The Cornhuskers lost only one regular-season game in conference play (a 25-point setback against Ohio State) and won the Legends Division last fall. But they were mauled by Wisconsin in the league championship game, then were dominated in the second half by Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. What had been an excellent season quickly became one that led to a lot of offseason sniping about coach Bo Pelini. Pelini is heading into his sixth season and has lost four games in each of his first five campaigns. He has a defensive background, but that unit has been gashed repeatedly over the past two seasons and is a giant question mark headed into this season.
Nebraska has had a total of six players selected in the past two drafts, but four of those were taken in the sixth or seventh rounds. There are legitimate questions about the talent level on defense. The offense has some talented skill-position players, but the toughness of the line is a concern. The Huskers are expected to be in the thick of the Legends Division race, thanks to a favorable schedule (only four road games and no regular-season games against Ohio State or Wisconsin). But unless some young talent steps up on defense, this could be a relatively disappointing season.
Top senior prospects
DE Jason Ankrah: Ankrah (6-4, 265) appears to have the needed physical tools but has been inconsistent. This will be his third season as a starter, but he has only three sacks and nine tackles for loss in his career.
WR Quincy Enunwa: Enunwa (6-2, 225) is a physical possession receiver whose best trait might be his blocking ability. He had 42 receptions last season and has 64 for his career, but has scored only three times and hasn't had a reception of longer than 36 yards.
CB Ciante Evans: Evans (5-11, 190) has all the measurables, will be a three-year starter and was a first-team All-Big Ten performer in some circles last season. Still, he has been inconsistent throughout his career. His ball skills are questionable: He has only one pick -- against FCS bottom-feeder Idaho State last season -- and 12 pass breakups in his career.
TE Jake Long: He is Spencer's twin but weighs 75 fewer pounds. He was the Huskers' third tight end last season but is expected to start this fall. He is more of a pass catcher than blocker.
OG Spencer Long: A former walk-on, Long (6-foot-4, 315 pounds) didn't play at all in his first two seasons on campus but has started every game the past two seasons. He was a first-team All-Big Ten selection last fall. He is a road-grader in the running game and has improved as a pass blocker, but he still needs to get better in that facet of his game. Long was a defensive end in high school.
QB Taylor Martinez: Martinez (6-1, 210) has started all but two games in the past three seasons and already holds numerous school records, including total yards (9,449) and passing yards (6,591). He is a dangerous and explosive runner, and a weapon on zone-read plays. Still, it's hard to consider him an elite quarterback. He has a funky throwing motion, struggles with his accuracy and makes a lot of poor decisions (27 career picks, including 12 last season).
OT Brent Qvale: Qvale (6-7, 315), a native of North Dakota, was a first-year starter last season at left tackle. He had spent the previous two seasons as a reserve guard. He has average feet as a pass protector, but is better as a run blocker. His brother, Brian, was a 7-foot basketball player at Montana from 2007-11.
OT Jeremiah Sirles: Sirles (6-6, 310) is expected to start at right tackle for the second consecutive season. He was the starter at left tackle as a redshirt freshman in 2010 before being used as a reserve left tackle in 2011. He is better as a run blocker than as a pass protector and also has battled inconsistency.
RB Ameer Abdullah: Abdullah (5-9, 190), a junior from outside of Birmingham, Ala., has received a lot of attention because he is a Muslim, but his on-field exploits have drawn notice, too. He became the Huskers' featured back when Rex Burkhead was injured midway through last season and responded with a 1,137-yard season. He has good speed, thrived despite a heavy workload, is an excellent kick returner and has proved to be a capable receiver.
WR Kenny Bell: Bell (6-1, 185), a junior who sported one of the best Afros in the nation last season, is a big-timer. He had 50 receptions for 863 yards (17.3 yards per catch) and eight touchdowns last season. He is a legitimate deep threat, and you wonder what he could do on a team with a more sophisticated passing attack. His dad, Ken, was a kick returner for the Denver Broncos from 1986-89.
DE Randy Gregory: Gregory (6-6, 258) is a touted junior college transfer who arrived in Lincoln in late July after being held up by academic concerns. He had nine sacks in 2011 at Arizona Western College but missed last season with a broken leg. If healthy, he gives Huskers coaches some options on passing downs, including the use of three ends to provide a pass rush. Gregory is an Indiana native who originally committed to Purdue out of junior college.
DE Avery Moss: Nebraska is rebuilding its defensive line, and Moss (6-2, 270), a redshirt freshman from the Phoenix area, should be the starting end opposite Ankrah. Moss is an excellent athlete -- he received recruiting attention from some mid-major basketball programs in high school -- who looks to have a relatively high ceiling as a pass rusher. His ability to hold up against the run is a question.
ILB David Santos: Santos (6-0, 225) played extensively as a redshirt freshman last season, finishing with 24 tackles. Huskers coaches have made an effort to improve the athleticism at linebacker and Santos, who is from the Houston area, is an example. He was listed atop the depth chart coming out of spring practice, and coaches like his ability to play in space.
Three must-see games of 2013
Sept. 14 vs. UCLA: The Bruins manhandled the Huskers' defense last season, and a diversified Bruins attack headed by rising star QB Brett Hundley will be a stiff test for the Huskers' rebuilt front seven. Martinez, Abdullah and the offensive line will be challenged by a tough Bruins front seven.
Nov. 9 at Michigan: This could determine the Legends Division title. The Huskers easily beat the Wolverines last season. This will be a chance for Martinez and Abdullah to make some big plays in the running game. But can Nebraska's defensive line stand up to Michigan's talented offensive front?