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Posted: Thursday September 25, 2008 3:35PM; Updated: Thursday September 25, 2008 6:43PM
Stewart Mandel Stewart Mandel >
INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

When will Nebraska regain its national relevance?

Story Highlights
  • Can anyone outside of the Big 12 name one of the Huskers' players?
  • Nebraska hosts Virginia Tech Saturday night on ABC, but will the nation tune in?
  • Bo Pelini looks to return Nebraska to the physical program it was in the past
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Bo Pelini
Unlike his predecessor, Bill Callahan, Bo Pelini shares a lot in common with legendary Huskers coach Tom Osborne.
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That the Nebraska Cornhuskers are 3-0 is hardly earth-shattering news. They've done so against the likes of Western Michigan, San Jose State and New Mexico State.

What's unusual is that the 'Huskers have done so in almost total obscurity.

Has anyone outside the state of Nebraska even seen a highlight from one of those games? Can anyone outside of the Big 12 name one of the Huskers' players?

On Saturday night, Nebraska hosts 3-1 Virginia Tech in a game that will be televised regionally by ABC. It will be the first opportunity for most to see the Bo Pelini-led Huskers. But does the rest of the country care?

With neither team ranked -- and with a much bigger clash between Georgia and Alabama on at the same time on another network -- this Huskers game may draw little more attention than the three before it did.

How strange to be saying that about Nebraska.

Normally, the arrival of a new coach at a storied program would elicit substantial curiosity, but Pelini's first season in Lincoln has not drawn nearly the same interest as Rich Rodriguez's at Michigan or Rick Neuheisel's at UCLA. Even in the Big 12 -- the league Nebraska once dominated -- the Huskers' dawn of a new era is a footnote to Oklahoma's national-title quest, Chase Daniel's Heisman pursuit and Mike Leach's one-liners.

Will Nebraska football ever regain its national relevance?

"We need to get back in the spotlight," Pelini said this week. "It hasn't been that long ago that Nebraska was playing good football in the early 2000s. The name still carries a lot of weight."

He says that, but the early 2000s might as well have been the early 1900s in the minds of the 16- and 17-year-old recruits who Pelini and his staff are attempting to lure to Lincoln. Unless those recruits grew up in Nebraska, Tommie Frazier and Eric Crouch are little more than names in a media guide to them.

It's been seven years since the Huskers' last appearance in a BCS bowl game, which would not seem like much for about 90 other programs. But consider that from 1981 to 2001, the Huskers played in the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta or Rose bowls 16 times. They won three national championships in a four-year span (1994, '95 and '97).

The past six seasons have been another story entirely: One New Year's bowl berth (the 2007 Cotton Bowl) and a pedestrian .579 winning percentage, capped off by a 5-7 debacle in coach Bill Callahan's final season last year.

"You almost look at teams that have been so consistent, like USC and Ohio State, with a jealous and envious eye," said former Nebraska All-America Trev Alberts, now a college football analyst for CBS College Sports. "That used to be us."

Nearly every traditional powerhouse -- from USC to Alabama to Oklahoma to Texas -- has gone through a down period in recent history, and nearly all returned to national prominence. With a strong brand name and the right coach, it's almost bound to happen.

With Nebraska, however, there are no such guarantees. The school faces a unique set of challenges, none more so than its location in a small state (population: 1.7 million) with a small backyard talent pool. "You have to recruit fairly nationally here," said Pelini -- no easy feat.

"Kids want more bells and whistles recruiting-wise than ever before," says Rivals.com recruiting analyst Mike Farrell. "They want to go to a glamour place. That's why USC has six All-American running backs."

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