LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — That painfully close loss to Texas in the Big 12 title game and convincing bowl win over Arizona have Bo Pelini believing Nebraska is on the cusp of winning a championship.
Moments after the 33-0 Holiday Bowl victory, Pelini shouted, "Nebraska's back and we're here to stay!"
Four months later, Pelini isn't backtracking.
"Even though we haven't won anything yet, haven't won a championship, I felt we're at that point where we can compete with anybody," Pelini said this week as spring practices wind down. "Does that mean we're going to beat anybody? No, you have to earn it. I just felt week in and week out there isn't anybody they can throw at us that we don't have the opportunity to beat."
Nebraska and Texas again will be favored to win the North and South divisions.
"I'm glad to see Nebraska is back now because we needed that," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "When I got here, Nebraska, Kansas State and Colorado were the three strongest teams in the league. I feel the North is coming back now, and we're about to be one of the better conferences in the country at the top end."
Missouri should be strong now that quarterback Blaine Gabbert is healthy. If Kansas State finds a quarterback and solidifies its defense, coach Bill Snyder can continue the progress started with the 6-6 campaign in his first year back with the Wildcats.
Texas? The Longhorns always expects to be in the national title hunt, and that doesn't change with Garrett Gilbert taking over for Colt McCoy at quarterback.
Oklahoma hopes to bounce back from its injury-decimated season with quarterback Landry Jones leading the way while the defense adjusts to the loss of star lineman Gerald McCoy.
The biggest change in the league is at Texas Tech, where new coach Tommy Tuberville is tweaking Mike Leach's all-pass-all-the-time offense to include more running.
Nebraska is coming off its first 10-win season since 2003, but any celebration was tempered by the outcome of the Big 12 title game. Texas won 13-12 on a field goal as time ran out.
Tight end Dreu Young said that loss fueled him and his teammates in spring practice.
"No one talks about it outwardly, but you think about it all the time," Young said. "You think, 'What if I had taken a better step? What if I blocked just a second longer?' That stuff goes through everybody's mind."
The Huskers, No. 14 in the final Associated Press Top 25, could crack the preseason Top 10 for the first time since 2002.
Though they're unsettled at quarterback and have to fill a huge hole created by the departure of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, Pelini won't accept a backslide in his third season as Nebraska's head coach.
"I'm hungry to win a championship," he said, "and I want to do great things for this program."
Heading into fall, the spotlight in Lincoln is on the three-man quarterback competition among Zac Lee, Cody Green and Taylor Martinez.
Lee, who started 12 games last season, missed the spring after having surgery on his right (throwing) elbow. Green was steady, but Martinez was most impressive. Pelini said the competition could extend past the Sept. 4 opener against Western Kentucky.
"We have three guys who are capable, and competition hopefully will bring out the best in everybody," Pelini said. "It could possibly be a combination of guys."
Quarterback also is an issue at Kansas State, Kansas and Colorado.
Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads already has named Austen Arnaud his starter, and there is no question Gabbert will call the signals at Missouri after coming off a nagging ankle injury that dogged him the second half of the season.
In the South, Texas has spent its spring tinkering with its offense with Gilbert taking over for McCoy, a Heisman Trophy finalist and the NCAA's all-time wins leader.
Gilbert was unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight when McCoy was injured in the BCS championship game loss to Alabama, but now Brown has had a chance to seek more support from a running game that had no one average more than 40 yards per game last season.
"We really aren't changing as much as people would think. We would just like to be more balanced with our running attack," Brown said.
Brown said he added more zone-read option plays and drop-back passing for Vince Young and then focused even more on the passing game with McCoy.
"We will continue to throw all the passes that Colt threw," Brown said. "But we also want to be more physical and take some of the pressure off our quarterback that we put on Colt for the last four years with our running game."
Chasing the Longhorns will be Oklahoma State, which loses quarterback Zac Robinson and a slew of starters after finishing second in the South for the first time, and rival Oklahoma, which struggled through an 8-5 season plagued by injuries to Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford and numerous others.
"We haven't changed anything. We've got a pretty strong, proven method for winning Big 12 championships and competing for national championships through 11 years," Sooners coach Bob Stoops said. "Just because we got a rash of injuries in one season, we didn't change a thing."
Latzke reported from Oklahoma City.