Nebraska's defense, not offense, will be key in living up to preseason hype

Nebraska is an offseason darling this offseason after a 4-8 season in 2018. The Huskers lost their first six games under Scott Frost last year, including a home loss to Troy, but rebounded to win four of their final six.

That was good enough for a fifth-place finish (they held the tie-breaker with Minnesota) in the West Division of the Big Ten. They also showed enough to convince nearly everybody that Nebraska will be one of the teams to beat in the West in 2019.

As the Omaha World-Herald went over last week, three of the four major preseason college football magazines picked Nebraska to win the West in 2019. Among Phil Steele, Athlon, Street and Smith's and Lindy's, only Lindy's didn't have them winning the division, instead picking the Huskers to finish third. I'm not here to judge them for feeling that way. While I haven't been asked for my preseason predictions yet, I'm reasonably certain I'll be high on Nebraska myself. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Big Ten win totals and picked Nebraska to go over its projected 8.5 wins.

My explanation for the pick was pretty simple, and it's in line with what most of the magazines say. Scott Frost is a good coach who has had good offenses everywhere he's been, and he might have the best quarterback in the division, if not the whole conference, at his disposal in Adrian Martinez.

But is that really all it will take?

Probably not because Nebraska's offense wasn't bad last season, and it finished 4-8. Seriously, the Huskers ranked only 58th nationally in points per game at 30.0, but they were 20th in the country in yards per play at 6.31. Where the Huskers struggled was in the red zone, where it converted only 61.36 percent of its possessions into touchdowns. That ranked seventh in the Big Ten and 67th nationally. But while the Nebraska offense had flaws (and I'd be remiss not to mention that it improved as the year went along), the team's real problem was on defense.

Nebraska allowed 31.3 points per game last season, which was only better than Rutgers and Illinois in the Big Ten. Against Big Ten foes that number grew to 34.3 points per game, which ranked 13th in the Big Ten (Illinois was at a mind-numbingly awful 45.6 ppg allowed). The 5.81 yards per play the Huskers allowed ranked 10th in the conference and 75th nationally. None of these are dreadful numbers, but it's the kind of performance that must improve if Nebraska is going to meet the lofty expectations for it.

Like the offense, Nebraska's defense improved down the stretch. Of course, that could be because of the teams Nebraska finished the season against, though while it no doubt took advantage of teams like Bethune-Cookman, Illinois and the painfully inept offense of Michigan State, it needs to be noted that Nebraska held an Ohio State offense that averaged 50.7 points per game at home last season to 36 in The Horseshoe.

The defense's strength in 2019 should be its defensive line, which is the best place to start when you want to improve your defense. The unit includes two sets of brothers, with senior Darrion Daniels joined by redshirt sophomore Damion Daniels as well as senior twins Carlos Davis and Khalil Davis. There's also Deontre Thomas and Ben Stille.

Darrion Daniels transferred to Nebraska from Oklahoma State this offseason as a grad transfer. He was limited to only four games last year and isn't much of a pass-rusher, but he has shown to be strong against the run, which would be helpful to a defense that allowed 5.00 yards per carry last season.

Still, this is a unit that must improve its pass rush, and that's likely one of the biggest priorities for new defensive line coach Tony Tuioti. He comes to Nebraska from Cal, and while he inherits a defense that had 25 sacks and 63 tackles for loss, only 11 of those sacks and 36 of those TFL came in nine conference games.

Behind that unit are a set of linebackers that have a lot more questions than answers. Mohamed Barry returns after leading the team with 112 tackles last season, but he's the only LB on the roster you can assume will be starting against South Alabama in the season opener.

The secondary was better than you might figure given the numbers, but it wasn't helped much by a front seven that couldn't generate consistent pressure. Still, it's a veteran unit with an infusion of young talent behind it that could make its way onto the field as the season goes along. Last season's Nebraska pass defense led the Big Ten in passes defended at 47, and was sixth in the conference in completion percentage against at 55.48 percent. An area it could improve in is turning the ball over. Nebraska only dropped two interceptions last season, but it only caught 11 as well. That tied for 10th in the Big Ten. You'd like to see this unit turn those passes defended into turnovers more often.

These are the units that must improve if Nebraska is to be a legitimate contender in the Big Ten West. The Nebraska defense won't need to be an elite, shutdown group that reminds people of the old Blackshirt defenses, but it must take a step forward to help out an offense that may be talented, but can't be relied on to win games by itself.

If the defense doesn't take a step forward, well, those preseason magazines will be off the shelves by then anyway.

CBS Sports Writer

Tom Fornelli has been a college football writer at CBS Sports since 2010. During his time at CBS, Tom has proven time and again that he hates your favorite team and thinks your rival is a paragon of football... Full Bio

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