USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.

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Dozens of programs across the Football Bowl Subdivision have lost at least four games in each of the past six seasons. Three have won at least nine games in each of the last six seasons.

Only Nebraska fits in both categories, a fact that illuminates the program's endless ebb and flow between highs, lows, frustrations and successes under Bo Pelini, who enters the seventh season of his tenure as the face of the Cornhuskers' battle between optimism and near-constant negativity.

On one hand, Pelini is one of eight major-conference coaches in college football history to win at least nine games in each of his first six years. Of those eight coaches, only one, Pelini, took over a program coming off a losing season. Three first-time coaches have opened with six consecutive nine-win seasons: Pelini, Osborne, Switzer.

Yet he is 8-14 against ranked teams, 2-8 against top-10 teams and 0-3 in conference championship games, the last in humbling, humiliating fashion. Only one Pelini-coached team, in 2009, finished inside the top 19 of the final Amway Coaches Poll.

The offense can be explosive and the defense stifling, if rarely at the same time. Nebraska's defense in 2009 was an all-timer; the offense was a head-scratcher. The offense in 2012 scored 487 points, the program's most since 2000; the defense allowed 386 points, the second-most in school history.

There was a time, if you recall, that Nebraska won games before stepping off the bus; now, it seems, the Cornhuskers often lose before kickoff. It's time for change: Nebraska must grow – and the staff must develop – before this window slams shut.

There are clear signs of progress. One is found in the Cornhuskers' revitalized recruiting efforts: Pelini and the staff, with an assist from athletics director Shawn Eichorst, have made a profound effort to place recruiting on the front burner, clearly learning from past missteps.

Another is found in the growth of a defense three years in the making. Last year's group took time to recharge amid personnel losses, injuries and general attrition, but ended the season ranked second in yards allowed per play during Big Ten play.

A third can be seen in the trove of young talent buttressed by hardened veterans, of Tommy Armstrong handing off to Ameer Abdullah, of Maliek Collins playing alongside Randy Gregory, of Jordan Westerkamp running routes in concert with Kenny Bell.

Then there's Pelini himself, who has embraced – either with or without urging, though it seems like the latter – a happier-go-luckier public image, rebranding himself not as a red-faced screamer but a red-faced jokester to decidedly positive results. So perhaps an old dog can learn new tricks – not just Pelini, but Nebraska itself.

LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:

The issue is this defense – specifically, the new look at linebacker and the interior of the front four. Whether players like Gregory, Valentine, Curry, Santos and Anderson produce to their capabilities will decide NU's season, whether the year ends in Pasadena or the Capital One Bowl. And so push meets shove: Nebraska must solve this defensive conundrum to reach its full potential. What are the odds? Solid, though not great.

2013 RECAP:

In a nutshell: No regular-season wins of national consequence and four more losses, each seemingly more painful than the last: UCLA, which snowballed into an embarrassment in the second half; Minnesota, which shouldn't happen; Michigan State, when the offense turned the ball over with mind-numbing abandon; and Iowa, when the entire program seemed to check itself into an insane asylum. That the Cornhuskers rebounded to knock off Georgia in the Gator Bowl served to continue the nine-win streak, partially temper any late-season gloom and create some confidence heading into the postseason. But the game that should linger – for reasons good or bad – is Iowa, which forced this program and coaching staff to take a long look into the mirror: Nebraska seems more solid today as a result of the mindset shift caused by a rock-bottom afternoon.

High point: Georgia. This was Nebraska's first bowl win since 2009.

Low point: The Iowa game was as bad an afternoon Nebraska has had in its post-Osborne existence.

Tidbit: The Cornhuskers have won at least nine games in every season since 1962 but six: 1967-68, 2002, 2004-5 and 2007. Just as a comparison, let's hold the rest of college football's historical elite to the same standard. Alabama has 32 nine-win seasons, if you include 1993, over that same span; Georgia has 24; LSU 22; Michigan 30; Notre Dame 23; Ohio State 32, if we count the wins vacated in 2010; Oklahoma 29; Penn State 30, if you count each season since vacated by the NCAA; USC 25, if you include 2005; Tennessee 23; and Texas 29. Over the past 52 years, NU's six West Division brethren – Iowa, Illinois, Purdue, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Northwestern – have combined for 39 nine-win seasons; the Cornhuskers have 47 alone.

