2000 Record: 10-2 (6-2).
Coach: Frank Solich (4th year, 31-7)
Starters returning: 4 offense, 8 defense, kicker.
Outlook: Nebraska lost its running backs, receivers and the entire right side of its offensive line from a year ago. Yet many expect the Huskers to finish atop the Big 12.
The reason? Eric Crouch.
The senior, on pace to become Nebraska's all-time offensive leader by game No. 2, got the brunt of the headlines -- and headaches -- last year. Crouch can't afford to be Nebraska's only offensive crutch this year. After January surgery to repair a painful tear in his right shoulder, Crouch needs to pass better than his awful 48 percent completion rate of a year ago. And he needs help. Tight end Tracey Wistrom returns but Nebraska's wingback has just 12 career catches and its leading receiver has just one. The Huskers need a corner-turning, cornerback-smashing I-back to take the heat off Crouch. And they need talented fullback Judd Davies, who had back surgery, to stay healthy.
The defense, which finished a woeful sixth in the league last year, should be better. The linebacking corps will sorely miss headhunter Carlos
Polk, who graduated, and speedy Randy Stella, who was kicked off the team in
August for "violating team rules." Overachievers Scott Shanle and Mark Vedral
will be solid substitutes but they don't have the playmaking ability of Polk
or Stella. But Keyuo Craver will lead a decent defensive backfield that returns three starters. And a mediocre defensive front could be bolstered by redshirt freshman tackle Manaia Brown.
Keep an eye on: Dahrran Diedrick. Crouch said the junior from Ontario reminds him of Ahman Green, the current Green Bay Packer who started for Nebraska's last national championship team. But Diedrick, who had a mediocre spring, must prove that he has the durability and explosive ability of Green.
Key game: The Oklahoma game Oct. 27 is Nebraska's biggest, of course, but the Huskers' face a potential stumbling block at Colorado in the last week of the season. NU has beaten Colorado by a combined 15 points in the past five years and the Buffs will be bent on avenging their last year's last-second loss.
It's a good year if... Nebraska makes it to Texas Stadium for the Big 12 Championship. With a strong home schedule and a relatively weak division, the Huskers should represent the north in Dallas. But a national title is a longshot, even for the mighty Big Red.
Todd Cooper is a staff writer for the Omaha World-Herald.