LINCOLN, Neb. (AP)
Nebraska is going into its first season in the Big Ten with a championship-or-bust mentality.
It's more desperation than bravado driving the 10th-ranked Cornhuskers, who haven't won a conference title since 1999 despite frequent statements from coach Bo Pelini that Nebraska is defined by championships.
So would anything less than a Rose Bowl trip be acceptable?
"I don't ever look at it being a success if you don't win a championship,'' Pelini said Monday. ''That's our goal from the beginning. Is that to say you can have a good year and not win a conference championship? That depends on who you talk to. In this program, we're about winning championships. If we don't, and if you talk to the guys in the locker room, they wouldn't feel it's a success."
Pelini came close in the last two Big 12 championship games, losing 13-12 to Texas in 2009 and 23-20 to Oklahoma in 2010.
"It makes you hungrier," he said.
The 43-year-old Pelini is entering his fourth season as a head coach, all at Nebraska, after successful stints as a defensive coordinator at Nebraska, Oklahoma and LSU. His name has been mentioned in a number of coaching searches, including Miami last year, and he's a regular on lists of the game's rising stars.
"No matter where he's been, he's had one of the top five defenses in the nation every year," receiver Tim Marlowe said. ''I don't think Bo needs a championship to certify himself up there with the great coaches in college football, but it definitely wouldn't hurt. He's really ready to win that championship, and we're ready to give it to him."
The Huskers open the season Saturday against Chattanooga, an FCS team. They continue tuning up for Big Ten play against Fresno State and Washington at home and then travel to Wyoming before starting the conference schedule Oct. 1 at No. 11 Wisconsin.
The undisputed key to Nebraska's season is sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez, who is coming back from ankle and toe injuries during the second half of last season.
Martinez was the Big 12 offensive newcomer of the year after rushing for 965 yards and 12 touchdowns and completing 59 percent of his passes for 1,631 yards and 10 TDs. He received Heisman Trophy mention before injuries limited him in November and December.
"If he goes down, you're not going to be as good, especially right off the bat,'' Pelini said. ''We have a very talented young man backing him up right now. Is he as prepared as Taylor? No. You have to be ready for contingencies.''
Ideally, redshirt freshman Brion Carnes would get eased into second-half playing time in non-conference games.
Martinez continues to play coy about his health. Asked Monday whether he's 100 percent, Martinez said, ''You'll see on Sept. 3."
Martinez said the team has higher goals than winning the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl trip that comes with it.
"We're not really striving for a Big Ten championship. We're striving for the national championship,'' he said. ''Going for the national championship, everything else will fall into place."
Pelini is confident his team will play championship-caliber defense. The Huskers have All-America candidates in lineman Jared Crick, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.
The question is whether the offense can avoid melting down the way it did the past two seasons. Pelini fired offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and promoted running backs coach Tim Beck to play-caller. Marlowe, a distant relative of Pelini's, said he can tell that the near misses the last two years have worn on the coach.
"The frustration is obvious," Marlowe said. "There's frustration for all of us, players and coaches alike. We're sick of it. We haven't had a conference title here since `99. It's 2011, and it's our time."
Chattanooga opened 5-2 last season but finished 6-5 for the second straight year, getting outscored 156-73 in its last three losses. The Mocs did manage to post back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in 20 years.
Wide receiver Joel Bradford, who had 1,284 yards and eight touchdowns last season, returns along with fellow senior B.J. Coleman, who threw for 2,996 yards, 26 TDs and 13 interceptions in 2010.
Chattanooga finished 80th in the FCS in total defense last year at 370.0 yards allowed per game. The Mocs gave up 31.2 points per contest.