Nebraska plays host to No. 1 Southern California on Saturday in its most important game since Tom Osborne decided to become a politician a decade ago.
This includes the 2001 season's BCS Championship game, where Miami waxed Nebraska. That was as much about the Huskers enjoying a final aftershock from the Osborne era – and the BCS' tendency to put the wrong teams in the title game – as anything else.
That Rose Bowl was about the past, not the future. Nebraska had little chance, a program in disarray. Frank Solich was fired as coach two seasons later.
For the Huskers, getting SC, at night, in their red-clad den in Lincoln, is an entirely different story. This is Nebraska's chance to remind everyone, everywhere – but mostly right there in its own state – what this program was and can be again.
It's almost difficult to remember when NU churned out 10-win seasons, this juggernaut out of the North Plains that won five national titles from 1970-1997 (including three in the final four seasons of that run). For over three decades, the name Nebraska was as big-time as any in college sports. Osborne and his predecessor Bob Devaney built an unlikely powerhouse in a small, mostly rural state.
Since then, Nebraska has gone from consistent excellence to consistent inconsistency. And even with a five-year contract extension in hand, even with the Huskers ranked No. 14, coach Bill Callahan doesn't have everyone in corn country behind him.
The guy lost 15 games in his first three seasons, after all. (Osborne lost 15 in his final 10 seasons.) And Callahan changed the offensive game plan, accentuating the pass, of all things. And, of course, he's from Illinois, not Nebraska. There have been times, like when he lost to Oklahoma State last year, that the only thing Callahan had going for him was not being named Switzer.
So, while Callahan spent this week talking about how things are "no different" and "it doesn't matter who you're playing," no one believes he was doing anything but trying to focus his players away from the hoopla of the first visit by a top-ranked team since Oklahoma showed up in 1978.
Osborne won that one, 17-14. Callahan could use one of those like nobody's business.
"We don't even talk to the kids about wins and losses," Callahan said. "We talk to them about doing their best."
The nice, sensible people of Nebraska would like to agree, but they'd agree more if the kids' best happened to deliver a victory.
Here's the thing with Callahan's Cornhuskers: they've made strides, they've been built up and they've navigated through a cultural sea change and gotten back to, at the very least, respectability.
Nebraska was always an unlikely powerhouse. Generally, the most important thing a program can have going for it is proximity to talent. If you look at all the historic powers, it's the one thing they have in common. But where USC has Los Angeles and Florida has Florida and Notre Dame has Catholics everywhere, Nebraska has a population of 1.7 million. That's about 10 percent of Ohio.
But Nebraska always cared more than anyone else. It built the best facilities, it committed to weight training before almost anyone and it was one of the first schools to keep players around all summer for informal practices. And the Huskers had two exceptional coaches leading one incredibly passionate fan base.
But now everyone lifts and everyone has facilities and everyone cares. And in the Big 12, that especially means all the schools down South close to all that Texas talent.
For Nebraska, the way it was could never work again. That's what did in Solich. So Callahan, who arrived less than a year after leading the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl, broke out of the rut and tried to take a different path. There is a new offense, a new recruiting philosophy (judging by the verbal commitments, it's working) and a new Nebraska way.
Which all sounds nice but doesn't mean much until Callahan delivers a signature win. He needs one of those magical memories that doesn't just shoot his team up the rankings, impress recruits and show America the Huskers are back, but, perhaps most important, he needs a win to rally his still-at-arms-length fan base.
He doesn't have any proof that what he is trying to do might work, that sometime in the future he might actually get Nebraska back to being a year-in, year-out national contender. A show of force is a bit overdue.
And that's why this is so important.
Saturday he gets No. 1 USC, the premier program in the game. He gets ABC and College GameDay. He gets the eyes of the nation on him and his new/old program. He can call it just another game, but it might be a once in a career opportunity.
"I think it's great for college football that we have the No. 1 team in the nation coming to play in Lincoln, Nebraska," he said Monday.
His fans aren't interested in what's great for college football anymore. They just want something great to happen for Nebraska again.
- Tom Osborne