As Nebraska heads into the off-season, here are the three biggest questions going forward in 2012 as NU prepares for their second season in the Big Ten Conference.
How will Bo Pelini's team stack up in year two of the Big Ten?
How does NU replace the big three?
Nebraska only loses a handful of starters off their defense, but when it's the Big Ten linebacker of the year in Lavonte David (27 starts), the Big Ten defensive back of the year in Alfonzo Dennard (32 starts) and defensive tackle Jared Crick (33 starts) those are some enormous shoes to fill.
Think about everything that trio provided NU over the course of their career. This year alone Dennard single handily shut down the two best receivers in the Big Ten.
David was a warrior and made the play of the year for NU by forcing a fumble on Braxton Miller to fuel the Huskers comeback against Ohio State. He also made critical third and fourth down tackles on Penn State in the fourth quarter.
Crick obviously didn't play much this season, but his career numbers and accomplishments speak for themselves. Nebraska doesn't have another David, Dennard or Crick on their roster right now.
The hope is junior college transfer linebacker Zaire Anderson and cornerback Mohammed Seisay can at least bridge the gap for the loss of David and Dennard, while hopefully the young defensive linemen like Chase Rome, Todd Peat and Kevin Williams can be a factor next year with Baker Steinkuhler and Thaddeus Randle.
I also wouldn't be surprised if another one of the true freshmen linebacker recruits got a good look for playing time in 2012. If Charles Jackson can academically qualify he too could be a factor at cornerback going forward.
What direction does the offensive line go?
Nebraska loses starting tackles Jermarcus Hardrick (13 starts) and Marcel Jones (21 starts), along with starting center Mike Caputo (27 starts).
More than likely Tyler Moore and Jeremiah Sirles will start things out at tackle in the spring, while Cole Pensick or Ryne Reeves look to be in the best spot to battle for the starting center job.
At guard, NU has Andrew Rodriguez, Seung Hoon Choi and Spencer Long returning, along with a cast of several other younger players.
A few freshmen names to watch closely in the spring will be Zach Sterup, Ryan Klachko and Givens Price. If five-star offensive line target Andrus Peat picks Nebraska, he too could factor in at tackle with Moore and Sirles in August.
How far away is this team from taking the next step?
As you start to set your expectations for 2012, it's hard to gauge what this team will look like until we see the impact Anderson and Seisay could potentially have on the defense, along with the development of the young defensive linemen by new position coach Rick Kaczenski.
The offense returns virtually everybody, other than a few offensive linemen and wide receiver Brandon Kinnie. On paper, NU and Michigan arguably will return the best offenses in the Big Ten.
Wisconsin will be rebuilding without Russell Wilson and also losing two key coaching staff members. Penn State's situation right now is a major mess, while Ohio State is not eligible to play for the Big Ten title. Michigan State loses Kirk Cousins at quarterback, and a few other key players while Iowa loses a lot as well.
If Nebraska can get through their non-conference slate 4-0, my early outlook for this team is another 9 win type of season. NU will have Michigan coming to Lincoln, but they travel to Northwestern, Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State. All of those games will be difficult, and a 2-2 split seems like a realistic outlook right now, while a 3-1 mark at home against Penn State, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin is how I'd call it today.
I think Michigan will be the clear favorite to win the Big Ten, while several other teams will all hover in the 8 or 9 win mark behind them. Without Ohio State eligible for the title game, the Leaders Division is completely wide open, but Wisconsin to me is still the clear favorite to make it to Indianapolis again.