LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- Nebraska opens against Southern Mississippi on Saturday hoping the fifth season under Bo Pelini marks the start of the Cornhuskers' return to its traditional place in the hierarchy of college football.
It's going on 15 years since the Huskers won a national championship, 13 since they won a conference title and 11 since they played in a BCS game.
They've lost no fewer than four games in a season since 2003 and haven't been ranked in the final top 10 since 2001.
Preseason prognosticators see more of the same for the No. 17 Huskers, picking them third in the Big Ten's Legends Division.
There's been a confident buzz coming out of preseason practice, however. Taylor Martinez is beginning his third year as starting quarterback and, by all accounts, is a better passer and more comfortable in offensive coordinator Tim Beck's spread-option system.
The defense, embarrassed in lopsided losses to Wisconsin, Michigan and South Carolina last season, believes things have been shored up with new coordinator John Papuchis and new line and secondary coaches.
''I know what we can do, what we can be by the end of this year,'' senior linebacker Will Compton said. ''We're not looked at as national level right now. We're on the outside looking in. I think we're closing that gap.''
Last year - Nebraska's first in the Big Ten - was a step back. The Huskers were a popular pick to win the conference but ended up 9-4 after a 17-point loss to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. The Huskers had made it to the Big 12 championship game the previous two years, narrowly losing both times.
Penalties, turnovers and inconsistency plagued the offense. The defense proved vulnerable to the run and couldn't get much pressure on quarterbacks.
A 2-3 record after October left Pelini, his players and fans wanting more.
''I still feel like people respect us, but as far as being a nationally dominant team and stuff like that, we haven't been over the last 10 years or so,'' running back Rex Burkhead said. ''As seniors, we're trying to get us back on that map.''
Nebraska doesn't know exactly what it will be getting in Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles were 12-2 a year ago and Conference USA champions. They finished the season at No. 20, four spots ahead of Nebraska.
Southern Miss is in rebuilding mode after Larry Fedora left to coach North Carolina and four-year starting quarterback Austin Davis graduated. Ellis Johnson took over for Fedora after spending the previous four seasons as South Carolina's defensive coordinator. He'll have a first-time starter in junior quarterback Chris Campbell, who has never taken a snap in a college game.
Freshmen Ricky Lloyd and Anthony Alford also could take snaps against the Huskers.
''Sometimes playing an opponent like Nebraska can be a motivator and help in camp, so our players should be focused on something as exciting as this,'' Johnson said. ''It's certainly going to be a challenge, and a lot of people have them ranked as 15 in the nation, which they probably deserve that.''
The Eagles likely will count on their running game to take pressure off Campbell and the other quarterbacks. Tracy Lampley, Kendrick Hardy, Desmond Johnson and Jeremy Hester each ran for more than 300 yards last season.
''They're as talented as I've ever seen,'' center Austin Quattrochi said of the running backs. ''We have four or five guys who can really run the football. We're always going to have fresh legs back there.''
Southern Miss returns three of its top four tacklers from a unit that held seven opponents under 100 yards rushing.
The Eagles are preparing for a heavy dose of triple-option football, with Martinez and Burkhead leading the way for the Huskers.
''Nebraska is a great team, but it's not the Nebraska I was used to growing up,'' linebacker Alan Howze said. ''People used to say 'Nebraska,' and you'd think how they're coming downhill at you. They're kind of a wing team. They want to push it to the edge on you. They're going to test our speed as much as they're going to test us downhill.''
Because there are so many unresolved position battles, Pelini plans to rotate a lot of players. The Huskers hope to get a good measure of themselves before they head to UCLA next week.
As for the big picture, the three-touchdown-favorite Huskers could use a convincing win to help reinvigorate the Nebraska brand, which has been built on 846 all-time victories and five national championships.
''There is respect for the 'N' and, I believe, for where our program is heading,'' Pelini said. ''Are we where we want to be? Absolutely not. There are a lot of positives, a lot of great things I believe we're headed for.''