LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska is starting preseason practice facing the same question: Is this the year the Cornhuskers make the next step?
The Huskers have been a model of consistency under Bo Pelini. They’re among just four teams that have won nine or more games five straight seasons.
But they also have lost each of the three conference championship games they’ve appeared in since 2009. They also have three straight bowl losses.
Offensive lineman Spencer Long grew up in the state and knows the fan base is restless after having gone 13 years without a conference title. It’s the longest drought since the program went from 1941-62 without a championship.
“Obviously, we haven’t been getting it done,” he said Friday. “Every single year we fail, the sense of urgency goes up even more.”
The Huskers will open practice Monday with one of the nation’s most experienced and dynamic offenses, led by fourth-year starting quarterback Taylor Martinez.
The concern is defense. Eight players who started at least five games last season are gone. The secondary looks solid, but end Jason Ankrah is the only veteran among the front seven.
There also is the matter of those big losses during last year’s 10-4 campaign — by 25 points to Ohio State, by 39 to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and by 14 to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.
Senior defensive back Andrew Green said returning young players and newcomers in what’s been billed as Pelini’s best recruiting class could help make for a surprisingly strong defense.
“I feel like we’re real talented, probably the most talent we’ve had in a couple years from defensive line to linebacker and secondary,” Green said. “We’ve got linebackers that can run sideline to sideline and defensive linemen, too. If we’re on the same page, we can be a pretty good defense.”
Pelini has changed his leadership structure, naming four seniors as permanent captains. He previously named captains for each game, and the players elected captains following the season and announced them at the team banquet.
This year’s captains are Martinez, Long, receiver Quincy Enunwa and cornerback Ciante Evans. Each position group will have an assistant captain as well.
“It’s the first year Coach has put in captains, and we back every single one of our captains,” offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles said. “We have a great senior class. We’ve all been around. A lot of us have played a lot of football on both sides of the ball and I think that’s going to truly lead us over the hump.”
Nebraska has eight home games, including five in a row to start the season. The Huskers’ toughest non-conference game is at home against a UCLA team that beat them a year ago.
They go on the road to play Legends Division rival Michigan but won’t see Ohio State or Wisconsin in the regular season.
Linebacker David Santos said he couldn’t have drawn up a more favorable schedule.
“I’m not complaining,” he said.
Still, a poll of writers who cover the Big Ten picked Michigan to narrowly beat out the Huskers in the Legends, and Ohio State is the overwhelming choice to win the league and contend for the national championship.
Running back Ameer Abdullah isn’t ready to surrender anything to the Buckeyes.
“We haven’t even started practice yet,” he said. “Just to say a team is going to be there, that’s paying lip service. The season hasn’t even started. We all have to put in the work, take it week by week. You never know. Things happen all the time in college football. That’s why I love it.”