The Cornhuskers are actually discussing, out loud, making a run at the national championship. Usually coach Tom Osborne and his laconic crew communicate by eyebrow rather than speech, but their 18-16 loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl seems to have loosed something within them. Namely, soaring ambition.
"We've got a good chance," says senior Rob Zatechka. "In the past we felt saying that would jinx us. Now it feels O.K."
One reason for optimism is that the bulk of the team that ended up No. 3 in the nation and outplayed the Seminoles on New Year's Day is back. Another is junior quarterback Tommie Frazier, who deftly runs the play-action. He had 704 yards rushing and 1,159 passing in '93 behind a monster line. Offensive tackle Zatechka is 6'5", 315 pounds, and the other tackle, Zach Wiegert, is 6'5", 300. "And they can move," says Frazier. "It's a backfield's dream. All you have to do is follow them."
The loss of I-back Calvin Jones, who decided to enter the NFL draft early, will hardly be felt if sophomore Lawrence Phillips picks up where he left off. Filling in for the oft-injured Jones last year. Phillips rushed for 137 yards against UCLA and for 64 and a touchdown against Florida State.
Pass-rusher extraordinaire Trev Alberts, who graduated, would seem to be irreplaceable. However, his successor at linebacker, senior Dwayne Harris, had eight sacks as a reserve playing in all 12 games last fall. In fact, each of the five new starters on defense saw action in nearly every game. A stout defense will be crucial for Nebraska because the other teams in the Big Eight have an average of more than seven starters back on offense.
The Huskers made a habit in recent years of trouncing their soft nonconference foes, bullying mediocre Big Eight opponents and then proving in a bowl to be overrated. That is not the drill anymore, as Nebraska showed in the Orange Bowl. In the first three weeks the Huskers face West Virginia, Texas Tech and UCLA—three bowl teams from last season—and then come Colorado and once-again-dangerous Oklahoma. If Nebraska can negotiate that schedule, it will be the genuine article. "People around here are tired of being called a paper tiger," says Zatechka. "This is a hungry team."