As usual, there is no room for error at Nebraska.
Coming off a 12-1 season, the Cornhuskers look mighty enough to win 'em all this time around and play for another national championship in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3.
"We had a great year last year, and we expect a lot out of ourselves," said Eric Crouch, the quarterback who puts the hustle in the Huskers' offense. "We have more leadership this year, and everybody is on the same page."
In coach Frank Solich's third season since replacing Tom Osborne, Nebraska starts out No. 1 in The Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll. Defending champion Florida State is No. 2.
With nine starters back on offense, a solid defense anchored by linebacker Carlos Polk and a topnotch kicking game, beating the Huskers will take a Herculean effort.
The schedule will help. Rough spots come at the end with games at Kansas State on Nov. 11 and home against Colorado on Nov. 24. There's Notre Dame on Sept. 9, but the Irish don't look ready to challenge the Huskers, who should be 9-0 by the time they arrive in Manhattan, Kan.
Crouch is bigger, stronger and much more confident. A year ago, he was the backup to Bobby Newcombe, but took over in the third game after Newcombe was moved to wingback.
"As soon as we made the switch, we knew right away it was best for the team," Crouch said, referring to a season in which he became the first quarterback since 1955 to lead the Huskers in rushing, gaining 889 yards. "Then it was just like, let's go out and win games and a national championship."
Only a 24-20 loss to Texas midway through the season prevented Nebraska from reaching a title game against Florida State in the 2000 Sugar Bowl.
The 6-foot-1 Crouch added 10 pounds and will play at about 205, and his right arm is stronger after offseason shoulder surgery. He threw for 1,269 yards and seven touchdowns, and led the nation's quarterbacks with 16 rushing TDs.
He better stay healthy. Crouch's backup is redshirt freshman Jammal Lord, who injured a knee ligament in spring practice.
As usual, the backfield is loaded. Dan Alexander, Correll Buckhalter and Dahrran Diedrick return. And there are great expectations for junior college transfer Thunder Collins, who had 1,548 yards and 23 TDs in 1998 at East Los Angeles JC, but did not play last season.
Whoever can hold onto the football will get the most playing time. The Huskers fumbled a school-record 49 times and lost a school-record-tying 25 of them in last season.
"To go through the year doing that says a lot about our special teams and how our offense developed throughout the season," Solich said. "At the end, I felt comfortable handing the ball off."
Center Dominic Railoa and guard Russ Hochstein are the top guns on the offensive line, while wide receiver Matt Davison, tight end Tracey Wistrom and the always-dangerous Newcombe return to snare Crouch's passes.
Defensively, rebuilding is needed, especially in the secondary with the departure of the Browns Mike and Ralph. And, longtime coordinator Charlie McBride retired; he was replaced by linebackers coach Craig Bohl.
Cornerback Keyuo Craver is back, and Erwin Swiney returns after missing last season as a medical redshirt. Dion Booker, who became a starter the last five games of the 1999 season, is the free safety, ad Joe Walker is back at rover and will return punts.
Polk, 6-2, and 250 pounds, is among the top linebackers in the country, and will carry the load for the Huskers' least experienced defensive unit.
Along the line, tackle Loran Kaiser and end Kyle Vanden Bosch return after strong seasons. Sophomore end Demoine Adams is a rising star on a defense that annually ranks among the stingiest in the nation.
Punter Dan Hadenfeldt, granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, returns after averaging a school-record 44.98 yards per kick. Josh Brown made 14 of 20 field goals in his first season.
"What I want our football team to do is what I want every year, to be as good as can be," Solich said. "Where that takes us, we'll see."
In the 1990s, the Huskers won national titles in '94 and '95 and were co-champions with Michigan in '97.
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