Southern Miss.-Nebraska Preview

The Associated Press

Despite posting its fourth consecutive nine-win campaign under coach Bo Pelini, Nebraska's first season in the Big Ten was met with mixed reviews.

With quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead both returning, though, the Cornhuskers are hoping to join the NCAA's elite in year two.

No. 17 Nebraska tries to extend the nation's longest active winning streak in season openers to 27 on Saturday when it hosts defending Conference USA champion Southern Miss.

After entering their inaugural Big Ten season with championship aspirations, the Huskers finished third in the Legends division with a 5-3 mark in conference play, going 9-4 overall.

They're hoping a year of experience makes all the difference.

"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," tight end Ben Cotton said. "We're focused on one thing, and that's getting that ring."

Offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles also believes there's plenty of room for improvement.

"We've had good years here in the past," 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."

Nebraska appears to have a chance to be great in 2012 with Martinez and Burkhead both primed to post big numbers again. The duo combined for 2,231 rushing yards last season, and that number could grow in the second year under offensive coordinator Tim Beck.

"A baby grows remarkably from age 1 to age 2," running backs coach Ron Brown said. "The first year seems like you're bobbling things all over the place. After that, you develop much more expertise. You see a lot of growth that second year."

While Nebraska's 611 rushing attempts last season accounted for nearly two-thirds of its plays, it's hoping to come out with a more balanced attack this time around. That could mean fewer carries for Burkhead, whom the Huskers are hoping to keep fresh down the stretch.

"Rex wants to play every snap. It's up to us to manage that," Pelini said. "At the same time, get the ball in his hands, get him some carries. We have a lot of talent at the running back position, so it'll be in Rex's long-term interest to offset that load some."

Joining Burkhead in the backfield are Ameer Abdullah, Braylon Heard and freshman Imani Cross, who's earned high praise for his efforts thus far.

"He's a man. He runs hard, he's big, he's physical, and he's mature training-wise for a guy that age," Pelini said. "He adds another dimension to our football team that maybe we haven't had in the past couple years."

While the Huskers have won each of their last 26 season openers by at least 10 points, they aren't likely to take Southern Miss lightly. The Golden Eagles are coming off a 12-2 campaign, setting a school record for victories behind one of the most potent offenses in the FBS.

Southern Miss averaged 36.9 points and 461.4 yards to rank 14th and 17th, respectively. Though that unit may take a step back with junior Chris Campbell trying to fill Austin Davis' big shoes at quarterback, the defense could be bolstered under new coach Ellis Johnson.

After spending the last four seasons as defensive coordinator at South Carolina, Johnson takes over for Larry Fedora, now the head coach at North Carolina.

Although Johnson didn't coach in the Gamecocks' 30-13 victory over Nebraska in the 2012 Capital One Bowl, he surely has a good idea of what to expect Saturday.

"It's certainly going to be a challenge ... they certainly deserve the preseason recognition that they've gotten," he said. "It's just going to be a tough game for us."

Though Southern Miss is looking forward to kicking off its season, keeping its focus on the field hasn't proven easy during Hurricane Isaac's move toward the Gulf Coast.

"We're excited to play a game," Johnson said, "... (but) we're certainly concerned about the safety of some of our players' families, and some of them were a little upset about what was going on. To say that this incident isn't a distraction, I'd be lying."

Saturday marks the fourth meeting between these programs. Nebraska won the first two before falling 21-17 in Lincoln on Sept. 11, 2004.

What to Read Next