IRVING, Texas – Instead of Big 12 title rings, Nebraska football players spent the spring and summer sporting a different sort of trinket to remind them of the 2009 season.
Engraved on a plastic bracelet worn by almost every Cornhusker is the phrase "0.01 – Finish." Yes, eight months later, Nebraska is still smarting from a 13-12, final-play loss to Texas in the conference title game.
"You wouldn't be a competitor if it didn't drive you and give you a little sense of motivation," coach Bo Pelini said Monday at Big 12 Media Day. "We didn't make enough plays to win the game. We didn't deserve to win the championship. But we were close.
"If you get really close to something, it should make you hungry to compete that much harder to get over the top."
Strong as the craving may be for their first league championship since 1999, the collective growl in the Cornhuskers' stomachs is tame compared to those of their competitors, most of whom are preparing for the upcoming season with two goals.
1. Win a conference title.
2. Maim Nebraska.
"We know," receiver Niles Paul said, "that people will be out to get us."
Indeed, there will be no bigger heel in college football in 2010 than the Cornhuskers, who two months ago nearly triggered the breakup of the Big 12.
Once it was announced that Nebraska was leaving after the season to join the Big Ten, five of the six schools from the South division threatened to bolt for other conferences, and Colorado accepted an offer to join the Pac-10.
The league was on life support until the final minute, when commissioner Dan Beebe came up with a proposal that promised increased revenue and a new television deal for each of its members. When the 10 remaining schools decided to stay together, beating Nebraska in football – heck, in everything – this season became an onus.
The Cornhuskers hardly seem bothered.
"We might get a bad reception," defensive tackle Jared Crick said. "If so, it's not a big deal."
"People are always out to beat us," he said. "If they want to use this as motivation, they can. We've seen hostile crowds before. I don't know if they can turn it up any more than what I've already seen. If they can, wow. That's incredible."
Nebraska certainly didn't help its cause earlier this month by throwing a jab toward the toughest opponent on its schedule: Texas.
According to Pelini, the university's marketing department is to blame for an Internet video that ended with a rallying cry for the season: "Wear Red. Be Loud. Beat Texas." Nebraska has lost eight of its nine games against the Longhorns since the inception of the Big 12 in 1996. The two teams meet in Lincoln on Oct. 16.
"I wasn't real happy about it," said Pelini, who was on vacation when the video was released. "I didn't [like] the message it sent to our football team, especially because that's way down the road. We have a lot of things to do before we even consider Texas or worry about that football game."
Part of that work includes choosing a starting quarterback among incumbent Zac Lee, Cody Green and Taylor Martinez. Whoever wins the job will be charged with improving a scoring attack that ranked 11th in the league in 2009, when Nebraska had five conference games in which it scored 17 or fewer points.
The Cornhuskers' defense will have to adapt to life without standout tackle Ndamukong Suh and five other starters, but Pelini has long been regarded as one of the nation's top defensive coaches.
Pelini's biggest chore, though, will be making sure his players maintain their focus without pinning their season all on one game. Only half of Nebraska's 2010 opponents competed in bowl games last year, and it plays its two toughest Big 12 foes (Texas and Missouri) at home.
Despite bracelets worn by his players, Pelini said he doesn't plan to spend much time talking about last season's loss to Texas, when it appeared the clock had run out after a pass out of bounds by Longhorns quarterback Colt McCoy. Instead, one second was added to the game clock, and kicker Hunter Lawrence responded with a winning field goal that catapulted undefeated Texas into the BCS championship game, where it lost to Alabama.
Asked about using the loss as a rallying point, Pelini said: "It's not my approach. I don't believe in it. Emotion can work two ways for you. It can work to your advantage, but it can really work to your disadvantage, too.
"You've got to keep the focus and direction where it needs to be. It's not about being angry about something or revenge or anything like that. It's about competing and executing on a consistent basis."
Pelini also wants to make sure his team focuses on the current season instead of what's ahead for the program. The coach is certainly doing his best to set an example. He opened Monday's press conference by announcing he would not field questions about Nebraska's impending move to the Big Ten.
Afterward he and Beebe exchanged pleasantries, just to make sure there was no ill-will. Absent Monday was athletic director Tom Osborne, who plans to attend next week's Big Ten Media Day in Chicago.
"I haven't even thought about [the Big Ten]," Pelini said. "It hasn't even been a question for me. I'm excited about playing in the Big 12. If you start looking ahead you're going to get stomped in this conference. You're in for a rude awakening.
"That's the last thing anyone wants."
Actually, it's what everyone in the Big 12 wants.
Or least everyone who isn't partial to the Cornhuskers.
- Bo Pelini