The Cornhuskers (10-4) appeared on the verge of a breakthrough, ending the regular season with six straight victories to win the Big Ten Legends Division. But the embarrassing 39-point loss to Wisconsin in the conference championship game and the 45-31 Capital One Bowl loss to Georgia raised questions about whether Pelini can return the program to the elite status it enjoyed more than a decade ago.
Pelini has lost four games in each of his five seasons, and his reputation as a defensive guru has taken a hit with the Huskers allowing an average of 53 points and 595 yards in this season's losses.
Still, Pelini said he saw enough positives against Southeastern Conference runner-up Georgia to be optimistic about 2013, when Nebraska's schedule gets considerably softer. The No. 23 Huskers led the sixth-ranked Bulldogs 24-23 at halftime after wiping out an early 9-0 deficit, and they were up 31-23 midway through the third quarter before Ameer Abdullah's fumble at the Georgia 38 turned the momentum.
"There's no question we can play with any team in the country," Pelini said. "We want to make that next jump. We want to win them all. We want to compete for a national championship. I don't think we're far away. We'll be a better football team next year. I believe that."
Pelini offered variations of the same message after the Huskers finished 2011 with three losses in five games and 2010 with losses in three of four.
The Huskers figure to be loaded on offense next season. They'll have back 17 of the top 22 players from a unit that averaged 35 points and 461 yards a game. Taylor Martinez will be a fourth-year starter at quarterback and, with Abdullah, will give the Huskers a pair of 1,000-yard rushers. Kenny Bell is among five returning receivers who caught at least 10 passes.
Four starters are back on an offensive line that paved the way for 200 or more yards of rushing in all but two games. But the line allowed five sacks against Georgia and 35 for the season to rank 106th nationally.
Turnovers were the Huskers' biggest problem. Their 22 lost fumbles are most in the country, and no one in the Big Ten threw more than Martinez's 12 interceptions. Martinez completed 62 percent of his passes — up from 56 last season — for 2,871 yards and 23 touchdowns. He also led the Huskers back from big second-half deficits in four Big Ten wins.
But he still tends to force throws under pressure; eight of his 12 interceptions came when the Huskers were trailing.
The biggest personnel loss is Rex Burkhead, who was limited to eight games because of a knee injury. Burkhead, who ran for a season-high 140 yards against Georgia, ended his career fifth on Nebraska's all-time rushing chart with 3,329 yards.
Defensive improvement is crucial if the Huskers are going to make a run at their first conference championship of any kind since 1999.
The Huskers allowed an average of 16 points in home games but 39 on the road. Opponents with winning records scored 34 a game.
Nebraska is 93rd nationally against the run and dropped from first to fifth in pass defense after allowing Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray to throw for 427 yards and five touchdowns. Georgia's 591 total yards were the most Nebraska has allowed in a bowl game, and the 45 points tied for most against Nebraska in a bowl.
Defensive backs coach Terry Joseph, whose roots are in the SEC, said the bowl was further evidence of how far the Huskers have to go to return to prominence.
"When you play against a team like them, and play to win at a real high level, you've got to have depth, and you have to have some guys who can finish," Joseph said. "When you're going against great players, your margin for error is not that big. You get exposed when you're not perfect. And we were not perfect."
The Huskers will go young on defense in 2013 with the departure of eight seniors.
The front four returns Thad Randle, Chase Rome and Jason Ankrah. Aaron Curry and Avery Moss, both of whom saw limited action as freshmen, will be back in the mix on the defensive line. Vincent Valentine, who redshirted after an impressive preseason camp, also will be a factor.
The Huskers have experienced players returning at the cornerback spots but will break in new safeties.
The schedule sets up favorably for Pelini. The Huskers open with five straight home games. On the Big Ten schedule, games against Wisconsin and Ohio State drop off and are replaced by Purdue and Illinois. The toughest road games figure to be Michigan and Penn State.
If the defense improves, Nebraska will be poised to re-emerge on the national scene.
Pelini is counting on it.
"I think we're going to be a force to be reckoned with," he said.