IRVING, Texas (AP)—Nebraska is favored to win its division. The Cornhuskers can score points in bunches and no Big 12 team enters the season with a longer winning streak.
Sure seems like the good old days again for the Cornhuskers.
Not quite yet, second-year coach Bo Pelini cautioned Monday, though things are moving in the right direction again.
“Our players don’t feel like Nebraska’s back,” Pelini said during the opening session of the Big 12 media days. “They’re starting to understand what they can become as a football team and where this prorgram needs to be headed.”
The Cornhuskers were coming off their second losing record in four seasons, after none the 42 seasons before that, when Pelini took over.
Nebraska started 3-0 under Pelini, then went through a three-game losing streak that included the Huskers’ most lopsided home loss in 53 years, by 35 points to Missouri. The Tigers hadn’t won in Lincoln in 30 years.
The Huskers ended with six victories in seven games, including their last four to finish 9-4. The Huskers had at least nine wins every season from 1969-2001.
“You feel like you can win again,” center Jacob Hickman said.
Momentum created by the season-ending stretch certainly helped convince the players about Pelini. The coach said they have gone from a group that seemed to dread working out to now looking to get better.
“Absolutely. We didn’t fully buy into what they were trying to sell as a coaching staff yet last year,” running back Roy Helu Jr. said. “And this spring, you saw that we’ve grown a lot.”
Ndamukong Suh, the tackle picked as the Big 12 preseason defensive player of the year after deciding not to pursue early entry into the NFL, said the difference is huge.
The Cornhuskers were a four-time national champion, with back-to-back titles in the two seasons before Big 12 play began in 1996. Nebraska won three of the first four Big 12 North titles by 1999, then didn’t win another until 2006.
Nebraska tied for the division lead last season, but Missouri went to the conference championship game—and lost to Oklahoma by 41 points.
Winning the Big 12 North and competing for the overall conference title are still two drastically different tasks.
Consider the plight of Oklahoma State, which also appeared on the opening day of the three-day Big 12 festivities.
The Cowboys won nine games last season, reached the top 10 for the first time in 20 years after no rankings the previous five years, and return the trio of quarterback Zac Robinson, receiver Dez Bryant and running back Kendall Hunter from an offense that averaged 41 points a game.
Oklahoma State is picked as the best of the expected also-rans behind Texas and Oklahoma in the South Division.
“Unfortunately, we’re one of the few teams that can be in the top 10 in most polls across the country and be third in our division,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “But we have a goal, and our goal is to put a team on the field that has a chance to win every Saturday.”
There are eight home games, including Texas on Oct. 31. The Cowboys were 6-1 at home last season, the only loss against Oklahoma.
Texas and Oklahoma tied for the South’s top spot in the preseason media poll — the Big 12 coaches don’t do one. Texas got 17 first-place votes and Oklahoma got the other 15, but both had the same number of poll points.
Nebraska has to replace quarterback Joe Ganz (3,568 yards passing) and its top two receivers after averaging 451 yards and 35 points a game. Zac Lee, the presumed starter, was 15 of 18 for 214 yards and three touchdowns in the spring game.
Helu, who ran for 803 yards and seven touchdowns while starting only twice last season, says Lee has been “absolutely phenomenal. … He has an explosive arm.”
Pelini expects the Huskers to keep improving on defense, too. They gave up 350 yards a game last season, a 127-yard improvement from 2007.
“We’re not in the same galaxy of where I want to be defensively,” said Pelini, the former defensive coordinator at LSU, Oklahoma and Nebraska. “You guys all talk about whether this is a defensive league or an offensive league. We’re going to play good defense at Nebraska … We’re not going to be satisfied until we are a dominant defense.”
Or until “we win them all, until we’re playing for a national championship. How close we are to that, I don’t know.”