I've come across plenty of smack talk in recent days regarding Thursday night's game between Nebraska and Missouri. And while some has been of the PG, kittens-and-bunnies variety, the majority has been self-righteous BS and stubborn overconfidence from both sides of the rivalry.
For a number of reasons, I've never been a fan of message boards. I don't feel the need to pay a subscription fee to tell others how my team will go undefeated en route to winning a national championship, finding a cure for cancer, and ridding the male population of erectile dysfunction—only to have rival fans do the same.
I understand a little competitive animosity between fans. I have no problem with that. But it's nice once in a while to consort with a member of the enemy fan base with some sense of objectivity, even if it's hardly noticeable.
Earlier in the week, I stated that my hopes were to feature two Nebraska writers for this week's edition of Enemy Intel. Alas, I was successful in securing only one, but his knowledge of the Husker program rivals that of two men.
Jon Johnston is one of the head honchos at Corn Nation, the Nebraska blog over at SB Nation, which is one of the Web's most comprehensive networks of team-specific sites covering every major sport.
Among other things, Mr. Johnston fills me in on Nebraska's potential weaknesses heading into the conference season, uncovers the mystique of the Blackshirts, reveals that Ndamukong Suh has a rival in the hard-to-pronounce name department, and makes a rather anti-climactic yet loyal prediction.
(Note: Attempts to contact Lincoln Journal-Star writer Brian Christopherson were unsuccessful. If, by chance, he responds to my email prior to game time on Thursday evening, I will post his responses here as well.)
RF: What do we know about his Nebraska team following non-conference play? What areas need improving and what areas are shaping up to be strengths?
JJ: One blown defensive play against Virginia Tech withstanding, we know that Nebraska's defense is the strength of the team two years after they were the worst in school history. The defensive line is one of the best in the country and the defensive secondary isn't too bad either.
Nebraska's biggest problem is consistency. There are too many penalties on offense and periodic breakdowns on the offensive line. The running game has been decent, but could be stronger so it can bail out new starting quarterback Zac Lee if he struggles in road games.
RF: There seems to be a consensus among the national media that Nebraska is on its way to regaining prominence, but still has a ways to go. What are your thoughts? Is Bo Pelini the man for the job, or is it uncertain whether the program will ever be as dominant as it has been in past decades?
JJ: Well, nothing is certain, but Pelini had a very successful first year, and the team looks like they're moving in the right direction. So, there's no reason to suspect he won't be successful long term. He's assembled a very good coaching staff, so it's evident he knows how to pick assistants as well.
RF: For as long as I can remember, Nebraska's bread and butter has been utilizing a punishing running attack. But then the Bill Callahan era began, and the Huskers looked out-of-sorts while trying to become a passing team. Is the Pelini regime attempting to revert back to what worked so well for so long? And does Nebraska have the horses to pull it off?
JJ: As long as offensive coordinator Shawn Watson stays at Nebraska, the offense will look for balance. Their philosophy is "multiple," meaning they want to run if the defense allows and vice versa for passing. The idea is to consistently keep defenses off-balance through versatility.
RF: Blackshirts. Blackshirts. Blackshirts. The very term seemed to be a form of intimidation for the Huskers until their recent defensive struggles in recent seasons. Is this defensive unit close to restoring the mystique of the Blackshirts? Other than All-American defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who in your mind stands out on this defense?
JJ: We'll find out this season as to how well the defense has progressed, but they should be one of the best in the Big 12 when it's all said and done. The mystique of the Blackshirts won't be restored until the Huskers start winning big games. Beating Missouri would be a step in the right direction, but it doesn't signal any sort of return to dominance. That will take more time, more wins, and a title or two.
Safety Larry Asante will be an all-conference performer by the end of the season, and cornerback Prince Amukamara should get at least a mention. Look for big plays from both this Thursday.
A win at Missouri would give Bo Pelini and Nebraska a leg up in the Big 12 North (Getty)
RF: With road games at Missouri and Kansas forthcoming, does Nebraska need to win both to emerge as the champ in the North? What other games are you circling on the conference schedule?
JJ: Kansas has a nasty schedule, so there's more room for a loss against them. But if Nebraska loses to Missouri, they give the Tigers a two-game head start on the conference lead. That might be difficult to overcome. Kansas State, Iowa State, and Colorado are still struggling, so the winner of Thursday's game gets an enormous boost.
Nebraska should take a home game against Texas Tech, and Oklahoma no longer looks like an unbeatable juggernaut. The road game against Baylor doesn't look nearly as scary as it did when Robert Griffin was healthy, so Nebraska should have a good conference season.
Did I mention a win over Missouri would be huge?
RF: In what ways is this Nebraska team different from the one that got beat soundly by Missouri at home a season ago?
JJ: The team spent the first part of last season trying to shed the horrors of Bill Callahan's ineptitude in 2007. When Missouri came to Lincoln, the team was trying to establish themselves while at the same time learning what Bo Pelini expected of them.
This year's team understands what Pelini wants. They understand his defensive philosophy. The offense is the same way—after a year under new coaches, they understand the execution required to run the offense.
Just as importantly, the coaches understand who they have for players. They know what the players are capable of doing and where their weaknesses are. Last year's loss can be directly attributed to this: The Nebraska coaches expected a power running game to succeed when the team wasn't geared toward it.
RF: The game on Oct. 8 will be one hell of a showdown, let alone played before a national audience. In your mind, what do the Huskers have to do to escape Columbia with "W"? And will a road win over Missouri prove to the entire nation that Nebraska is indeed close to regaining dominance?
JJ: Nebraska has to win the turnover battle, establish a running game, and stop big plays by Missouri.
Like I said earlier, a win over Missouri is a big step, but shouldn't be taken as anything more than a step. I would hope that we have enough sense to not go around and tell people "We're back" after one win.
RF: Normally, sportswriters aren't much for predictions, but I'll ask anyway: Who you got in this one and why? Gotta score?
JJ: I have to pick Nebraska because of our defense. Both offenses have had their moments, but Nebraska's offense should be able to score points against Missouri's defense. After all, lesser opponents have kept games close against the Tigers. Meanwhile, the Husker defense should pick up some turnovers and put the game away.
Nebraska 31, Missouri 17
Lead photo: Associated Press