Bo Pelini regards season openers as benchmarks.
Openers tell coaches what needs to be fixed, and what doesn't.
"They don't tell you what you're going to be as a football team," the Nebraska coach said Monday.
However, "At least it gives you a starting point," he said.
I'm pretty foggy as to what Nebraska's end point will be this season. I can envision (gulp) a seven-win season as a worst-case scenario.
I also can envision the Huskers winning 11 games.
Such is the precarious nature of college football for teams not named Alabama and LSU.
The 44-year-old Pelini enters his fifth year in charge at NU. If his program shows the signs of maturity you would expect -- especially with a large senior class -- a Big Red wave will engulf Indianapolis on Dec. 1.
If Nebraska too often lapses into immaturity -- as was the case in the Capital One Bowl, for instance -- it could be a dreary winter in our state.
I have a good handle on what I think we should see from Pelini's program in Year Five.
I have a better handle on what we shouldn't see at this point in his tenure.
We shouldn't see wild mood swings.
We shouldn't see an excess of penalties and mental errors.
We shouldn't see Nebraska rank outside the top 50 in turnover margin, as has been the case in three of the past four seasons.
Hardly anything swings a mood in a game like a turnover.
Consistency is a hallmark of championship teams. So is intelligence. And discipline.
A wild mood swing? That's hammering Michigan State one week and losing to Northwestern the next. It's looking lethargic on offense during a crushing home loss to Texas and scoring 51 points the next week at Oklahoma State. It's winning in the pouring rain at nationally ranked Missouri and losing the next two games at home to middling outfits (Texas Tech and Iowa State).
If you bleed Nebraska red, you hope such craziness subsides, or flat-out vanishes. A team can be good despite its inconsistency. But good luck achieving greatness.
Meanwhile, the penalty issue seems largely ignored by media covering Nebraska. But cleaning up this area is paramount to NU taking the proverbial next step by winning a conference title for the first time since 1999.
The 1999 Huskers averaged 4.8 penalties per game for 47.2 yards. The 2011 Huskers were Pelini's least-penalized team, averaging 6.6 for 52.9 yards -- down from 7.8 and 70.1 in 2010.
In the span covering 2008-11, Nebraska ranks in the 100s nationally in penalties per game and penalty yards per game.
Granted, we've all seen great teams that were penalized frequently. But because Nebraska isn't laden with overwhelming talent, it needs to pay extra-close attention to details.
Fewer penalties would strongly indicate Pelini's program is maturing.
Bottom line, Pelini said, you can't achieve championship-level efficiency with too many penalties and turnovers.
"I thought we made strides at times in both those areas last year," he said. "But it has to be a constant point of emphasis for myself and this team.
"It goes a long way toward telling what kind of season you're going to have."
So does line play, on both sides of the ball. I've said it often of late: Watch the Nebraska linemen closely, for it is there you just might find the answer to whether the Huskers can regain the exalted status they enjoyed in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Nebraska offensive line coach Barney Cotton could use consistent excellence from his players to get fans off his back.
Pelini, though, strongly supports Cotton. Appreciates the job he's done since 2008.
"I like our offensive line," Pelini said. "Defensively, we've thrown a lot of looks at them (this month), and they've executed well. Even though we got nicked up at a couple positions early on in camp, I think we've started to build depth. We have options."
As for last season, "We ran the ball well," Pelini said. "I thought the offensive line performed pretty well. We had a couple injuries. We got thin at times, but overall, they performed very well."
Inconsistency has been a central issue in recent years for the offensive line and the program in general.
Let's face it, inconsistency often equals mediocrity, or at least prevents good teams from becoming great -- as Husker fans have come to understand all too well.