The Times' Chris Dufresne unveils his preseason college football top 25, one day (and team) at a time:
No. 20 Nebraska
Bo Pelini, entering Year 2 on the gigantic job, has already transformed the Cornhuskers' famed "Blackshirts" defense into a premier outfit.
OK . . . premier for the Big 12 Conference.
Nebraska's national total defense ranking of 55th in 2008 isn't going to make anyone hold a nickname contest, but it ranked second in the league behind Texas at No. 51.
Look at it this way: Every other Big 12 team registered between yellow and orange on USA Today's color-coded weather map: Kansas State (117, Death Valley), Texas A&M; (114, Needles), Iowa State (112, Desert Hot Springs), Missouri (98), Oklahoma State (93), Kansas (89), Baylor (85), Colorado (78), Texas Tech (79) and Oklahoma (68).
There's a debate raging as to whether porous defense in the Big 12 is a byproduct of prolific offense. The conference, after all, boasted five of the country's top 10 offenses last season.
The only clue we had in the end last season was Oklahoma, which averaged 50 points a game, scoring 14 against Florida in the BCS title game -- but maybe that was just a blip.
One thing was certain in Lincoln, Neb.: The gushing on defense had to stop. Players and citizens alike take great pride in "blackshirt" tradition, which dates to the early 1960s and involves deserving defensive starters pulling dark-colored practice jerseys over their pads.
Trust me, it's special.
Pride took a hit in late 2001, when undefeated Nebraska yielded 62 points to Colorado in Boulder and reached the nadir in 2007, at the end of the Bill Callahan era, when the Cornhuskers gave up 76 points (whoa) at Kansas and 65 (yikes) at Colorado.
Pelini, a former Cornhuskers assistant, was almost airlifted in from Baton Rouge, where he had coordinated Louisiana State's defense to the 2007 national title.
Nebraska improved from 5-7 in 2007, with a horrific No. 112 total defense ranking, to 9-4 last year and victory against Clemson in the Gator Bowl.
No wonder Cornhuskers fans are excited. Nebraska's defense this season is built around 300-pound nose tackle Ndamukong Suh, a.k.a. the Human Silo.
Pelini, typical coach, warns that Nebraska's blackshirts are not back yet.
"We're not in the same galaxy of where I want to be on defense," he says.
That said, the first defensive coach in the Big 12 who can slow down a Big 12 offense may be onto something.
Offense could be an issue early for the Cornhuskers, with Zac Lee replacing Joe Ganz at quarterback, but working out kinks should be easier with five of the first seven games at home. Nebraska also misses Texas this year and gets Oklahoma in Lincoln.
More than a decade after Tom Osborne retired with his third national title, and the ugly in between involving replacements Frank Solich and Callahan, Nebraska seems a serious threat to reclaim the Big 12 North.
"We won't be satisfied until we win them all, until we're playing for a national championship," Pelini says.
Now that's the kind of Lincoln talk they like to hear.