Tidbit (close edition): Nebraska has won nine games in a row decided by a single-digit margin. This dates to a 36-30 loss at UCLA on Sept. 8, 2012.

ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:

American League outfields, 2000

1. Anaheim Angels
2. Cleveland Indians
3. New York Yankees
4. Kansas City Royals
5. Chicago White Sox

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Offense: If healthy, Ameer Abdullah (1,690 yards) will end his career as the first Nebraska running back with three 1,000-yard seasons – and that's pretty much all that needs to be said, if you're familiar with Nebraska's productive tradition in the backfield. He's more than just the numbers: Abdullah is one of the finest pure runners in college football, combining not just the surprising power needed to churn out yards between the tackles but also the speed to hit the corner and fly, with the vision to make the sort of next-level cuts worthy of a Heisman Trophy contender. He's not going to win the Heisman, sadly; running backs rarely win the Heisman, for one, and I'm not sure if Nebraska will reach the heights needed to vault into the national conversation. But Abdullah will lead this offense like the star he is, at least matching if not exceeding last year's totals and ending his career as one of the finest skill players in program history.

Abdullah, as well as very solid depth, makes this the strongest backfield in the Big Ten. While redshirt freshman Adam Taylor will miss an indeterminate amount of time with an ankle injury, that shouldn't have a deep impact on the rotation: Abdullah will lead, junior Imani Cross (447 yards) will be the top reserve and sophomore Terrell Newby (298 yards) a solid change-of-pace reserve – and I think offensive coordinator Tim Beck and running backs coach Ron Brown should do more to get Newby involved. In essence, Taylor's injury – and he might return at some point – presents true freshman Mikale Wilbon the opportunity to earn touches as the Cornhuskers' fourth back.

Personnel losses paint Nebraska's offensive front as a concern, though I can give three reasons why the situation's better than advertised: one, it's mostly juniors and seniors on the two-deep; two, last year's injuries gave this year's starting cast valuable experience; and three, Nebraska is strong on the left side of the line, which will help protect the team's young starting quarterbacks. The weak side will feature former Colorado transfer Alex Lewis at left tackle, and he'll provide a mean streak, and senior Jake Cotton – another feisty option – at left guard. Former walk-on Mark Pelini has grabbed hole of the starting job at center, moving ahead of Ryne Reeves, among others.

The strong side of the line feels the most unsettled, which is partially be design: Nebraska might end up using four or five options at right guard and tackle throughout the year, relying on Mike Moudy, Zach Sterup, Matt Finin and a few others to handle the load. The staff is very high on redshirt freshman David Knevel, a Canadian with the frame and athleticism to develop into an all-conference tackle. In general, and even if the starting quintet needs to find a rhythm, this might be the deepest line of Pelini's tenure.

There are a few too many uncertain quantities to make me feel totally comfortable about the health of Nebraska's receiver corps. First things first: Kenny Bell (52 receptions for 577 yards) needs to rediscover the production that made him one of the Big Ten's best receivers heading into last season. An all-conference season from the senior would give the Cornhuskers time to develop the younger core of Jordan Westerkamp (20 for 283), Sam Burtch, Alonzo Moore, Brandon Reilly and Taariq Allen; there's potential here, particularly with Westerkamp, but this entire group needs to play second fiddle in 2014. Though he's always been nothing but promising, it's very hard to predict what – if anything of consequence – Jamal Turner will bring to the table as a senior. There's some great talent at tight end – sophomore Cethan Carter is a keeper – but all of the youthful variety, which makes sense: Outside of Bell, the Cornhuskers' passing game is banking entirely on potential. Nevertheless, if on or ahead of schedule, there's enough athleticism for this group to do a nice job.

