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Thursday, February 10, 2011
Q&A: Ubben on Nebraska's Big Ten move

By Adam Rittenberg

Nebraska is officially part of the Big Ten blog, and the welcome wagon hasn't stopped rolling.

To help us learn more about the Huskers, I've reached out to colleague David Ubben from the Big 12 blog. David knows all about Big Red and covered Nebraska during its transition from the Big 12 to the Big Ten. After being nice enough to hand off the Huskers -- actually, I had to pry them from his hands -- Ubben took some time to talk about the Big Ten's newest member.

Let's go back to June 11. What was your initial reaction to Nebraska leaving the Big 12 for the Big Ten?

David Ubben: Ha, well it was certainly an unpopular one among the Nebraska supporters. I thought it was a great move for the university and the football program, but a huge, huge blow to the future stability of the Big 12.

In short, I equated Nebraska leaving to pulling the pin on the Texas Grenade that would blow up the Big 12.

Obviously, that's not what ended up happening, and for a fan base that since June has despised all things Big 12, I was surprised at how much the Huskers didn't want to be blamed for the Big 12's demise. One would think they would relish in it.

At the core, I think there was some fear from fans that their Huskers might be villainized as a program for the self-serving move, but that's not at all what happened to Arkansas, who certainly did much of the same thing to the Southwest Conference when it left for the SEC.

Back to your original question, though, Nebraska leaving definitely meant a weaker Big 12 if it continued to exist moving forward, and anyone who wants to try to argue otherwise is kidding themselves. Nebraska did what it needed to do: secure infinitely more stability and a good amount of cash with a move to the Big Ten, as well as the academic prestige that comes with, to borrow a phrase from deservedly maligned Missouri governor Jay Nixon, aligning themselves with Northwestern and Wisconsin rather than Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.

Yeah, anytime a school wants to upgrade its league, it should remember Mizzou and do exactly the opposite. But back to Nebraska. People know about the national championships, Dr. Tom and the option offense. What should Big Ten fans know about the current Nebraska program and its fan base as the Huskers transition to the conference?

Memorial Stadium
Nebraska's Memorial Stadium has been sold out for every single home game since Nov. 3, 1962.
DU: Nebraska's biggest asset is its fan base. People like to knock Huskers fans for being a bit full of themselves, but they have reason to be. They're going to rival any team in the Big Ten when it comes to traveling for road games. Prepare yourselves for a sea of red in your stadiums when Nebraska comes.

One big reason? It might be tougher to get a ticket to see the Huskers in Lincoln. Every single home game has been sold out since Nov. 3, 1962, a streak of 311 games. That's an NCAA record, of course. The ones who do make it into Memorial Stadium on fall Saturdays enter under permanent signs that read "Through these gates pass the Greatest Fans in College Football."

Is it obnoxious? Yes. Will it turn off a few opposing fans? Most definitely.

But I would argue that it's not inaccurate.

Husker fans are voracious supporters. They love their team. They know their team. They read about and are opinionated about their team. They spend money on their team. Any other fan base should admire at least that much. Because of that devotion, among other things, the program is one of college football's blue bloods and is able to make a big move that will benefit the program tremendously.

Let's talk about the team itself. Bo Pelini is an Ohio guy, and his track record on defense speaks for itself. Nebraska has seemed more up and down on the offensive side. How do you see the Huskers' style translating to the Big Ten?

DU: That's presuming Nebraska has an offensive style. Nebraska was all about the run early in the year, and ran over and around just about everybody in the first half of the season. Since no one could stop it, they didn't have to throw much, and when they did, they were so, so dangerous.

But the offense slowed late in the season, and I thought they relied on Taylor Martinez to simply drop back and pass way too often and didn't run the zone read enough.

The latest word from Nebraska's recruits is they want an offense that most closely resembles Oregon's, likely minus the dizzying tempo. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson would describe his offense as a bit of a hybrid between Oregon's offense and the West Coast passing attack, but he looks like he's on his way out.

I'm a big believer that you have to do what suits your personnel, and with a zone-read whiz like Martinez and quality running backs like Nebraska has, it would seem that's a good fit.

