Players, coaches and teams with the most at stake on Saturday.
You'll have to excuse 'Husker Nation if it's still twitching a little at the idea of Missouri as de facto division overlord in the Big 12 North. Mizzou used to be one of their most reliable punching bags -- Nebraska beat the Tigers 24 straight times from 1979 to 2002, by an average of more than three touchdowns; when Missouri finally beat the 'Huskers in 2003, fans felled both sets of goalposts at Faurot Field and paraded them through the streets. The Tigers have now won four out of the last six, three straight at home, along with two straight division titles and one very serious national championship push in 2008. Nebraska vaguely recalls that type of season, but it's been awhile.
The 2003 loss marred an otherwise bang-up season for Bo Pelini in his lone year as Nebraska's defensive coordinator. The previous year, coming off a national championship shot in 2001, Nebraska had finished an unthinkable 7-7 and slid to 55th nationally in total defense. After being lured away from the Green Bay Packers, Pelini immediately steered the 'Huskers out of their slump, guiding them to a No. 11 finish in total D and the No. 1 scoring defense in the Big 12. It wasn't enough to save Frank Solich's job -- he was fired after the final game of the regular season -- but Pelini received the interim tag for the Alamo Bowl and further ingratiated himself to 'Husker fans by holding Michigan State to only 174 yards in a 17-3 win to complete a 10-3 season.
As full-fledged head coach, Pelini's road has been a bit rockier, to say the least. Part of that, of course, has to do with the mess he inherited -- Nebraska's 2007 defense finished 113th in the nation, allowed six different opponents to score 40 or more (including the infamous 76-point catastrophe at Kansas) and performing so poorly at one point that they voluntarily surrendered their hallowed Blackshirt practice jerseys. The '08 unit rose to 55th in the nation in total yards allowed and cut their points allowed per game by 25 percent, but was still shredded by the better teams on their schedule -- 37 points to Texas Tech, 62 to Oklahoma and 52 to Missouri in the Tigers' first win in Lincoln since 1978, for which Pelini was "embarrassed" and apologized "to the state of Nebraska [and] everyone associated with Nebraska football."
But the 'Huskers were better during their four-game win streak to end the season, and the continued improvement by the 2009 squad has fans optimistic that the Blackshirt tradition may have returned in more than just name: Nebraska currently leads the nation in scoring defense, giving up seven points per game on just 286 yards. Of course, there are only so many concrete conclusions you can take away from an early schedule against Sun Belt also-rans Florida Atlantic, Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette, interrupted only by the relative offensive juggernaut of Virginia Tech, which managed to rip out Nebraska's heart with a single long ball despite doing nothing offensively the rest of the day. By contrast, Missouri will be wielding the nation's 16th-ranked offense and one of its most efficient passers, Blaine Gabbert, who has 11 touchdowns, zero picks and has lived up to all of the recruiting hype in his first four starts. This will be the big litmus test of whether the Cornhuskers' pass defense, their Achilles heel over the past three seasons, has made the meaningful progress the numbers have suggested so far.
A loss here would not be the end of the world for Nebraska: Th entire conference schedule still lies ahead, and the Big 12 title is not really on the radar yet, anyway. At the very least, though, Nebraska fans would like to be able to head to the stadium with confidence that a spread with a competent quarterback isn't going to automatically hang 40 points on them. Win or lose, a strong defensive performance against one of the league's best offenses, on the road, would at least be a sign that the 'Huskers are returning to some of the fundamental strengths that helped make them dominant for so many years -- and that some equilibrium has been restored to a program that's must be sick and tired of watching opposing offenses set the pace in shootouts for a change.