Nebraska Football: Back with the Elite Teams, or Work to Do?
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On December 29, 2009, after the Nebraska Cornhuskers had demolished the Arizona Wildcats 33-0 in the Holiday Bowl, head coach Bo Pelini took the mic and proclaimed, "Nebraska's back, and we're here to stay!"
Well, what does that really mean?
After all, this is the nation of the here-and-now. Most college football fans can't even tell you what their teams did in 1990, what bowl game they were in at the end of the 1995 season, or who their starting quarterback was in 1997.
Nebraska fans can.
They'll let you know the Huskers played Georgia Tech in the Citrus Bowl to end the 1990 season, that they pounded Florida for the national championship in 1995, and that Scott Frost led Nebraska to their third championship in four years in 1997.
In fact, if you travel around the Cornhusker State (named after the university, if you believe legend), you will run into diehard Husker fans in every town. Is that different than in any other state? No, not really.
Nebraska is different in some ways, though. Husker football is "the only game in town."
Nebraska is the also the least populated state to have a BCS team. When the Cornhuskers play at home, Memorial Stadium, which seats just over 85,000 (although the official capacity is 81,067), becomes the third largest city in the state. Think about that for a moment. In Texas, there are 29 cities larger than that. In California, there are 89!
When Nebraska's stadium expansion is completed, more than 90,000 red clad Husker backers will continue the longest sellout streak in the history of modern sports. For a state of just over 1.5 million, that's not bad.
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Nebraska fans cannot only tell you about their teams of the 1990s, but also their teams all the way back to the 1950s, when the Cornhuskers weren't what could be considered a power.
But what is really "back" for the Huskers? Is there a return to glory medium that has been set? Should the Huskers look at Oklahoma, Texas, or USC to determine how close they are to being back to their former glory?
As any Nebraska fan would say with a straight face, "Hell no."
For the longest time, Nebraska didn't worry about the ebbs and flows of college football like other teams did. After all, they won at least 9 games in a season every year from 1969-2001. They went to 35 consecutive bowl games. They had five national championships and three Heisman Trophy winners.
They only had three coaches, and all three were from the same line. Everything was, well, Nebraska style. They ran the same offense. Their defense always created havoc. It was natural to see the Huskers in the Orange Bowl. Their rivalry with Oklahoma was rivaled only by Ohio State-Michigan.
But then something happened. Something Nebraskans didn't like.
The "Nebraska Way" was altered. Nebraska went down the pipe, was not competitive anymore (save stretches in 2003 and 2006). Fans didn't flock to their away games to watch one of the best teams in the nation. The national media went away (since 2001, ESPN's College GameDay has been to campus only once, in 2007). The Husker mystique no longer existed.
And yet, Husker fans all over the country kept one phrase: "We'll be back. And when we are, we'll be mad as hell."
Flash back to 1992. On a blustery November day in Ames, Iowa, the seventh-ranked Cornhuskers were upset 19-10 by unranked Iowa State. Husker football players walked off the field that day with their heads low. They hadn't committed a single turnover but still gave the game away.
Through the clouds and downtrodden team, there was a hard look in their eyes. They hated to lose. And they wouldn't again. None of the players on that team, not even the freshmen, would see Nebraska lose another regular season game.
From 1993-1997, Nebraska went an astounding 60-3. They lost one regular season game, a 19-0 shutout at the hands of Arizona State in 1996. In fact, two of their three losses during the five-year span came in 1996 (the other being a 10-point upset by Texas in the first Big 12 Championship Game).
They were a missed field goal away from being the national champions in 1993 as time expired. They came from behind to win the national championship in 1994. They conquered all and became widely known as the best team ever in 1995.
In 1997, a miracle kick saved a miracle season for the Huskers as they pounded Peyton Manning and Tennessee in the Orange Bowl for their third national championship in four years. It is still the best five-year stretch in the history of college football.
In 1998, Nebraska lost four games. Only one of them was by more than four points (a 40-30 setback to No. 2 Kansas State). That same year, their 47-game home winning streak was snapped by the University of Texas. For the first time since 1990, the Huskers were not in the Orange or Fiesta Bowls.
In 1999, the Huskers were a fumble at the goal line at Texas away from playing for another national championship. They won their second (and last) Big 12 Championship and pummeled Tennessee to finish second in the polls.
They lost two games in 2000 but were still at the top of the mountain. In 2001, everything was going right for the Huskers. They had defeated No. 2 Oklahoma in a showdown of the two best teams in the nation and looked well on their way to another dominating season.
The day after Thanksgiving, though, Nebraska began its downward spiral.
Colorado spanked Nebraska 62-36 in Boulder. After that, the Huskers miraculously made an appearance in the National Championship game. They were beaten soundly again, this time by Miami.
Nebraska football has never been the same.
They hit rock bottom in 2007, having the worst defense in the history of the storied program and giving up more points than any Nebraska team had ever done - by far.
After just a four-year stint, head coach Bill Callahan was fired and replaced by Bo Pelini, defensive coordinator for the national champion LSU Tigers and former Nebraska defensive coordinator.
Fast forward to the end of the Holiday Bowl. Spirits were high. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was a finalist for the Heisman and received an enormous ovation at the end of his final game in a Husker uniform.
Then, when the preseason polls were released in August, Nebraska checked in at Nos. 8 and 9. They were in the Top 10 again, a place Husker fans know well. They have had four 9-win seasons in a row for the first time since the turn of the century. They were one agonizing second away from winning the Big 12 Championship.
In a new conference, Nebraska stumbled but still announced their presence. Their fans traveled well. College GameDay was on hand in Madison, Wisconsin for their first game as a member of the Big Ten.
They soundly beat Michigan State in Lincoln and had the biggest comeback in the history of Husker football in a homecoming victory over Ohio State.
Devastating losses to Wisconsin and Michigan on the road showed they had work to do, though. The offense and defense appeared to be stellar at times only to fall apart at the most inopportune moments.
So what is "back" for Husker fans?
Well, the nine wins per season is a start. Being recognized as one of the premiere programs is another plus. But truly, it's the respect. Nebraska football has been about respect. The fans respect other teams that come into the stadium (ask Florida State and Texas), and they travel well.
It's also about doing things the "Nebraska Way." Nebraskans love running the football. They love a dominating defense. That was the staple of their team for years. It was what farmers wanted to see. There is no big-city life in Nebraska. There are bunches of small towns brought together by farms and football. Sure, fans are also passionate about volleyball, too, but Nebraska football is what runs the state.
Is Nebraska truly back, as Bo Pelini says? Time will only tell. After all, it took them until 1969 to get "there."
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