By ERIC OLSON, Associated Press
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A year after being picked by many to win the Big Ten in its first season in the conference, Nebraska isn't even the favorite in its division.
In fact, the proud program has gone 12 years without a league championship — its longest drought since 1941-62.
Coach Bo Pelini has won at least nine games each of his first four years, but last season's 9-4 campaign and the third-place finish in the Legends Division was considered a step back. Turnovers, penalties, dropped passes and soft defensive play sabotaged the Cornhuskers.
"We've had good years here in the past," offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles said. "9-4 is not a bad year. 8-4 is not a bad year. It's a good year. We're tired of being good."
Any shot Nebraska has at achieving greatness likely hinges on what happens against Michigan and Michigan State, the consensus top two teams in the division.
The Huskers believe their spread-option offense will be sharper under second-year coordinator Tim Beck. Taylor Martinez is going into his third year as starting quarterback, Rex Burkhead has been one of the nation's most productive running backs for two years and leading receiver Kenny Bell is coming off a strong finish to 2011.
The defense, which has a new coordinator in John Papuchis, is confident it can stop its slide in the national rankings the past two years despite having a lineman, linebacker and cornerback taken in the NFL draft.
"I feel like our defense is going to be top 10 in the nation, just because of the depth," defensive end Jason Ankrah said. "Our younger guys are stepping up from D-line to the secondary. We know the ins and outs of the defensive plays."
The Huskers also have a better idea what the opposition is like in the Big Ten.
"There's one thing seeing it on film. There's another thing living it and seeing it in person, firsthand," Pelini said. "I think it will help us going into year two. It's not going to win any football games for us, but I think it will be a little bit easier."
The conference schedule is front-loaded, with four of the first five games against teams that could be ranked in the Top 25. The opener is Sept. 1 at home against Southern Miss.
Defending Big Ten champion Wisconsin visits Sept. 29, and then there are consecutive road games against Urban Meyer-coached Ohio State and a Northwestern team that upset the Huskers in Lincoln last year. A home game with Michigan is followed by a trip to Michigan State.
"There's a lot of good — obviously very, very good — coaching in the league and a lot of talent running around there on the field," Pelini said. "Our players came out of (2011) knowing that we're going to be challenged week in and week out. You've got to be ready to go each and every Saturday, or things aren't going to go your way."
The Huskers were 36th of 120 FBS teams for penalties per game, with numerous drives imploding because of false starts and holding calls. They were 67th in turnover margin.
In a 48-17 loss to Wisconsin, the Huskers were penalized nine times for 80 yards and Martinez threw three interceptions on four possessions. In the 28-25 loss to Northwestern, the Huskers lost fumbles at the Wildcats' 6 and 19. In the 45-17 loss at Michigan, the Wolverines converted two of three fumbles into touchdowns, and a holding call wiped out a long run and forced a punt as Nebraska was trying to come back from a 17-10 deficit.
In the 30-13 Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina, Nebraska was up 13-9 and driving for another score when Ameer Abdullah fumbled at the Gamecocks 7. Martinez was intercepted at the South Carolina 26 on the next series, leading to the end-of-the-half desperation heave that gave the Gamecocks the lead.
Tight end Kyler Reed said he doesn't mind entering this season as an underdog.
"We know to get to the top we have to take care of ourselves," he said. "Less turnovers, less penalties. We had a lot of those last year, and those really killed us in our big games. We have to take care of ourselves. If we do that, we believe we have a chance to be at the top."
Beck's priority on offense is to be more balanced. The Huskers ran two-thirds of the time last season, and their passing game ranked 104th.
Martinez, who has run for more than 1,800 yards and 21 touchdowns the past two years, worked in the offseason to correct a throwing motion that often has him chucking the ball off his back foot. A 57 percent career passer, he said his goal is 70 percent — a mark achieved in 2011 by only eight quarterbacks who had a minimum of 15 attempts a game.
He will largely target Bell, the second freshman to lead the Huskers in receiving. He had 26 of his 32 catches, 331 of his 461 receiving yards and two of his three touchdowns in the last eight games. And when Martinez hands off, most carries will be by Burkhead, the most productive Nebraska running back since 1997. He scored 17 touchdowns, and his 104.4 yards per game ranked third in the Big Ten.
The offensive line lost three starters and sustained a blow the first week of practice when projected No. 1 left tackle Tyler Moore quit for what Pelini said were personal reasons.
The defense, seventh in the Big Ten and 37th nationally, endured a run of injuries on the line and struggled at times against the run.
Tight end Ben Cotton said last season's disappointments have given him and his teammates new resolve.
"The transformation that we've had as a team these last seven months — the amount that we've grown, not only football-wise, but getting these guys together for a greater purpose — there's no individual minds thinking about themselves," Cotton said. "We're focused on one thing, and that's getting that ring."
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