Big Ten, but also smaller. You'll never hear a coach complain his team has too much speed.