Nebraska Cornhuskers (2000: 10-2)
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Coach and programAs he stood in the back of the interview room, waiting for his turn at the podium, Nebraska coach Frank Solich was trying to get water out of his ear, an unwanted byproduct from a postgame ice-bucket shower. Somehow it seemed appropriate that the most enjoyable moment of Nebraskaís 2000 season -- the celebration of a 66-17 thrashing of Northwestern in the Alamo Bowl -- could not be unconditionally enjoyed.
Thatís how it goes at Nebraska, where a 10-2 season, a Top-10 finish and a resounding bowl triumph buy the Cornhuskers a momentary smile and an earache. This after the program spent most of the season ranked No. 1.
Looking back on it, the voters had it wrong.
ďI thought going into the year that we were an inexperienced football team,Ē Solich said. ďWhen you have that, all bets are off. I think we did a lot right this year.Ē
After running through its first seven games with only one major scare, top-ranked Nebraska played third-ranked Oklahoma in the first significant meeting between the programs in more than a decade.
The Huskers scored two touchdowns to open the game before Oklahoma stormed back to win, 31-14.
Because of the changing landscape of college football, a world in which an Oregon State can pop up out of nowhere to win a BCS bowl, perhaps itís unrealistic to expect annual double-digit victory seasons at Nebraska. After all, the Huskers donít play in Florida Stateís ACC, where the Seminoles are rarely challenged.
The fans are slow to understand this. Solich came under some fire last season. Maybe Solich isnít head-coach material, fans wondered.
The coach knows itís all part of the game.
ďYou get criticized so much anymore, in the media, on the Internet, that you sometimes get the feeling everybodyís against you. When itís really the opposite. What Iíve learned as a head coach is that I have to keep moving forward in this profession in the manner that I have up to this point. This is where I want to coach. I want to keep this going. Whether thatís enjoyable or not, I donít know.Ē
OffenseA second shoulder surgery in as many years kept senior Eric Crouch (6-1, 200) out of spring practice. Heís expected to be at 100 percent when the season begins.
Crouch is starting to pile up some pretty impressive career numbers: 2,319 rushing yards, 41 touchdowns, a 4.9-yard average. Take out the yards lost by sacks and Crouch is over 1,000 in each of the last two years.
The problem is, Nebraska needs him to throw the ball to make the offense work, which it didnít at clutch times last season. The Cornhuskers couldnít engineer a final drive at Kansas State, and after scoring two touchdowns on the opening possessions at Oklahoma, didnít cross the goal line.
And yet, the running game can take some of the responsibility of Nebraska falling short of its national championship goals over the previous two seasons. Nebraska didnít have the benefit of a classic I-back, a player with all the power and speed that are basic requirements of the position along with a shiftiness that separates the great ones.
All eyes are on junior Dahrran Diedrick (6-0, 225), the best darn Canadian running back ever to wear the Scarlet and Cream. Diedrick hails from Scarborough, Ontario. Heís rushed for 515 yards and five touchdowns in two seasons, getting his most significant playing time as a sophomore when the guys ahead of him on the depth chart were suffering fumble-itis.
In a conference full of terrific tight ends, Nebraska may have the best in senior Tracey Wistrom (6-5, 240).
Junior guard Toniu Fonoti (6-4, 340) and senior tackle Dave Volk (6-5, 300) give Nebraska a definite direction this season -- left. Both returning starters and Outland candidates are on the left side.
Defense and special teamsJuniors Chris Kelsay (6-5, 270) and Demoine Adams (6-2, 235) shared the left rush end position last year. Kelsay will keep the job and Adams will move to the right side.
Nebraska is solid in the middle with senior nose tackle Jason Lohr (6-2, 275) and senior tackle Jeremy Slechta (6-6, 285). Lohr and Slechta were two of three freshmen who played in 1998.
Senior Mark Vederal (6-1, 210) took over the starting weak-side linebacker spot in the spring and could wind up being a starter for the first time this fall. Vederal, a coverage team specialist, was Nebraskaís top defensive reserve last year, making 23 tackles.
The top three corners and starting strong safety are back, which should make the secondary the strongest unit.
Left corner Keyuo Craver (5-10, 190), a senior, has started the last 23 games and is on the Jim Thorpe watch list.
Sophomore Kyle Larson (6-0, 205) is the favorite to replace punter Dan Hadenfeldt, who had been granted a sixth year of eligibility last season. Hadenfeldt finished eighth in the nation with 43.8-yard average and finished his career at 44.4 yards, shattering the school record.
Bottom lineQuick. Name the last senior starting quarterback who did not win a national championship at Nebraska.
The most recent, Scott Frost, got his team a share of the 1997 title. Before that, Tommie Frazier and Brook Berringer were seniors in 1995, winning a second straight championship.
This is a senior quarterback season at Nebraska and Crouch may statistically become the greatest at his position in Husker history. But are the pieces in place around him for a championship?
The Rose Bowl is possible. But Nebraska will have to win a game or two as an underdog somewhere along the way.