Nebraska isn't back just yet, but Pelini has Huskers on right track
After going 9-4 in 2008, many are picking Nebraska to win the Big 12 North
Second-year coach Bo Pelini is first to say Huskers are nowhere all the way back
By embracing tradition and defense-first approach, Nebraska back to its roots
It was the morning after, and Nebraska assistant coach Mike Ekeler wanted to gauge the players' mindset. He asked Cody Glenn what the linebacker had been thinking during the previous day's loss to Virginia Tech, how he'd felt when it was over, what lessons he could drawn for the future.
The player told the assistant coach about an epiphany. A year earlier, Glenn said, the Huskers would have known going in they were headed for a thrashing. But this time, he said, "we thought we had a shot." It got better. Sometime in the first quarter, Glenn recognized, "Hey, we can play with these guys." By midway through the second half, he knew: "We can beat these guys."
Ekeler listened to Glenn depict the Huskers evolving like the Little Engine That Could (ultimately, they couldn't; a late rally fell short and the Hokies won 35-30), and had an epiphany of his own. He homed in on Glenn's newly discovered confidence and optimism and realized: "Oh, boy. We've got a lot of work to do."
That was a year ago. If preseason rankings and predictions mean anything, a lot of work has been done. Media are ranking the Huskers near the bottom of various top 25s and projecting them to win the Big 12 North. Second-year coach Bo Pelini and his staff seem to have Nebraska on the right track. But listening to Pelini, it's clear there's still plenty left to do -- and examining a linebacker's exuberance after a tough loss might be as good a way as any to start explaining why.
When Pelini arrived in Lincoln in December 2007, fresh off a stint as LSU defensive coordinator, the Huskers had suffered through their second losing season in 45 years. The other came in 2004, the first of Bill Callahan's four years as coach. During Callahan's watch the longest bowl streak in the nation ended and Nebraska slide further away from the elite. To those associated with the program -- and in the state of Nebraska, that's everybody -- this realization was even more dispiriting:
Not only was Nebraska no longer among the nation's best, the program didn't much resemble Nebraska.
Pelini knew he'd inherited a rebuilding project. But it might not have been until the Virginia Tech game that a true picture emerged showing just how far the Huskers had fallen. Ekeler played at Kansas State, grew up in Blair, Neb., and is one of several Nebraskans on Pelini's staff. He understands what Husker football is supposed to be. Glenn, these boys, they didn't have that confident swagger. Players thinking they had a shot in a big game? Discovering they weren't outclassed? Recognizing they could actually, you know, win?
The Virginia Tech game was just the beginning. Missouri came to Lincoln the next week, and the score looked like so many other scores in the lopsided series. Only this time it was the Tigers winning 52-17. Oklahoma hung 62 on Nebraska. Nothing, not a four-game winning streak to finish '08, or a 9-4 record, or a Gator Bowl win over Clemson, erased that.
"Our players don't feel like Nebraska's back," Pelini told reporters recently at Big 12 media day. "Our expectations are very, very high in our football program and what we want it to be and where we're headed."
Which brings us to Year 2. The preseason hype reflects the positive momentum Pelini has generated more than the state of the team. With a new quarterback to break in and other holes to fill, favorite's status might be premature.
On the other hand, the division isn't exactly loaded; Missouri's run appears over now that Chase Daniel and several other talented Tigers have departed. There's Kansas, but if you're a Nebraska fan, you're never really concerned about Kansas. The division title's in reach, and yet here's Pelini, saying, at every opportunity, there's a lot of work left to do.
It's easy to understand why. At Nebraska, where success is measured in championships, the standard isn't beating Kansas and Missouri. If the question today is whether Nebraska is back, the answer is clearly no.
"With the tradition here and the expectations in the program and what the people are used to, we made some progress last year," Pelini said, "but we're nowhere near where we need to be."
Pelini gets it, and that alone is cause for celebration, from Omaha to Scottsbluff, and all points between.
He gets this is bigger than 2009, gets this is about proving Nebraska can regain its status as one of college football's perennial powers and show that no matter how much the landscape has changed, the Huskers aren't part of a bygone era.
Tom Osborne's power option attack is a thing of the past, and Nebraska doesn't benefit from a natural recruiting backyard, and the Big 12 is all about Texas, Oklahoma and a third fill-in-the-blank South Division team. That's no excuse.
"I will never buy into the idea that the Big 12 North, because of a geographic reason or whatever, cannot compete with the Texases and the Oklahomas," said Trev Alberts, the former Huskers standout who's now the athletic director at Nebraska-Omaha. "That's a cop-out."
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