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Big Ten preview: Nebraska

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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska completed its first home undefeated season since 2001, had its first six-game winning streak since 2001, and won its first divisional title in only its second year of the Big Ten Conference.

And what does everyone remember about the Huskers' 2012 football season?

Wisconsin 70, Nebraska 31.

That shocking outcome in the Big Ten championship game was among four embarrassing performances by the Nebraska defense last season. Three of those four losses were blowouts, leading to questions about how far Bo Pelini's program is from turning the next corner and rejoining the nation's elite.

"I'm proud of where we are as a program right now," Pelini said. "I'm always hungry. I don't make any apologies for what we've done over my first five years."

Nebraska, with at least nine victories in each of Pelini's first five seasons, shouldn't have a problem reaching that mark again in 2013. The Huskers have eight home games, will likely play only one ranked team (UCLA) in the season's first two months, and replace Wisconsin and Ohio State on the Big Ten schedule with Purdue and Illinois.

Chances of another appearance in the Big Ten championship game, while probably hinging on a November game at Michigan, still seem strong. But what happens if the Huskers, who've not won a conference title since 1999, meet favorite Ohio State in Indianapolis?

Nebraska will boast one of the nation's premier offenses, led by veteran quarterback Taylor Martinez and junior running back Ameer Abdullah. If the Huskers can get out of their own way, limiting turnovers and penalties, they should score enough to win.

Stopping the opponent will be another question. Nebraska figures to have as many as a dozen freshmen and sophomores on the defensive two-deep, meaning experience and cohesiveness will be lacking. The tradeoff, coaches hope, is more speed and athleticism.

Pelini isn't buying the story that a young defense may take until midseason, or later, to perform at a high level.

"They're going to be playing good football when they kick it off," Pelini said. "I have every confidence. I like what I've seen from our defense so far. I like what we're doing. You guys are the ones that are concerned about the defense, not me. We'll be just fine."

SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: A successful September for Nebraska hinges on the result of one game: UCLA on Sept. 14, in Lincoln. The Bruins were the first of four opponents last season to exploit Nebraska's weaknesses on defense -- to the tune of 653 total yards, and an average of 6.9 yards per play, in a 36-30 victory over the Huskers in Los Angeles. Not everyone returns from that UCLA offense, but sophomore Brett Hundley sure does, and he's the type of quarterback -- read: mobile -- that's given Bo Pelini defenses fits. The rest of the month offers few challenges for Nebraska; the Huskers will be decisive favorites in home games with Wyoming, Southern Miss and South Dakota State.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: Nebraska's 2013 offense is already being compared to the vaunted 1983 squad, which featured quarterback Turner Gill, Heisman Trophy-winning running back Mike Rozier and wingback Irving Fryar. Nicknamed "The Triplets," that trio led the most productive and electric offense in school history. Expectations are high for this season's big three: Quarterback Taylor Martinez, running back Ameer Abdullah and wide receiver Kenny Bell. Martinez and Abdullah each surpassed 1,000 rushing yards last season, giving the Huskers two returning 1,000-yard rushers for the first time in school history. And there's ample depth at wide receiver, something the '83 team didn't have. The challenge for this squad: Avoiding turnovers. Nebraska lost 22 fumbles last season, ranking last in the nation.

AREAS OF CONCERN: Bo Pelini always seems to thrive when the doubters are out in full force, which means the Nebraska coach must be having some serious adrenaline pumping this fall camp. Outsider expectations are extremely low for a defense that allowed massive yards, points and big plays in each of Nebraska's four losses last season. So, is it good or bad that Nebraska loses seven starters -- including all three linebackers -- from that unit? As many as a dozen freshmen and sophomores could be found on the two-deep, so inexperience and lack of cohesiveness is an obvious concern. But coaches believe these youngsters will offer a needed influx of speed and talent. "I think this group, being as fast as it is, as athletic as we potentially could be, could be a group that you see move around a little bit more, in terms of how we stunt the front (four), how we use pressures," second-year defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "Time will tell on that."
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