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C O M M E N T A R Y
T A D    S T R Y K E R
August 20, 2009

Year one of the Bo Pelini era was dedicated to regaining the honor of the Nebraska football program by pulling out of the tailspin that the Cornhuskers tumbled into during the final year of Bill Callahan's tenure. Year two begins with the Big Red surveying the vast amount of territory they need to reclaim in the Big 12.

What Steve Pederson alluded to in 2003 as a “gravitation into mediocrity” under Frank Solich had become a near-freefall by the end of the 2007 season under Callahan, and a huge gap appeared between the Huskers and South Division frontrunners Texas and Oklahoma — the two teams Pederson vowed not to surrender to.

Year two will be dedicated to closing that gap. The main question is, how much ground can be regained in a single season?

The gap between OU and Nebraska became quickly and painfully evident last November at Norman, when the Sooners hit Pelini's team between the eyes with 35 first-quarter points and held that margin while cruising to a 62-28 victory.

There may not have been quite a five-touchdown gap between the two programs last season, but it was not far off. That's a heckuva lot of ground to make up, and on Nov. 7 in Lincoln, Nebraska will find out how much of the long road back to the top of the Big 12 it has managed to navigate.

It doesn't have to take a long time for things to turn around. Nebraska beat Oklahoma seven consecutive times during the 1990s as the Sooners suffered through a worse stretch than Nebraska has seen this decade. In 1996, Nebraska won by an embarrassingly easy 73-21 score in Norman and followed it up by an even more resounding 69-7 romp over OU in Lincoln during Tom Osborne's last season as head coach.

Just three years later OU and its second-year coach Bob Stoops beat a favored Nebraska team and won a national title. Oklahoma has played in three other national title games since that time. Nebraska made one BCS title game appearance in 2001 before dropping off the Top 10 radar.

Since the Huskers fell to Miami in Pasadena on Jan. 3, 2002, Nebraska has spent a total of five weeks in the Associated Press Top 10, and has gone completely missing since a 41-24 loss at Missouri in 2003. So to be fair, the gap is not totally a creation of Callahan and Cosgrove.

Pederson, of course, has to shoulder much of the blame. Ironically, the man he snubbed in his 2003 coaching search now is shouldering the bulk of the load as Nebraska tries to close the gap.

There will be mileposts along the way. Of course, the Virginia Tech game in Blacksburg will be a marquee test for Nebraska and the Big 12, but even if the Huskers stumble badly against a highly regarded Hokie defense under their new quarterback, Zac Lee, there is opportunity for quick redemption.

The game in Columbia on Thursday night, Oct. 8, will be a major indicator in how far Nebraska has come. Missouri has lost most of its offensive firepower and should be quite beatable, but the Huskers have not won in Columbia since 2001. If Nebraska struggles to edge Missouri in the fourth quarter, it's an indication that things have not changed much in Lincoln, but if the Huskers win by double-digit margin, it will be a very good sign.

Just nine days later, NU will host a Texas Tech team that also should have much less offensive talent than last year. Again, if Nebraska scores a 10- to 14-point victory over the Red Raiders, it will send a clear signal that Big Red is rising again even before the Sooners come to town.

Pelini has accomplished his first mission — pulling Nebraska out of a funk that never got as bad as those suffered during the last two decades by Alabama, Notre Dame, Southern Cal, Texas and Oklahoma. In year two, we'll see how rapid can be the ascent.

Bob Devaney took the Huskers from consistent losing seasons to the national title game in four seasons. Can Pelini run on the same fast track?

 

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. | Archive

 
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