Can Nebraska win the inaugural Big Ten championship game in its first season as a member of the storied football conference?
Taylor Martinez is setting his goals beyond that.
"I think as a team right now we're not really striving for a Big Ten championship, we're striving for a national championship," Martinez said. "If we accomplish the national championship, everything else will fall into place."
That's a bold statement coming from a sophomore quarterback who endured a bumpy end to his freshman season after a promising start. A severe mid-season ankle injury and subsequent toe injury had a great deal to do with his struggles, but Martinez's leadership and maturity also came into question as Nebraska lost three of its final four games after a 9-1 start.
The last of those losses was in the Holiday Bowl to Washington -- a team NU had defeated 56-21 earlier in the season on the road.
Nebraska has been letting that game fester over the last nine months. The Huskers can finally start anew Saturday, when they open the season with a home game against Tennessee-Chattanooga, an FCS foe.
"I'm very anxious, and I think our team is very anxious, just because of what happened against Washington in the very last game," Martinez said of the 19-7 loss.
Fans are anxious, too -- mostly to see if Martinez is fully recovered, and if the new, hurry-up offense is the answer to Nebraska's problems on that side of the ball in the last two years.
Coach Bo Pelini said Martinez is "light years" ahead of where he was last year at this time. He added that he has full confidence in Martinez's ability to run first-year offensive coordinator Tim Beck's offense.
"I think we'll be a lot more balanced, (rather) than just me trying to run the ball and Rex (Burkhead) running the ball," Martinez said. "I think I'll probably throw the ball a lot more than what I did last year.
"And I think you'll see maybe a different me out there because I think the offense is going to be different. You'll see that on Saturday."
--OT Tyler Moore could become the first true freshman to start a season opener on the offensive line in Nebraska's history. The offensive line has been riddled by various injuries throughout fall camp, prompting Moore, who arrived on campus in January, to see significant practice snaps. He could be joined by a redshirted freshman (Jake Cotton) and a sophomore (Andrew Rodriguez) in the OL starting lineup.
--LB Lavonte David returns for his senior season after setting a school record last season with 152 tackles. Only now, coaches and teammates say David knows what he's doing. As a junior college transfer last season, David relied mostly on instinct. "This year, he's very confident with his reads, quicker. It just makes him look even faster to us," defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said. "He just gets it. He gets it a lot better than he did at this point a year ago."
--Nebraska enters Saturday's game with the nation's longest winning streak in season openers. The Huskers have won 25 straight season openers, dating to a 1985 home loss to Florida State. Florida has the second-longest such streak at 21.
SERIES HISTORY: First meeting.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Defensive tackle Jared Crick said he's seen great improvement throughout fall camp from a re-vamped offense -- an offense that's going with a no-huddle, spread, hurry-up look under first-year coordinator Tim Beck. "But they've got to execute on Saturday," said Crick, a senior and three-year starter. "They can be as good as they want Monday through Friday, but if they can't execute on Saturday, it's kind of all for nothing." That's worth noting, because last season, Nebraska led the nation in fumbles and set a school record -for the second straight year -- in penalties. QB Taylor Martinez and RB Rex Burkhead return, but the offensive line is the No. 1 question mark on the team, with an unproven receiving corps a close second. "They've got talent across the board," Crick said of the offense. "Their schemes are great, Coach Beck's a great offensive coordinator. If they can go out and execute, the sky's the limit for those guys."
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: In 28 games over the past two seasons, the Nebraska defense has allowed 13.8 points per game -- the fourth-best scoring average in the nation during that span. As for this year's defense? "We can be a lot better than the last two years," Crick said. "We have a lot more depth and a lot more experience. That's going to pay dividends." Nebraska is deepest along the defensive line, where Carl Pelini said he can rotate and insert defensive ends throughout the game to specifically match the down-and-distance situation. It's a luxury many coordinators can only dream of. It's the same in the secondary, where NU has been stockpiling players in recent years to combat the spread offenses of the Big 12. Now that NU is beginning its first Big Ten season, though, there's a bigger premium on linebackers -- a spot where Nebraska is talented at three spots, but sorely lacking depth.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've been waiting for this for a long time, just to get out there and hit somebody. It's time to get out there and play some games and hit somebody else, get this bad taste out of our mouth." -- defensive tackle Jared Crick.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Tennessee-Chattanooga at Nebraska, Sept. 3 -- Maybe playing UT-Chattanooga will be good luck for Nebraska? In the last three seasons, the Mocs have played Oklahoma, Alabama and Auburn in years those teams advanced to the BCS title game. They've also faced Heisman Trophy-winning players in each of those games.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Remember South Dakota State. The Huskers struggled against that FCS foe last year, winning 17-3 at home. Of course, Nebraska figures to come out with ample energy for a season opener and should overwhelm UT-Chattanooga. The biggest key for NU will be fine-tuning the new hurry-up offense.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Taylor Martinez -- Every player and coach will swear that Martinez has matured and is a better leader. That might not be truly evident until Big Ten play. Until then, is Martinez back to full strength physically? Can he effectively operate new offensive coordinator Tim Beck's no-huddle offense?
LB Sean Fisher -- The junior missed all of last season after breaking his ankle in fall camp, and was still showing ill effects of that injury in spring practices. No more, says defensive coordinator Carl Pelini. "You don't see him limping at all," Pelini said. Fisher's return is key, as Nebraska will need more linebackers with its move to the Big Ten.
WR Jamal Turner -- He dazzled in the Spring Game, although coaches have hinted the true freshman has gotten more bogged down in fall camp as more was piled on his plate. Still, he's got the potential to be an exciting playmaker, both at wide receiver and returning punts and kicks.
--QB Tyson Broekemeier suffered an ACL tear in fall camp and will miss the season. Bo Pelini said Broekemeier, a walk-on freshman, would've redshirted, anyway. Two walk-ons have been moved to quarterback to fill Broekemeier's scout team role.
--CB Anthony Blue, whose career was marred by knee injuries, is ending his playing career. He's remaining a part of the program, however.