By ERIC OLSON
AP College Football Writer
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - If all goes according to Nebraska offensive lineman Alex Lewis’ plan, he’ll be fitted for a championship ring at the end of the season.
Asked what a satisfying outcome to the first season under coach Mike Riley would be, Lewis didn’t hesitate Wednesday.
“Diamonds on my finger,” Lewis said. “That’s what I want. That’s why I came to Nebraska. I came here to win, and I came here to win big. That’s what’s on my mind, and that’s what’s on everybody else’s mind.”
The Cornhuskers will begin preseason practice Thursday under the 62-year-old Riley, who came from Oregon State and has never coached in the Big Ten. Nebraska is coming off a 9-4 season in which back-to-back November losses to Wisconsin and Minnesota knocked it out of the running for a spot in the Big Ten title game.
Tommy Armstrong is in line to be the third-year starter at quarterback, and De’Mornay Pierson-El could be one of the Big Ten’s biggest playmakers as a receiver and return man. But the Huskers, who allowed Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon to run for a FBS-record 408 yards on 25 carries, must improve on defense it they hope to make a run at winning the West Division and appearing in the conference title game in Indianapolis.
Linebacker Josh Banderas said the defense could be a quick fix for new coordinator Mark Banker. Banderas called Pelini’s defensive playbook ``an encyclopedia.’’ He said Banker’s system requires less thinking and more attacking.
Nebraska plays Wisconsin and Michigan State at home, and its most difficult Big Ten road game is at Minnesota.
“We set our goals no short of a Big Ten championship. Why not?” Banderas said. “We’ve played all these teams before. Even if the coaches haven’t played them before, we’ve played them, we know what we’re up against. We know how hard we have to work. I think as a team, we’re more on the same page than we ever have been before. We know where we want to go. There’s no reason in our minds why we can’t at least get to Indianapolis and put up a good fight and win the game.”
Conference championships once were the standard at Nebraska, but the program hasn’t won a title since 1999 in the Big 12. The 15-year drought is the longest since the Huskers went from 1941 to 1963 with no championships.
Typically, coaching changes are made when a program has sunk. But Nebraska won at least nine games each of the seven seasons under Bo Pelini, and the Huskers were in the Big Ten title game as recently as 2012, albeit a forgettable 39-point loss to Wisconsin.
High expectations are part of the culture at Nebraska, and defensive end Jack Gangwish said those don’t change going into a first season under a new coach.
“For me, the thought, ‘Don’t screw up, and let’s make sure we win enough games’ - that’s never really the case,” Gangwish said. “For coach Riley’s sake and the new staff’s sake, I hope we do really well. I know every guy wants to win a championship. Every guy here wants to win all of them.”