Nebraska carried a six-game winning streak into the Big Ten Championship against Wisconsin, a team the Huskers had already beaten earlier in the season. However, the rematch was about as lopsided as title games get, as the Badgers muscled their way to a 70-31 victory for the right to play in the Rose Bowl.
It was a sobering conclusion to the first-ever Big Ten title game appearance for the Cornhuskers, who had won two straight division titles in the Big 12 before switching conferences in 2011. Still, their 10-win season was good enough to earn a trip to the Capital One Bowl to face Georgia on New Year's Day, although the fifth-ranked Bulldogs claimed a 45-31 victory in that contest to send Nebraska home with back-to-back losses.
OFFENSE: Nebraska has a four-year starter at quarterback in Taylor Martinez, along with some dynamic weapons around him. Martinez made a mechanical adjustment to his throwing motion last year, and that adjustment paid dividends to the tune of a league-best 141.6 efficiency rating to go along with 1,019 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.
According to head coach Bo Pelini, the best is yet to come.
"There's still a lot of room for improvement there," Pelini said at Big Ten Media Day. "He's not even close to what his potential is. And I look forward to what he's going to bring to the table this year."
Nebraska returns its top two wideouts in Kenny Bell (50 receptions, 863 yards, 8 TDs) and Quincy Enunwa (42 rec, 470 yds, TD). The head coach also talked up his offensive line, which will once again pave the way for I-back Ameer Abdullah (1,137 yards, 5.0 ypc).
"I think we have the opportunity to have probably the best offensive line on paper, potentially, that we've had since I've been here," he said. "Not only the starters but some of the backups and the depth that we have really across the board."
DEFENSE: Nebraska was strong defensively throughout much of the season, although the team gave up a staggering average of 53.5 points in its four losses. Now, the Cornhuskers must replace eight of their top 10 tacklers from that unit, but Pelini is confident the unit can correct the mistakes that led to some of last year's scoring barrages.
"It's nothing magical. It's about getting better. It's about tackling better, executing better," Pelini said. "It's not a scheme thing. At the end of the day you have to execute.
"We've studied it. We've addressed it. Going to continue to work and we need to be better, more consistent than we were last year."
Consistency will be a challenge with such an inexperienced front-seven. Gone are top pass rusher Eric Martin (16.5 TFL) and top cover guy Daimion Stafford (4 INT). In their place step defensive end Jason Ankrah (nine starts) and defensive back Ciante Evans (12 starts).
SPECIAL TEAMS: Nebraska must overhaul its special teams with the loss of kicker/punter Brett Maher. Junior Mauro Bondi will get first crack at both jobs, while some combination of Bell, Abdullah, and Jamal Turner will handle returns duties.
OUTLOOK: Nebraska's reputation over the years as a staunch defensive team is one that is certainly well earned. However, Big Ten opponents such as Ohio State and Wisconsin exposed some warts against last year's squad, and the Huskers are even thinner this year in terms of experience.
That's not always a bad thing, but Nebraska will no doubt enter the 2013 season with several question marks on defense.
One positive from a scheduling standpoint is that opponents OSU and Wisconsin are replaced by Illinois and Purdue. Ultimately, the Huskers will go as far as Martinez and the offense can take them. It's not a lock by any means, but another title game appearance is certainly a possibility.