Record: 9-3 (5-3 Big Ten)
It was in many ways an odd first year of Big Ten play for Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers came over from the Big 12 both expecting and expected to do big things. Instead, they proved wildly inconsistent. The good included a marvelous rally to beat Ohio State, a three-touchdown victory over Michigan State, a win in difficult circumstances at Penn State and a manhandling of Iowa in the first "Heroes Game." The bad included blowout losses at Wisconsin and Michigan in which the Huskers seemed ill-equipped to compete and a stunning upset at home to Northwestern.
The defense played the main role in that inconsistency. One week after starters received their traditional Blackshirts for shutting down a good Michigan State offense, Northwestern sliced right through Bo and Carl Pelini's defense. A week after recording key stops at Penn State, the defense had no answer for Denard Robinson and Michigan. Star defensive tackle Jared Crick missed most of Big Ten play with a torn pectoral muscle, and lockdown corner Alfonzo Dennard didn't really get going until midway through the year after a preseason leg injury. Nebraska lacked depth and bulk up front and at the linebacker spot, something that will have to be remedied in order to contend in the rugged Big Ten.
Offensively, the Huskers averaged 30.5 points per game and ran the ball very effectively behind a star-making season by I-back Rex Burkhead. Quarterback Taylor Martinez made strides as a game manager and leader, but the team stalled whenever opposing defenses forced Nebraska to rely heavily on the passing game. Martinez's funky mechanics and a young receiving corps could be quite unpredictable. Just like the whole team this year.
Offensive MVP: Burkhead. We found out why Burkhead's nickname is "Superman." He ran like his next meal depended on it while piling up 1,268 yards and 15 touchdowns. That included seven 100-yard games in his final 10 outings. Just when you thought he might be wearing down under a heavy workload, Burkhead erupted for 160 yards on a school-record 38 carries in the season finale against Iowa. He'll enter 2012 as one of the Big Ten's brightest stars.
Defensive MVP: Linebacker Lavonte David. Whenever there was a key play to be made on defense, David seemed to be right in the middle of it. His fourth-down stuffing of Penn State's Silas Redd sealed that game. His 122 tackles ranked third in the Big Ten. And given how the Huskers disappointed elsewhere on defense, no player meant more to his team than David.
Turning point: The 28-25 loss to Northwestern on Nov. 5. Nebraska looked like the team to beat in the Legends Division after dominating Michigan State a week earlier. But the Huskers lost control of their destiny when Kain Colter and the Wildcats picked them off in Lincoln. Though the team would bounce back to win at Penn State, the Northwestern loss ensured that this would merely be a good, and not special, first season in the Big Ten.
What's next: Nebraska faces No. 9 South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl in what looks like one of the best non-BCS postseason matchups. With Carl Pelini gone to Florida Atlantic, his brother will have to find a new defensive coordinator. Burkhead, Martinez and a host of skill players return for what should be a powerful offense in 2012. But the Huskers must replace Dennard, David and Crick on defense and find more elite-level players overall.