It's one of the crazy things about Division I college football.
In any other sport, from the NFL to the NBA, a 4-1 start to a season would be seen as positive. Even after a bad defeat, there is plenty of time to keep getting better and make the playoffs.
But college football is a unique beast where playoffs don't exist and a single loss during the regular season can decimate a team's dreams.
Saturday night's massacre in Madison is more than just a loss. It's a defeat that puts Nebraska at a crossroads. Here's why:
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Considering its undefeated record and high ranking heading into the Wisconsin game, Nebraska was gunning for a Big Ten championship and at least entertaining thoughts of a potential national championship.
Both of those dreams are gone -- in the span of three and half brutal hours where the Huskers were exposed on both offense and defense.
Unless something cataclysmic happens to the Badgers, there is no way for Nebraska to win a league title in its first Big Ten season. We won't even talk about a national championship.
So with all these lofty goals and expectations -- which a program like Nebraska absolutely should have every season -- now destroyed, where does this team go?
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It's simple to say things like "well, you just put Wisconsin behind you and focus on the next game." Easier said than done. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini can preach "forget the loss" and "moving on" all he wants, but players aren't stupid. They know 2011 will never be seen as a towering success. Here it is in early October, with the bulk of the league schedule still left to play, and they know they can't win a Big Ten title.
That realization stings.
They know that only one league game into the Great Big Ten Experiment, they have disappointed a proud fan base. They know they can't achieve the goals laid out before them in August.
But that doesn't mean Pelini can't try to beat this negative thinking. In fact, he has no other choice.
I said Nebraska is at a crossroads -- and it's a dangerous one. If Pelini can't right this ship, he may just find it capsized in November. And we all know that when we're speaking in maritime metaphors, the skipper always goes down with his ship.
Pelini must guide his team out of this mess. It won't be an easy task. But a .500 record isn't out of the question, if Nebraska doesn't regroup fast.
The Huskers still have big games (albiet not as big) against Ohio State and Michigan. They can still go to a quality bowl game. They can still win 10 games in 2011.
Nebraska has talent, plenty of it. The Huskers may not be one of the five (or 10) best teams in the nation this year, but they can't abandon this season.
There is too much football left. Too much pride.
At Nebraska, the faithful won't stand for anything less.