Tue Aug 24 11:57am EDT
The last word on the coming season's most pressing topics.
I'm sure the current crop of Cornhuskers in Lincoln is aware of Nebraska's longstanding reputation for wreaking death and destruction across the Midwest, but they certainly haven't seen much of it: The last time Nebraska was considered a top-10, national contender coming into a season, the oldest players on this fall's roster were just starting middle school, and many of the youngest were yet to strap on their first helmet. It's been a long time.
Since it was even longer ago, it's a good bet that none of them remember the formation of the Big 12 in the mid-nineties, or the sense at the time that the burgeoning "super-conference" was more or less an expanded version of the 'Husker-dominated Big Eight, with the grateful remnants of the imploded Southwest Conference grafted on. That impression didn't last long: Two of the first three Big 12 championship games ended with Texas and Texas A&M knocking heavily favored Nebraska and Kansas State out of the BCS title game in 1996 and 1998.
Within five years of the league's formation, the balance of power had clearly, irrevocably shifted to the South, ushering in a decade of dominance – seven straight and eight of the last ten Big 12 championships have fallen to Bob Stoops and Mack Brown's regimes at Oklahoma and Texas, six of them sending the Sooners or Longhorns on to play for the BCS crown – that the divisional divide very nearly self-destructed the conference after Nebraska turned its key by accepting an invitation to join the Big Ten in June. As it stood, the Big 12 literally couldn't survive without a viable counterpoint to the Texas/Oklahoma juggernauts in the South, which flexed their might both to nudge Nebraska out and generate the dollar amount it needed to salvage the rest.
So it's entirely appropriate (and more than a little ironic) that the 'Huskers finally find themselves in position to deliver the long-awaited cross-divisional balance on their way out, as a final show of strength in a farewell campaign that's already shaping up as one of the most interesting seasons in the brief history of the conference. That's only partly because the North gives the North a legitimate contender for the league title for maybe the second time since K-State last won it in 2003. On the heels of the contentious ending to the Big 12 Championship game in December, the not-so-thinly veiled antagonism of the Big 12 Missile Crisis over the summer has dragged the simmering rivalry with Texas – sparked by the Longhorns' upset in the very first Big 12 Championship game – back into the open, affixing a fat, red target to UT's trip to Lincoln on Oct. 16. If many of the preseason pundits are right, Nebraska's last Big 12 game will be a championship showdown with either Texas or the 'Huskers' old Heartland nemesis, Oklahoma, reviving decades of classic Sooner-Husker battles for Big Eight supremacy throughout the seventies and eighties. Familiar punching bags Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State will come in for the last of a series of mandatory beatings dating back more than a century.
Still, as high as the 'Huskers have set their sights in the next phase of the Big Red Renaissance under Bo Pelini, it will amount to little more than hopeful sentimentality without the emergence of a quarterback who can lift one of the Big 12's worst offenses out of the ambition-killing funk that routinely grounded progress last year. Even opposite the nation's No. 1 scoring defense, three of the four losses in '09 came in games in which opponents were held below 17 points, including the last-second heartbreaker against Virginia Tech, the eight-turnover debacle against Iowa State and the Big 12 Championship itself. Nebraska managed a grand total of one touchdown in those three games, and only scored one TD in the 10-3 slugfest triumph over Oklahoma – and that only after the defense set up the ball at the OU goal line on an interception return.
The 'Huskers probably wouldn't be harboring top-10 ambitions if not for the old-school, 33-0 thumping they put on Arizona in the Holiday Bowl, a genuine beatdown that featured an actual power-running game from Nebraska behind an offensive line that brings back four of five starters. But all anyone in the entire state has wanted to know for the last eight months is, who's the starting quarterback? Can they possibly get over the hump with Zac Lee, the JUCO transfer responsible for most of last year's woes? With Cody Green, who somehow failed to relegate Lee to the bench as a true freshman? Taylor Martinez, an obscure practice-field comer with zero career snaps to his credit? Can anyone really win the Big 12 with this kind of quarterback situation?
Historically, the answer is almost always no (five of the last six Big 12-winning QBs were onstage in New York for the Heisman ceremony a week later), especially when the defense can't possible hope to match the heights of last year's group sans its wrecking-ball star, Ndamukong Suh. But last year's group did come within one restored second of the big breakthrough. And with the sharp upward trajectory of Pelini's first two season, the expectations are higher than they've been at any point since Eric Crouch was taking snaps here a decade ago. That's all that's at stake in the quarterback derby: Finding the one final piece of the equation that will solve nine years of frustration, on the very last shot.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.