LINCOLN, Neb. — That painfully close loss to Texas in the Big 12 Conference title game and convincing bowl win against 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!"
Big 12 teams' spring prospects, in order of 2009 division finishes:
Last year: 10-4, 6-2 (1st North).
Starters back: 19.
Spring goals: The Cornhuskers plan to run the quarterback more. Taylor Martinez and Cody Green fit the bill and will push incumbent starter Zac Lee. The offensive line was tweaked. The defense must replace star lineman Ndamukong Suh, and Baker Steinkuhler looks like he's the guy.
Last year: 8-5, 4-4 (T-2nd North).
Starters back: 17.
Spring goals: The Tigers love quarterback Blaine Gabbert, but they want more from the offense, especially from running back Derrick Washington. Missouri also must improve in red zone after scoring touchdowns on 21-of-41 trips inside the opponent 20-yard line. New pass coverage schemes could help improve league's 11th-ranked pass defense.
Last year: 6-6, 4-4 (T-2nd North).
Starters back: 12.
Spring goals: The Wildcats' quarterback battle has narrowed to Carson Coffman and Collin Klein. Wide receiver is a focal point, and the hope is that transfers Chris Harper (Oregon) and Brodrick Smith (Minnesota) can help right away. The defense has big gaps to fill.
Last year: 7-6, 3-5 (4th North).
Starters back: 12.
Spring goals: The Cyclones looked to fill three linebacker openings and improve a pass rush that recorded just 16 sacks. They also need to find a backup to 1,200-yard rusher Alexander Robinson. Jeff Woody leads a large group of candidates after a strong spring. Most improved positions are wide receiver and cornerback.
Last year: 3-9, 2-6 (5th North).
Starters back: 16.
Spring goals: The Buffaloes went back to basics, simplifying an offensive system that generated just 314 yards a game. They'll go into fall yet to decide between Tyler Hansen or Cody Hawkins at quarterback. The Buffs have to replace two linebackers, but defense should be the strength of the team.
Last year: 5-7, 1-7 (6th North).
Starters back: 17.
Spring goals: New coach Turner Gill is auditioning quarterbacks, with Kale Pick, Jordan Webb and Quinn Mecham becoming top contenders to replace the record-setting Todd Reesing. Gill wants to be more aggressive on defense, and young safeties Prinze Kande and Lubbock Smith could be a couple of playmakers the Jayhawks need.
Last year: 13-1, 8-0 (1st South).
Starters back: 14.
Spring goals: Garrett Gilbert, who was thrust into the spotlight when Colt McCoy got hurt in the BCS championship game, cemented himself as the new starting quarterback and the leader of an offense that's trying to improve its unreliable ground game. Texas must also replace Jordan Shipley, who set the school record with 248 career receptions.
Last year: 9-4, 6-2 (2nd South).
Starters back: 8.
Spring goals: Brandon Weeden has taken over for three-year starter Zac Robinson at quarterback, and the Cowboys are adjusting to new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen's attack, which led the nation in total yardage and passing and tied for the most points in the nation last year at Houston. Along with that, there are wholesale changes along the offensive line — including the loss of NFL prospect Russell Okung.
Last year: 9-4, 5-3 (T-3rd South).
Starters back: 14.
Spring goals: With the ugly departure of Mike Leach still lingering in court, new coach Tommy Tuberville went to work installing a new 3-4 defense and an offense that's more run-oriented than in recent years. In the process, he lost Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield, who split time as the starting quarterback last season, to injuries. During a 138-play spring game, Tech ran the ball 62 times for 137 yards.
Last year: 8-5, 5-3 (T-3rd South).
Starters back: 17.
Spring goals: The Sooners are rebuilding a defense that gave up the seventh-fewest points and eighth-fewest yards in the nation last season but loses top NFL prospect Gerald McCoy at defensive tackle along with five other starters. The most flux comes at cornerback, where starters Dominque Franks and Brian Jackson are both gone and Willie Martinez was brought in as the new position coach.
Last year: 6-7, 3-5 (5th South)
Starters back: 22.
Spring goal: With Jerrod Johnson limited by arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder, the Aggies got a chance to see which of three recruits, Clay Honeycutt, Matt Joekel and Jamiell Showers, has the best chance of becoming the team's quarterback of the future. New coordinator Tim DeRuyter also installed a 3-4 scheme in hopes of improving a defense that gave up the most points and yards in the Big 12 last season.
Last year: 4-8, 1-7 (6th South).
Starters back: 12.
Spring goals: With star quarterback Robert Griffin III still sidelined after season-ending knee surgery, the Bears boosted the Big 12's worst rushing offense with the addition of California junior college transfer Isaac Williams. He ran for 71 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. Baylor must also replace All-America center J.D. Walton, plus defensive standouts Joe Pawelek and Jordan Lake.
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 expect 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."