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Defining Games: Big Ten hits Nebraska with its best shot

Looking ahead to the biggest games of the 2011 season. Today: Nebraska at Wisconsin on Oct. 1 and Nebraska vs. Ohio State on Oct. 8. Part of Big Ten Week.

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Considering the three decades that came before them, the last 10 years have been rough ones for Nebraska. Since being ritually dismembered by a Herculean Miami squad with the BCS title on the line in the 2002 Rose Bowl, the Cornhuskers haven't won a conference championship, haven't been back back to a BCS bowl, haven't finished in the top ten of the final polls. They lost their identity as an irresistible force on the field, then their status as an immovable object at the top of the Big 12 standings.

They endured Joe Dailey, Bill Callahan's playbook, a 76-point bomb at Kansas and the final second against Texas. With the end of the conference title drought in sight each of the last two years, the offense retreated into its shell on both occasions.

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No wonder, then, that the 'Huskers' defection to the Big Ten feels a lot more like a genuine turning of the page than just a minor adjustment in seasonal travel plans. But it's not just the change of scenery: After a decade in the wilderness, competitively, Nebraska is arriving in its new home at a moment when one traditional power is still digging its way out of its deep hole in 50 years, another appears stuck in a cycle of borderline mediocrity and another has just been rocked by scandal and key attrition. In the Big 12, the long-term stability at Oklahoma and Texas never gave the 'Huskers this kind of opportunity: Essentially, to reemerge looking their old, dominant selves in a new setting, give or take a triple option or two.

And the window for taking full advantage of it is open for eight days only: At Wisconsin on Oct. 1 and back home against Ohio State a week later, in Nebraska's first two conference games as a member of the Big Ten.{YSP:MORE}

That's too early in the calendar to suggest that one half of the Rose Bowl will be determined then and there, especially when the Badgers and Buckeyes will be vying for crown of a different division — they're both in the Leaders Division, Nebraska in the Legends — and may well be seeing the Cornhuskers again in December, in the Big Ten Championship Game. But the two-game stretch will establish an early pecking order among the league's obvious preseason frontrunners, and will mean more for the 'Huskers' standing as a viable national contender than any game they've played in 10 years. The last time as much was at stake on both sides of a regular season Nebraska game was probably then-No. 2 Oklahoma's visit to Lincoln way back in 2001, when Eric Crouch wrapped up the Heisman in dramatic fashion and set Nebraska on the course to the national title shot in Pasadena.

The Cornhuskers' record against the Sooners since that day: 1-5, 0-2 with the Big 12 title on the line. Against Texas: 0-6. Against all top-10 teams in that span: 1-14.

As close as they came, the 'Huskers never reversed the shift of power to the Big 12 South, on or off the field, which may or may not have had anything to do with their decision to jump ship last year. (Probably not.) Now, with Michigan and Penn State down, Ohio State reeling and Wisconsin and Michigan State having yet to demonstrate any staying power among the conference elite, may be as good a chance as they have in the foreseeable future to stride to the top of another league. It will be their only chance to do it as an opening statement against the reigning conference powers. If they can get by the Badgers and Buckeyes unscathed, the Big Ten — and maybe more — is theirs for the taking.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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