The number was printed in bold type on sheets of paper that backup running back Dontrayevous Robinson taped all over the Nebraska locker room on the first day of spring practice in March: 1. That's the number of seconds officials ordered put back onto the clock in the Big 12 championship game against Texas after time had seemingly expired, thus allowing the Longhorns to kick a game-winning field goal. This spring that number served as a reminder to the Huskers of how close the program is to rejoining the nation's elite. "That Texas game still haunts us because of how it ended," says defensive tackle Jared Crick. "The refs didn't take it away, we just didn't finish. That motivated us all winter and spring. We learned a lot that night. We're definitely on the rise."
Indeed, for the first time since Miami hammered Nebraska in the BCS title game, in January 2002, the Huskers are once again a national title contender. They should field one of the country's top defenses, with six starters returning from a unit that last year led the nation in points allowed (10.4 per game). On the other side of the ball, the team has more starters returning (nine) than any in the Big 12. After struggling for most of 2009, the offense finally hit its stride in the Holiday Bowl against Arizona, churning out 396 yards in a 33--0 win. "We showed what we're capable of," says coach Bo Pelini, who shouted, "Nebraska's back!" after the bowl win. "Injuries really hurt us last year on the offensive side of the ball. But we're going to be a lot better this year. And I really like our defense. We've got some very, very talented players there."
The most talented is Crick, a 6'6", 285-pound junior from Cozad who was described by Outland Trophy winner Ndamukong Suh as "the next Suh." Crick, who had 73 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 9½ sacks last season, is already being projected by some NFL scouts as a first-round pick in 2011 if he forgoes his senior year. "Jared has so many tools," Pelini says. "He's big, strong, athletic, explosive and just has a wonderful combination of power and speed. No doubt, he's special."
No doubt, the Huskers' season could be as well.
CONFERENCE Big 12
COACH Bo Pelini (3rd year)
2009 RECORD 10--4 (6--2 in Big 12)
FINAL AP RANK 14
RETURNING STARTERS 15
Offense 9, Defense 6
4 Western Kentucky
18 at Washington
25 South Dakota State
7 at Kansas State
23 at Oklahoma State
6 at Iowa State
20 at Texas A&M
One of the nation's elite cover corners, the All--Big 12 performer had a team-high 11 pass breakups in '09.
The success of the offense depends on Lee, who played most of '09 with a torn ligament in his right elbow.
No Husker is as explosive as Paul, who had five of the team's eight longest plays last year.
ICON SMI (CRICK)
Led by the unstoppable Crick, Nebraska's next great tackle, the Huskers are primed to return to championship contention.
JOHN GREEN/CAL SPORT MEDIA