Is anyone else glad that Bo Pelini and Jeff Jamrog are working on beefing up Nebraska's non-conference schedule the next few years? After watching the Huskers win the Sun Belt title Saturday with their defeat of the ULL Ragin Cajuns, fans of the Big Red can now turn their attention to the conference slate, where we will finally find out just how good the Huskers are in their second year under Pelini.
For decades, Missouri, along with both of the Kansas teams, was little more than a nuisance to Nebraska, similar to a pesky younger brother who would irritate until the older brother responded by taking them to the woodshed and putting them back in their proper place.
That pecking order began to fall apart in 2003, when Nebraska, up 24-14 going into the 4th quarter, gave up 27 points in the final period to a team led by Brad Smith, a collapse that probably contributed to Steve Pederson's decision to fire Frank Solich at the end of the season (though that was probably more of a reaction to the 7-7 campaign in 2002).
Counting that game, Nebraska has lost three straight games at Farout Field, which is why next week's game in Columbia is the game on which Nebraska's season hinges. Last year, the Huskers were embarrassed on their own field by Chase Daniel, Jeremey Maclin, and Chase Coffman, who cruised to an easy 52-17 victory.
This year, the Huskers return to Columbia with an improved defense that has obviously benefited from having a year in Pelini's system and bouyed by their strong performance against Virginia Tech. In addition to the improved defense, Nebraska's running game is stronger than a year ago and the wide receivers have more explosiveness than the duo of Nate Swift and Todd Peterson from a year ago.
The biggest benefit for Nebraska is that all the main characters from the past few debacles against Mizzou are gone. Booger McDaniel, Maclin, and Coffman have all moved on, and in their place are some talented but green replacements. Blaine Gabbert, who a couple of years ago was in many circles regarded as the #1 pro-style recruit in the country, has stepped in to the quarterback spot and has performed admirably, but not as lethal as McDaniel was. In addition to the turnover in offensive talent, the Tigers have had to overcome replacing both their offensive and defensive coordinators.
Missouri opened a lot of eyes with an opening-week drubbing of Illinois, but the enthusiasm from that victory has been tempered by having to come from behind to beat Bowling Green and struggling with Nevada (coupled with the realization that Illinois is just downright terrible). The Tigers will face their first true test against Nebraska, who already has shown it's mettle with it's near-win against #6-ranked Virginia Tech.
The interesting thing about Mizzou is that with it's rise in relevancy and it's drubbings of Nebraska the past couple of years, the Tigers have seemingly replaced Colorado as the pre-eminent rival of the Huskers in the Big 12 North. Sure, Kansas is a decent program, in many ways equal or better than Missouri in terms of accomplishment and ability. But Kansas doesn't raise the same level of ire in Husker fans as Missouri does. With Mizzou, there is just something that rubs Nebraska backers the wrong way about them.
Maybe it's the arrogance of those within the program over finally playing decent football after decades of underacheiving. And yes, decent. Despite winning 10 games a year ago and 12 the season before that, Missouri has averaged 8 wins a season since 2003, hardly the results that would warrant the Tiger faithful having such a high opinion of themselves.
The rise of the rivalry could come from Missouri fans, who for the most part strike Nebraska as one of the least classy groups of people they have had to attend games with. And I'm not trying to rip on the entire fan base, but what upsets Nebraska fans is this: When there is a jerk at a Nebraska game, he's the exception to the norm. At Mizzou, it seems that the jerk is the norm, while a classy Mizzou fan is the exception. I'm not trying to deride every Missouri fan, but that seems to be the consensus among many who have had to go to a game in Columbia.
That's what makes the showdown on October 8th so exciting. Two ranked teams, a prime-time Thursday night national telecast, and a shot at redemption and payback for Nebraska. These two teams, despite what they may say to the media, have a genuine dislike for each other. Mizzou players expressed annoyance and surprise when the media picked Nebraska to win the North before the season, and Nebraska desperately wants to show to the entire nation that they are on the path back to power. And what better way to prove it than by annihilating the Tigers on their home field?