Nebraska's prideful football program goes into 2014 teetering on the edge of national relevance after 10 straight years with no fewer than four losses. Even in the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers are lumped in the second tier of championship contenders.
Some players said Friday they don't put stock in the Big Ten media poll that placed the Huskers third behind Wisconsin and Iowa in the new West Division.
"We're the ones who have to go out and play, not the analysts," defensive end Greg McMullen said.
Michigan State was picked third in its division last year before going unbeaten in Big Ten play and winning the Rose Bowl. The Nebraska players who do acknowledge the prognosticators said they're using the prediction as motivation.
"It's hard being looked at as a team that isn't going to win a conference. That's always our goal," defensive tackle Vincent Valentine said. "That puts a bigger chip on our shoulder. It's a message you can put on the board for guys to see. We have to prove them wrong."
Nebraska's last conference title came under Frank Solich in 1999 in the Big 12. The Huskers made it to the Big 12 title game and lost in 2006 under Bill Callahan and in 2009 and 2010 under Bo Pelini. Pelini also got the Huskers to the Big Ten championship game in 2012.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who started eight games in place of the injured Taylor Martinez, said he wasn't surprised the Huskers were picked third in the division after they went 9-4 overall and tied for second last year.
They finished on a positive note by beating Georgia in the Gator Bowl. But before that there was the second-half meltdown in a loss to UCLA, a road loss to Minnesota and a home loss to Iowa. They also needed a Hail Mary to beat Northwestern at home.
"We had a bunch of injuries and we still had a 9-4 season," Armstrong said. "Who knows what would have happened if Taylor had never gotten hurt, or Spencer Long or Jake (Cotton) or (Jeremiah) Sirles. Nothing's really promised for us. I know one thing; we're going to work as hard as we can to be the No. 1 team coming out of the Big Ten."
The Huskers have the nation's top returning rusher in Ameer Abdullah and a probable first-round draft pick in defensive end Randy Gregory.
But Nebraska needs more consistent play from Armstrong. He'll start preseason practice Monday as the starter, but Johnny Stanton and walk-on Ryker Fyfe are still competing for the job.
"Me, being a redshirt sophomore, most people may not think I'm capable of doing everything that quarterbacks in the Big Ten are doing right now ... Braxton Miller, (Christian) Hackenberg, those guys with big names," Armstrong said. "At the same time, I'm a redshirt sophomore and those guys are veterans at the game right now. We have to let all our talking happen when we step on the field. That's how respect is earned."