ITS GO­ING TO GET UGLY

Af­ter a mud­sling­ing, trash talk­ing sum­mer, Huskers and their foes will wear a tar­get ev­ery Sun­day

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - KIrK BoHls

IRV­ING — Ne­braska was on its best be­hav­ior.

Af­ter all, kick­offs are ap­proach­ing. Fol­low­ing crit­i­cal com­ments about Texas by Ne­braska ad­min­is­tra­tors, a ri­val-bait­ing pro­mo­tional video in which Ne­braska is tak­ing dead aim at Texas, and sto­ries in Ne­braska news­pa­pers sug­gest­ing the Corn­huskers have a one-game sea­son this year, the Corn­huskers took the high road Mon­day.

That’s af­ter they took the first road out of town.

With the sea­son just over a month away, Ne­braska didn’t want to talk about the ugly sum­mer mud-sling­ing over re­align­ment, even if the me­dia wanted to take it one con­tro­versy at a time. And when the school’s coach

Con­tin­ued from C and play­ers did talk, they said all the right things — alas, with­out a poly­graph ma­chine in the room.

We all know many if not most in the Corn Belt are pri­vately snick­er­ing that Ne­braska got the bet­ter end of the deal by leav­ing the Big 12 for the Big Ten — but there are some among us who have our doubts.

The Corn­huskers have turned their backs on life­long ri­val­ries — snub­bing their noses at eter­nal part­ners like Kansas, Mis­souri and Ok­la­homa — and are re­joic­ing in the fact they will be­come part of a grand new world where rose petals will be thrown at their feet ev­ery­where from Madi­son to East Lans­ing.

But roses have thorns. If Ne­braska can’t beat Texas in the Big 12, how much more luck will it have try­ing to knock Ohio State off its pedestal in the Big Ten? Michi­gan ain’t gonna play dead for­ever. Penn State’s got its act back to­gether, Wis­con­sin’s one of the most un­der­rated pro­grams in the coun­try, and Iowa will de­fend you un­til the last sec­ond.

Ne­braska hasn’t been Ne­braska for a while now, just a shell of it­self since the three-ti­tle ’90s, when Tom Os­borne treated Florida like Nick Sa­ban would an NFL agent. Ne­braska hasn’t beaten a team ranked higher than No. 20 since late 2001. It’s 0-9 against Top 10 teams since 2005. It al­most never beats Texas (1-8 since the Big 12’s for­ma­tion), even though it may do that this Oc­to­ber, be­cause of a strong de­fense and a ter­rific run game. But Big Red will be missed. Sorely. Ne­braska’s de­par­ture leaves a gap­ing hole in the Big 12 that Iowa State just can­not fill. The Big 12 will sur­vive, at least un­til the next round of re­align­ment, but it’s not as strong a league. Colorado left amidst col­lec­tive yawns, but the Big 12 is worse for Ne­braska’s ab­sence, don’t kid your­self.

Which is why this fig­ures to be one con­tentious, spit-on-your-neigh­bor throw­down ev­ery Satur­day. If noth­ing else, this year will put to the test the long­stand­ing premise that Ne­braska has the most knowl­edge­able and hos­pitable fans in col­lege foot­ball.

Sports­man­ship could be a thing of the past if you be­lieve re­ports like a re­cent one in the Omaha World-Her­ald, which quoted a green­con­scious woman who is ten­derly nur­tur­ing her tomato plants … un­til Oct. 16, when the 91-year-old Corn­husker fan said she’ll tar­get peo­ple wear­ing burnt orange with her rot­ten veg­eta­bles. Re­mem­ber to duck, Mack.

Dan Beebe chat­ted up coach Bo Pelini on Mon­day, and the Big 12 com­mis­sioner said the league mem­bers “ab­so­lutely” are more co­he­sive than ever. Sure they are. Beebe said he plans to be in Lin­coln for the last Tex­as­Ne­braska dustup and he said, no, he will not be wear­ing a con­struc­tion hard hat.

De­spite all the fran­tic spec­u­la­tion and breath­less re­ports of mega-con­fer­ences this sum­mer, in the end very lit­tle hap­pened. Colorado heads off with Utah to the Pac-10, and Boise State will link up with the Moun­tain West.

But the drums beat the loud­est when Ne­braska an­nounced in June that it was bolt­ing the Big 12 for the more pres­ti­gious Big Ten — with its stronger aca­demic pedi­gree, its deeper-seated tra­di­tion, its pro­found sense of his­tory, its one-for-all col­le­gial­ism … well, you get the idea.

Ne­braska had ab­so­lutely zero in­ter­est in be­ing drawn into pro­tracted dis­cus­sions about all that on the first day of Big 12 foot­ball me­dia days. Be­fore he could take a sin­gle ques­tion about con­fer­ence re­align­ment, Pelini an­nounced at the podium he wouldn’t take a sin­gle ques­tion about con­fer­ence re­align­ment. He later said he an­tic­i­pates no prob­lems of fan re­cep­tion on the road, said re­cruit­ing in Texas has been “busi­ness as usual,” and said he’d vis­ited with the tooth fairy the night be­fore.

Ne­braska lists 26 Tex­ans among its cur­rent play­ers. Good luck with keep­ing the num­ber that high when your clos­est game to Texas may be 1,000 miles away. In one can­did moment, how­ever, the third-year head coach said the school re­gret­ted the Red Out pro­mo­tional video that in­cluded a Beat Texas logo, which has since been deleted.

“I didn’t know any­thing about it,” Pelini said. “It was ac­tu­ally a mis­take. To be hon­est, I wasn’t real happy about it.”

You know why? Be­cause Ne­braska is fo­cused on beat­ing Texas this year.

Just ad­mit it, Ne­braska. Take some own­er­ship. It was no mis­take.

But Ne­braska should also blame it­self — not Texas — for its fall from high ground. It pro­moted Frank Solich — good guy, sound coach, charisma of a corn­stalk. It hired Bill Cal­la­han, who fit in that cul­ture as the stiffer­than-straight whiskey John Mack­ovic did down south. It changed to a pass­ing of­fense a decade later than ev­ery­body else. It no longer has ac­cess to all those par­tial qual­i­fiers. It’s cold in Ne­braska.

But Ne­braska is al­ways go­ing to be rel­e­vant. And it desperately wants to give Texas a dose of hu­mil­ity in their last meet­ing.

That’s why the coach­ing staff, mind­ful of that 13-12 Big 12 ti­tle game loss to the Longhorns by a last-sec­ond Hunter Lawrence field goal only 18 miles from here, handed out red rub­ber bracelets in the spring that said “0.01” sec­onds on one side and “Fin­ish” on the other. But the Corn­huskers fig­ure to get, uh, a warm re­cep­tion as they travel to places like Man­hat­tan, Still­wa­ter and Col­lege Sta­tion.

“We’ve seen hos­tile crowds be­fore,” re­ceiver Niles Paul said. “I don’t think they can turn it up any more. I hope we’re not the bad guys.”

They’re re­ally not. Nei­ther’s Texas. They’re all just look­ing out for them­selves, the usual blue­print in sports. But that doesn’t mean both sides can’t be mad at each other.

It’s just not Texas’ fault if they keep clean­ing the Corn­huskers’ clock on the foot­ball field. Oh, sorry. Clock’s a bad term.

But it is run­ning, tim­ing Ne­braska’s fi­nal months in the Big 12. Toma­toes await.

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