Defense: It was a story of in-season improvement: Nebraska allowed 463.75 yards per game and 6.55 yards per play in September – both totals last in the Big Ten – but just 318.5 yards per game and 4.55 yards per play for the remainder of the regular season, painting a young, in-flux group as one poised to rank among the league's best in 2014. Nowhere is this growth more evident than along the defensive line, which is led by an All-American – Randy Gregory, who is simply superb – but perhaps defined by a younger, potential-full supporting cast. After some painful misses on the recruiting trail, Nebraska has accumulated the talent and tackle depth to shine across the board, harassing quarterbacks on the edges and controlling the point of attack from tackle to tackle. Ohio State's line is the best in this conference; Nebraska's, if not as star-studded, may end up being the Big Ten's most pleasant surprise.

Gregory sets the tone. He's bigger, which will help the soon-to-be-drafted junior do more at the point of attack – essentially making Gregory (66 tackles, 10.5 sacks) more of a three-down end, benefiting his stock. That shouldn't have an adverse effect on his primary impact: Gregory is one of the nation's best edge rushers, as evidenced by the numbers, and could be even more productive with added lower-body strength. Beyond the statistical output, Gregory's attention-grabbing style will make things easier for the Cornhuskers' best defensive front since 2009: Gregory and Greg McMullen control the outside, with McMullen a run-anchoring junior, with junior Vincent Valentine and sophomore Maliek Collins inside – and you only have to dial a random Nebraska area code before someone picks up to tell you how special Collins is going to be.

In terms of a starting foursome, the Cornhuskers have to feel very, very secure. Depth might be an issue, however, particularly with Aaron Curry's decision to transfer. That move robs Nebraska of its first tackle off the bench, though Kevin Maurice and Kevin WIlliams remain in the fold; it also limits the chance that the Cornhuskers could create an alignment with Collins pushed outside, because Curry would have slid into his spot at tackle. Depth is a bigger issue at end, where Nebraska shouldn't feel overly comfortable in the combination of JUCO transfer Joe Keels, former walk-on Jack Gangwish and a slew of true and redshirt freshmen.

Injuries have been an issue along the back seven. One potential starter, Michael Rose-Ivey, will miss the coming season with a knee injury; even if he didn't earn the starting nod, Rose-Ivey was going to play significant snaps at middle linebacker. His injury forces sophomore Josh Banderas into the starting role he held for fits and spurts last season, placing the second-year contributor under a spotlight as one of the leaders of the entire defense. Nebraska might want to get more experience into the mix on the strong side, which would give Trevor Roach the top spot, but look for Roach and David Santos (87 tackles, 7.0 for loss) to be fairly interchangeable.

The only sure thing – in terms of a locked-in starting job – is senior Zaire Anderson (52 tackles), a former JUCO transfer who seems fully removed from an earlier knee injury; he's had a great offseason. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Marcus Newby, who might not be ready to grasp the intricacies of Pelini's defense but could be a major weapon with his hand on the ground on passing downs. In general, this second level is going to benefit immensely from the play of the front four.

The secondary, meanwhile, deals with two losses: Charles Jackson, the starting nickel back, and LeRoy Alexander, the starting free safety. Jackson will be replaced by JUCO transfer Byerson Cockrell, who has taken well to the defense, while sophomore Nathan Gerry (32 tackles) seems like the logical choice to join senior Corey Cooper (91 tackles), an all-conference contender, along the back end. With senior Josh Mitchell (31 tackles) back at one cornerback spot, the Cornhuskers can spend the final weeks of August focusing on the other side, eyeballing junior Daniel Davie and former Auburn transfer Johnathan Rose in particular. Where losing the projected starting pair hurts this secondary is in overall depth: Nebraska will call on a number of true and redshirt freshmen in the two-deep and specific packages, so watch out for Chris Jones, Josh Kalu, Kieron Williams and Trai Mosley. Remember one thing: Nebraska's had issues under Pelini, admittedly, but pass defense has always been a strength.

RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM 64-1

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Special teams: The competition is still undecided, but I'd be surprised if true freshman Drew Brown – of the Brown family of specialists – isn't Nebraska's starting kicker. The Cornhuskers' other option, junior Mauro Bondi, remains a very strong performer on kickoffs. But Nebraska's biggest issue has never been kicking; the program churns out all-conference kickers and punters on a regular basis. The issue is the return game, which is average on kickoffs and simply nonexistent on punts – and this isn't a one-year blip but a true trend. That presents a scenario where true freshman Demornay Pierson-El contributes as a rookie.

