LINCOLN, Neb. – It's been almost a decade since Nebraska went into a football season getting this much love.
The Big Ten-bound Cornhuskers are generally expected to end their final Big 12 season in the conference championship game, the coaches put them in the top 10 in their preseason poll and some pundits suggest they have an outside shot at the national title.
"We like that," linebacker Will Compton said of the buildup.
Offensive lineman Keith Williams said it's a sign the Cornhuskers are relevant again.
"You get that respect that Nebraska needs," he said.
The Huskers haven't been much of a factor in the national championship chatter since that quirky 2001 season in which they reached the national title Rose Bowl game against Miami — and lost — after a 26-point loss to Colorado. Frank Solich lasted two more seasons before the program really took a dive during the four-year Bill Callahan era.
Bo Pelini, with his two-year record of 19-8 and two bowl wins, has become one of the nation's hot coaches. But he pooh-poohs the 2010 Husker hype — even though he's the guy who started it.
"I don't concern myself with polls or anything else," he said. "We're going to get what we earn this fall, and if we take care of our business on the field we'll be fine."
Pelini, remember, stepped out of his brusque character after the 33-0 Holiday Bowl win over Arizona and declared: "Nebraska's back and we're here to stay." Later, he said Nebraska is at a point where it can beat anybody in the nation and that the Huskers' defense could be better this year even though Associated Press national player of the year and Heisman Trophy finalist Ndamukong Suh is gone.
A year ago, the Huskers led the nation in fewest points allowed and got to the Big 12 title game, where they nearly knocked off Texas. They finished the year 10-4.
"Suh, of course, is arguably one of the best defensive linemen to ever play in college," Compton said. "We have big shoes to fill, but the way our defense handles things and the trust we have in our coaches, we believe we'll still get the job done."
Jared Crick, Suh's partner in the middle of the line last year and the Big 12's preseason co-defensive player of the year, will work mostly with Baker Steinkuhler this season.
Prince Amukamara, pegged as one of the top pro prospects at cornerback, leads a solid secondary that has another veteran corner in Alfonzo Dennard and a playmaking nickel back in Eric Hagg.
Nebraska plans to use two linebackers instead of three in its base defense, and Compton and Sean Fisher are among eight players vying for playing time.
"Obviously, one player doesn't make up an entire unit," Fisher said. "It's going to take all 11 people to really have a successful season. While he'll be missed, we're excited about the group of people we do have."
If there is any doubt about the importance of Suh and the rest of the defense's importance last year, consider the 13-12 loss to Texas.
Nebraska mustered just 106 total yards and Zac Lee was 6 for 19 with three interceptions. Yet the Huskers led 12-10 before officials put one second back on the clock and the Longhorns' Hunter Lawrence kicked a 46-yard field goal as time ran out.
Suh made 12 tackles, with seven for losses and 4½ sacks. Barry Turner had another 2½ sacks, and the Huskers limited the Longhorns to 202 yards, including 18 yards rushing.
Though they are unsettled at quarterback, the Huskers are confident they'll be much improved on offense. Their 323 yards a game ranked 99th nationally and their 25-point average was 75th.
"Hopefully, we score a lot more," receiver Mike McNeill said. "I think we can be a little more dynamic. The receivers have stepped up this summer, and we can spread the ball out a little more, hopefully run a little bit deeper routes instead of just packing it in and running."
Niles Paul, Brandon Kinnie and McNeill lead a big and physical receiving corps that is being touted as one of the Huskers' best in many years.
Five players on the offensive line have combined for 53 starts, and redshirt freshmen Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale and junior-college transfer Jermarcus Hardrick will push for playing time.
Roy Helu Jr., who ran for 1,147 yards and 10 touchdowns despite a shoulder problem, and Rex Burkhead, who had 89 yards and a touchdown against Arizona, give the Huskers the makings for a strong ground game.
The big question is at quarterback. Taylor, who played with an injury to his right (throwing) elbow most of the season, was serviceable. Lee missed spring practice to recover from elbow surgery. Cody Green and Taylor Martinez did enough in the spring to make Watson and Pelini carry the competition for the starter's job into preseason practice.
"Zac's not surprised or caught off guard by anything," Watson said. "He knows he has to earn it every year. That's how we do our business. He's got a real purpose to his work right now. He has to do it over the long haul."
Nebraska opens the season Sept. 4 at home against Western Kentucky. The Big 12 schedule includes a home game against Texas on Oct. 16.