September 17, 2009
It requires no great deduction to point out that Nebraska has not been Nebraska: Husks of the Red Death for a long, long time. A quick recap of the last decade:
The last time Nebraska ...
• Beat a team that finished in the top 25: Sept. 18, 2004 (Pittsburgh)
• Beat a team that finished in the top 20: Oct. 27, 2001 (Oklahoma)
• Finished in the top 20: 2003 (No. 19)
• Won at Kansas, at Missouri and at Colorado in the Same Season: 1999
• Won a Big 12 Championship: 1999
Yes: That is a mediocre program. Yet Bo Pelini came into the season talking about "momentum," generated by the four-game winning streak at the end of '08; one week after being blasted by Oklahoma (the Huskers trailed by four touchdowns less than six minutes into the game), Nebraska handled Kansas at home, probably as good a win (rivaling the narrow takedown of eventual Big East champ Pitt in '04 the Alamo Bowl upset over Michigan in 2005) as Nebraska has put together since the ship began to sink at the end of 2001. And if for no other reason than it required a sustained second half comeback from a 14-3 down, the Gator Bowl win over Clemson may have been even better -- it was, at least, the end of another losing streak: Nebraska hadn't won a January bowl game since the 1999/2000 Fiesta Bowl, and had only played in two in the meantime.
Those wins over the Jayhawks and Tigers are about as close as Nebraska has come to a "big win" since Eric Crouch was scrambling toward the Heisman, but as I wrote this summer, there's no mistaking the 'Huskers as being "back" -- legitimate Big 12 contenders who command national attention -- until it starts winning the real thing.
Virginia Tech isn't a runaway train; in some respects, the Hokies' reputation has a lot riding on Saturday's kickoff, as well, after being more or less tattooed by Alabama in the opener. Tech may even temporarily fall out of the polls if it drops to 1-2.
But for the time being, the Hokies are a perennial top-15/20 outfit, an annual BCS contender and a significantly better team than Nebraska has beaten in almost eight years -- and if you want to check on the 'Huskers' last big road win, you'll have to go back to when Pelini was a young position coach in the NFL and everyone on the current roster was in grade school. A win in Blacksburg would be a genuine turn-the-corner moment for Pelini's rebuilding effort.
Unfortunately, the opening blowouts over Florida Atlantic and Arkansas State tell us nothing about this particular team's competence to make that step. Quarterback Zac Lee has looked better than fine, but there's no way of knowing what to expect when he lines up across from a Bud Foster defense in his first road start. The defense has only given up 12 points on one touchdown, but has looked vulnerable against the run; Va. Tech will test that, to say to the least, as it did en route to 200-plus yards on the ground last year. (Not to mention its 400-yard romp the Hokie running game enjoyed last week against Marshall, where it discovered a pair of freshmen, Ryan Williams and David Wilson, who each went over 160 yards on more than 10 per carry.)
In short, there's no indication this should be the streak-breaker from Nebraska, aside from the vague optimism that accompanies any six-game winning stretch. It's a classic prove-it game, and the first real measuring stick for Pelini's progress.