On the whole, though, Martinez has to continue to develop as a passer to really give the best defenses trouble. How much of that happens over the next three years will determine how successful they ultimately are. If he can't do it, there's nothing saying he's guaranteed to be the starter above incoming freshmen Bubba Starling (if he stays with football and doesn't sign an MLB contract) and Jamal Turner. Even Cody Green, who played when Martinez was injured this year, could earn some quality snaps if Martinez struggles as a sophomore.

Wow, sounds like we could soon have a QB controversy. Interesting. What do you think will be the biggest adjustments for Nebraska in transitioning from the Big 12 to the Big Ten?

DU: I'm a big believer in Pelini as a defensive coach, so I think they'll be able to make these adjustments eventually, but they're going to have to change the type of players they recruit defensively. You need so many defensive backs (and good ones) to have success in the Big 12, and winning the line of scrimmage will put you over the top, but teams like Missouri and Texas Tech have had success in the league without doing it on a consistent basis.

The Big Ten is all about the beef up front. The Huskers are big and fast on the defensive line with guys like Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler. I don't see many problems there.

Nebraska's best linebacker this year, Lavonte David, made a Big 12-best 152 tackles. He also happens to be 210 pounds. Players like him, while they're incredibly valuable in the Big 12 for their ability to make plays in coverage and provide a speed rush, will be marginalized in Nebraska's future for bigger, run-stopping linebackers.

There will be all kinds of things that will have to change, but the type of defensive personnel will be No. 1 on the list. Specifically, Nebraska will need more, bigger linebackers and fewer defensive backs.

Nebraska always has recruited so well in the state of Texas. How do you think the move to the Big Ten will impact Nebraska's recruiting strategy?

Jamal Turner
Now that it's left the Big 12, Nebraska will have more difficulty luring elite Texas high school players like Jamal Turner.
DU: Oh, what a contentious question. So, so much disagreement on this issue.

I don't think there will be a time when Nebraska just has no one from Texas, but their success in the state will take a considerable hit with the move. I do believe the Huskers should continue to recruit the state, but I also think they need to take some of those efforts and resources previously allocated toward Texas and use them to start scraping the Rust Belt and compete with their new conference mates, rather than their old ones.

Pelini knows the area well, and I think the Huskers will have some success doing it. They had a huge year in 2011 in Texas, getting three top-tier, ESPNU 150 players in ATH/QB Jamal Turner, RB Aaron Green and CB Charles Jackson.

I do believe they can keep getting some talent like that in 2012 and 2013, but as recruits and their families really realize what life is like as a parent of a Texas kid playing in the Big Ten, they'll realize why so few Texas recruits elect to play in the Big Ten. I talked with Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville about this issue last week actually, and he said for most families, it's a huge deal. Watching on TV simply isn't the same thing as going to games, home or away. And the facts are, a lot of families can't afford to fly to a ton of games.

Nebraska traditionally only played one or two games in Texas during a season, three if they made the Big 12 title game and it was in Texas. That doesn't sound like many, but look at it this way, unless you can pay for a flight or make a ridiculously long drive, you're talking about going four or five months without seeing your son versus around two or fewer if they play games in Texas.

So in short, I don't think there will be a time when Nebraska absolutely can't recruit in Texas, but they need to take advantage of their new opportunities in Ohio and Michigan, too, as compensation for the guys who won't want to play up North.

OK, you're on the spot. How do the Huskers fare in Year 1 in the Big Ten, which has already branded them a legendary team in the Legends division?

DU: The Big Ten certainly didn't do them any favors with their first-year schedule, booking them for trips to Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan. Hosting Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State is going to be tough, and they have to play the Buckeyes in the first game with their five suspended players back. Who knows what happens there?

With a still-maturing passer who won't have a ton of help at receiver, they'll have some struggles offensively, but they should be solid again on the defensive end.

I'll say 9-3 or 8-4. Short of what you might call a Legendary season, but certainly a good one.

Thanks to David for his time, and stay tuned as we'll both have more on Nebraska's move to the Big Ten.