Tough to tell where Nebraska is headed

Nebraska had a chance to make Big Ten history Saturday in its first season as a league member.

Since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, no FBS team had beaten Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan in the same season. While scheduling sometimes prevented great teams from playing all four opponents, several really good squads fell short by a loss. Nebraska had no such concerns with its initial Big Ten schedule, which cut no corners. Not only did the Huskers face Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, but also Wisconsin and Iowa, two very good programs, and Northwestern, a consistent bowl participant.

Despite a taxing slate, Nebraska entered Michigan Stadium on Saturday with an opportunity to achieve the rare feat. Although the Huskers no longer had control of the Legends division, they could remain alive with a victory against Michigan. And even if Michigan State had clinched the division this week, Nebraska could finish the regular season at 10-2, earn a possible at-large berth in a BCS bowl and display some impressive notches on its first Big Ten belt.

Instead, the Huskers absorbed a thorough whipping at the Big House. Nebraska had three lost fumbles, eight penalties, three sacks allowed, only 260 yards, only three third-down conversions on 13 attempts and only 11 first downs. The implosion resulted in a 45-17 loss that coach Bo Pelini and others called “embarrassing," "awful" and "a comedy of errors."

Nebraska's meltdown at Michigan, like many blowouts for good teams, raises questions about the program and its direction. What is Nebraska football right now? Tough to say.

It's clear that the preseason expectations for the Huskers, tabbed as the Big Ten title favorite and certainly the favorite in the Legends division, were inflated. Many folks, including myself, underestimated the difficulty of switching conferences, playing new opponents and visiting difficult environments. The Huskers had reached the Big 12 title game in each of the past two seasons, returned a star-studded defense and introduced some much-needed changes on the offensive side. Pelini welcomed the lofty hopes from the outside, telling me in July that the team expected to win a championship in Year 1. Players like senior defensive tackle Jared Crick oozed confidence.

But a 48-17 loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten opener showed Nebraska hadn't arrived. From there, it has been a two-steps-forward-one-step-back type of season for Big Red. Nebraska's historic comeback against Ohio State -- the largest in team history -- put the team on the right track. The Huskers followed with impressive victories against Minnesota and Michigan State, handing the streaking Spartans a 24-3 loss in Lincoln.

Just when Nebraska appeared to turn a corner, it stumbled at home against 3-5 Northwestern, marking the fifth straight season the Huskers lost a home game to an unranked opponent.

The team responded the following week at Penn State in an emotion-charged game played under unique circumstances. While Pelini said after Nebraska's 17-14 win that he didn't think the game should have been played, his team displayed remarkable poise on the road.

Then came Saturday's clunker.

Perhaps Nebraska was emotionally spent. It's never easy to win consecutive road games in this league, much less at Penn State and at Michigan. But the Nebraska-Michigan game looked like a toss-up, two pretty good teams with a chance to be great. The Huskers clearly weren't up to the task.

Where does it leave Nebraska? Are the Huskers trending up or down in Year 4 of the Pelini era? Are they treading water?

Here's what we know. The defense isn't nearly the unit we thought it would be entering the season. There's a lack of depth in the front seven, compounded by Crick's season-ending injury after the Ohio State game. The Huskers need more Big Ten-quality linebackers and will have to pursue them in recruiting. There's star power with linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, but not enough production to go around.

The offense has been about what I expected: explosive at times, hard to stop when in rhythm but also inconsistent. Nebraska has dealt with inexperience and injuries along the offensive line, and still played well at times. Its best wide receivers are young. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is only a sophomore. It's a unit that should mature and improve with time.

The defense is where Pelini's teams should thrive and have in the past. Aside from the Michigan State game, the Huskers have lacked many dominating performances.

"This program has come a long way," Pelini said Monday.

He's right. Pelini has made Nebraska a good program again after the disastrous Bill Callahan era. The Huskers still can reach 10 wins this season with victories Friday against Iowa and in their bowl game.

But whether Nebraska can take the next step in its new league remains to be seen. Remember, non-traditional powers like Wisconsin and Michigan State are on the upswing, and Michigan has emerged from the darkness under Brady Hoke. The competition throughout the league, both on the field and in recruiting, has intensified.

Saturday won't be Nebraska's only opportunity to make Big Ten history on the big stage. The Huskers can only hope their next performance brings a better result.