- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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We move from the Ms to the Ns on our countdown of the best case and worst case scenarios for each Big Ten team in 2012. Up next: Nebraska.
As a reminder, these pieces are not in any way predictions. They are meant to illustrate the realistic potential highs and lows for a team's season, and any game-by-game breakdowns are more of a means to an end than anything else. And we're trying to have some fun here.
Year 2 of the Huskers' residence in the Big Ten could turn out very good or very bad.
The Huskers perform like the team many thought they'd be in 2011. Rex Burkhead makes a run for the Heisman, while Taylor Martinez looks like a different quarterback in the pocket. The Blackshirts throw the bones every third play and Nebraska ends up in two choice destinations: Indianapolis and Pasadena.
It begins with an impressive opening win against Southern Miss, the 2011 Conference USA champion. Martinez hits Kenny Bell in stride for a 73-yard touchdown pass on the first play from scrimmage, and goes on to throw two more touchdown strikes. Burkhead racks up 180 yards against one of the nation's better rushing defenses in 2011, and the Huskers roll.
The following week, Nebraska fans take over the Rose Bowl and the Huskers thrash UCLA to improve to 2-0. California natives like Martinez, Cam Meredith, Eric Martin, Daimion Stafford and Quincy Enunwa step up in their home state. Running off the field, a confident Martinez declares, "See you in January!"
After easy wins against Idaho State and Arkansas State, Nebraska opens Big Ten play against Wisconsin and avenges last year's blowout loss in Madison. Martinez tosses three touchdown passes, no interceptions and only two incomplete passes, high-fiving his one-time critic Tommie Frazier as he leaves the field. Burkhead outrushes Montee Ball by 80 yards. Nebraska wins by 10. Bo Pelini cracks a half-smile. The helium shortage ends in the Husker State and the red balloon tradition returns.
Pelini is all business the next week as he returns to his alma mater, Ohio State. The Huskers' defense shows it can shut down a healthy Braxton Miller for four quarters as Ciante Evans records a pick-six against the Buckeyes quarterback. Nebraska improves to 6-0 and enters the top 10.
After making Northwestern pay for last year's game in Lincoln, Nebraska hosts Michigan in an epic game under the lights in Lincoln. A new cheering section, Martinez's Minions, debuts at Memorial Stadium. Martinez and Denard Robinson both come to play, but Nebraska prevails as Burkhead leaps over four Wolverines defenders into the end zone with four seconds left. Superman, indeed.
The Huskers suffer a mini letdown the following week and fall to Michigan State by a touchdown, but they sweep their final three games, clinching the Legends Division title by shutting out Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. The headline "Blackshirt Friday" appears in the local papers the next day. Pelini leads the media corps in a singing of "Kumbaya."
Nebraska outlasts Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game to win its first league championship since 1999. Pelini earns Big Ten Coach of the Year honors. Burkhead is a Heisman finalist and heads to New York. Brett Maher wins both the Lou Groza and Ray Guy awards.
The Huskers return to Pasadena and beat Oregon 48-45 in a wildly entertaining shootout. Martinez meets his preseason goal by completing 70.1 percent of his passes.
Big Red sees red again as Nebraska falls well short of expectations and stumbles in a tough division. Martinez's offseason progress proves to be a farce, while defenses load up to stop Burkhead. Pelini explodes on the sideline and at the podium.
Rather than wait to have its annual home letdown, Nebraska stumbles right off the bat in a stunning defeat to Southern Miss. Martinez throws two ugly interceptions off of his back foot, while Burkhead fumbles and the defense fails to slow down the Golden Eagles. Southern Miss wins 24-21.
The misery continues the following week in Pasadena. Despite filling most of the Rose Bowl, Nebraska fans are silent and stunned as UCLA slices through the Huskers defense in the fourth quarter for two touchdowns.
Two unimpressive wins follow before Nebraska once again takes on Wisconsin in the Big Ten opener. And like last year, Martinez's mistakes prove disastrous. Badgers defenders Devin Smith and Chris Borland record pick-sixes against Martinez, who is benched in the third quarter. Ball runs for 250 yards, while Burkhead is held to 35 on 17 carries. The Huskers play badly and look worse, as their alternate uniforms blotch an already miserable night. After the game, athletic director Tom Osborne declares the alternate unis will return for the Michigan game.
Nebraska drops to 2-4 the next week as Miller picks up where he left off before his injury in Lincoln last October. Miller rips apart the Huskers defense as Ohio State wins by 17. Pelini explodes at his postgame news conference, drawing a reprimand from Osborne and chancellor Harvey Perlman. Defensive lineman Chase Rome assaults another towel dispenser at the Columbus airport.
During the open week, Meredith, in an effort to shake things up, shaves off his signature 'stache but cuts himself, requiring stitches. Bell also shaves his 'fro.
The Huskers notch a win against Northwestern but then suffer back-to-back blowout losses to Michigan and Michigan State, effectively ending their chase for a division title. The defense has no answer for Robinson or Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell.
Nebraska wins its next two, setting up a chance to even its record at 6-6 against Iowa. But Hawkeyes quarterback James Vandenberg leads a 99-yard drive in the closing minutes, aided by a 15-yard penalty on Pelini for lambasting an official.
The Huskers finish 5-7. The U.S. Olympic team asks Martinez if he'll try out for the shot put in 2016. Osborne retires and then becomes a consultant for Texas. Nebraska re-hires Steve Pederson as AD. Iowa wins the Rose Bowl, and Texas wins the national championship.
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