POSITION(S) TO WATCH:

Quarterback: The job belongs to sophomore Tommy Armstrong, if somewhat tenuously. He's the best option: Armstrong lost just once as Nebraska's starter last fall, if helped by former backup Ron Kellogg, and brings into his second season the confidence, experience and know-how that comes with a run through Big Ten play. But he's flawed at this point, with a still-developing grasp of the college game, an uncertain ability to move the ball effectively through the air and the typical bouts with turnovers inherent to a young starter. What this means, boiled down: Armstrong has earned the nod but he'll have to deliver to keep the job. What I think he has – and this doesn't always show up on the box score – is mental toughness, seen best in his flip-pass touchdown to Abdullah against Michigan and the 99-yard strike to help beat Georgia in the postseason.

That's a good starting point; overall passing acumen can be taught, in most cases, but you can't teach patience and poise under fire. For one more year, Nebraska won't ask Armstrong to win games but merely not to lose, knowing that a sturdy running game, careful passing attack and friendly system could yield more yards per attempt, fewer turnovers and more explosiveness from the entire offense. If he falters, Nebraska could turn to sophomore Ryker Fyfe, a former walk-on, or redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton. Let's just say this: Nebraska's in trouble if either earns a start – not because Fyfe and Stanton can't do a thing or two, but because it would mean the season may have already been lost.

GAME(S) TO WATCH:

Wisconsin: If Nebraska does lose at Michigan State on Oct. 4 – a somewhat safe bet – a loss to Wisconsin more than a month later will end the Cornhuskers' hopes of winning the West Division. The biggest games: Miami (Fla.) for national prestige, Michigan State for a shot at a potential playoff berth, Wisconsin to remain in the West race and Iowa for the division, for bragging rights and for revenge.

SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:

In a nutshell: In terms of the total package, this is the best team in the West Division and the third-best team in the Big Ten. But the total package – personnel, talent, experience, expectations – has never been Nebraska's issue; the issue has been parlaying the total package into total production, a quest that has eluded this program for a full-season span during the duration of Pelini's tenure. It's easy to buy in: Nebraska is the best team in the division. It's also easy to remember the recent past and be skeptical, questioning whether or not this specific team can avoid the mental missteps, the physical errors, the turnovers, the sloppiness and the general malaise that have long stymied Pelini and the Cornhuskers. Let's buy in, I say – but let's retain some of that skepticism, keeping it in reserve if or when everything runs off the rails.

The offense will be great if Armstrong delivers. I think he'll be put into successful scenarios, drawing on his basic athleticism and leadership skills while teaming the sophomore with a fantastic running game. The receiver corps might not have terrific numbers, but it could have a terrific impact; this could be a big-play passing game, basically, hitting deep when defenses creep up in response to Abdullah, Cross and the running game. I don't even question the offensive line, for the reasons listed above. Recent injuries have put a dent into the defense, but I think this side of the ball answers the call: Nebraska has its best defensive front in several years and some very impressive young talent littering the back seven. It's one of the top four units in the Big Ten.

It's all about taking care of business. Michigan State's a likely loss, even if Nebraska's offense did a better job than any in gashing the Spartans' defense a season ago. On paper, there's no reason why the Cornhuskers should lose to any other opponent on the schedule – they will, of course, but it's about minimizing the damage, avoiding bumps in the road and staying on track; Pelini-coached teams haven't done this yet, by and large, but perhaps this team will. If so, the Cornhuskers are going to win the division and notch double-digit wins during the regular season. The absolute baseline should be nine wins in advance of the postseason. Anything less would be unacceptable. Isn't Nebraska tired of the unacceptable?

Dream season: Nebraska goes 11-1, losing only to Michigan State, and reaches the Big Ten title game.

Nightmare season: The Cornhuskers go 7-5, losing to Miami (Fla.), Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa.

UP NEXT:

Who's No. 15? This team is 21-4 against conference competition during the past three seasons.

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