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Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Nebraska season preview

By Brian Bennett

Nebraska has averaged 9.8 wins per season under Bo Pelini, but it has also lost exactly four games in each of his five seasons. Can the Huskers break the pattern this year and deliver a long-awaited championship? Let's take a look at what to expect from Big Red:

NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS

Coach: Bo Pelini (49-20, fifth season)

2012 record: 10-4 (7-1 Big Ten)

Key losses: RB Rex Burkhead, LB Will Compton, DE Eric Martin, DE Cameron Meredith, S Daimion Stafford, TE Kyler Reed, K/P Brett Maher

Key returners: QB Taylor Martinez, RB Ameer Abdullah, WR Kenny Bell, OG Spencer Long, DB Ciante Evans, OT Jeremiah Sirles, DE Jason Ankrah, WR Jamal Turner

Taylor Martinez
Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez returns for his senior season.
Newcomer to watch: Defensive end Randy Gregory was rated by some as the top junior college defensive lineman last year. Though he did not arrive on campus until recently, Gregory could at the very least provide the Huskers with a much-needed situational pass rusher, and the 6-foot-6, 230-pound athlete has the potential to do even more than that.

Biggest games in 2013: Nebraska has it relatively easy in September and October, aside from a visit from UCLA on Sept. 14. The first three weeks of November will decide the Huskers' season and likely the Legends Division, as they open the month with Northwestern at home before going to Michigan and then hosting Michigan State.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Defense, defense, defense. The Huskers got steamrolled in losses at UCLA, at Ohio State, vs. Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl, allowing 214 points combined in those defeats. Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis have an extremely young defensive front seven and must replace both starting safeties. The coaching staff is optimistic that the defense will be much more athletic, especially on the perimeter and at linebacker, and that that improved speed will make up for some youthful mistakes. But there are only a handful of proven players, and the defensive line in particular must take a step forward.

Forecast: The expectation at Nebraska is that the team wins championships, and it has been a long 13 years in Lincoln without so much as a conference title.

The Huskers have come close under Pelini, and they played in the Big Ten championship game last season (though saying they actually competed in that game -- a 70-31 Wisconsin whitewash -- might be too kind). They will be one of the top contenders again in the Legends Division this year, but they'll need a young defense to rise up if they're going to clear that last hurdle.

The good news is that Pelini doesn't need his defense to be a top-10 national unit. That's because the offense, which averaged 34.8 points per game and led the Big Ten in total yards in 2012, returns most of its key pieces, including senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, 1,100-yard back Ameer Abdullah, a deep receiving corps led by Kenny Bell and an experienced offensive line captained by All-American guard Spencer Long. Turnovers have been a problem for Martinez and the offense as a whole, but ball security was an area they emphasized heavily in the spring.

"I wouldn't trade our offense for anybody's," Pelini said at Big Ten media days. "I really like what we're doing."

With that high-powered attack, the Huskers just need their defense to play respectably, especially in the big games away from home where things have been very shaky the past two years. Luckily, Nebraska gets its first five games at home, plus two byes in the first eight weeks of the season. That should help young players, like linebackers David Santos and Jared Afalava and defensive linemen Avery Moss, Aaron Curry and Greg McMullen, gain some early confidence.

That schedule should allow the Huskers to come roaring out of the gate. If they can handle UCLA at home, the team has a great chance of being 7-0 by the time that key November stretch arrives. Pelini's team should once again be right in the thick of the conference race. Nebraska still needs to prove it can separate itself from the pack.