The Nebraska Cornhuskers don’t really have to win the Big Ten this year.
Sure, all of the preseason conference polls have them duking it out with the Wisconsin Badgers for conference supremacy by year’s end. Yes, many expect that Nebraska’s traditional grind-it-out style, coupled with their least talked about offensive weapon -- running back Rex Burkhead -- make them the perfect fit for the Big Ten. And, fine, the Huskers have set the bar pretty high with three straight seasons successful regular seasons.
But there are just so many good excuses.
If only Nebraska had a coach who stood for excuses.
“I don’t ever look at it being a success if you don’t win a championship,” Bo Pelini said to reporters this past Monday. “That’s our goal from the beginning. Is that to say you can have a good year and not win a conference championship? That depends on who you talk to. In this program, we’re about winning championships. If we don’t, and if you talk to the guys in the locker room, they wouldn’t feel it’s a success.”
As it should be. The Huskers have a storied and proud legacy as one of the greatest collegiate football programs in all the land. Their place in history, however, wasn’t carved into the sport’s lore courtesy of almost winning. And unfortunately, almost winning is all that Nebraska has done since 1999 – their last conference championship.
Sure, there have been some close calls in the Pelini Era. In 2009 the team fell in the Big 12 Championship game to the Texas Longhorns 13-12, and in 2010 to the Oklahoma State Sooners 23-20. Both were hard-fought battles, and both were games that the Huskers could have foreseeably won.
But they didn’t.
This year is different for Pelini. He no longer has to restore any sort of dignity to a program in shambles like he did upon his re-arrival to Nebraska. He no longer has to re-introduce the concept of quality, hard-nosed defense. He just has to win.
Already, the Huskers head coach has opted to make some big changes in an effort to put a more complete team out on the field. He promoted running backs coach Tim Beck to fill the hole left behind by Shawn Watson in hopes that Beck will be able to more easily adjust to the Big Ten’s run-oriented style of play. Beck, in turn, has made it a priority to speed up Nebraska’s historically sluggish offensive game. The goal, apparently, is that they’ll go against the fold on this side of the ball – while the rest of the Big Ten moves at a turtle’s pace, the Huskers offense will take off full speed ahead.
The coaches decision to alter the defense was necessary, but it will also have serious ramifications for the defense. A speedier offense means more three-and-outs, and more cases of shorter rest periods for what is sure to be a dominant, deep defensive unit. Luckily, Nebraska has three preseason All Americans in Lavonte David, Jared Crick and Alfonzo Dennard to soften the blow. Assuming Dennard can get all the way healthy, the defense could feasibly be the best one in the conference.
Still, it all starts and ends with the coach in Nebraska. Pelini’s signature scowl and fiery demeanor are the program’s new trademarks. Most importantly, though, it rubs off on the players. They absorb his never-say-die mentality. They absorb his 100%-at-all times attitude.
And, most importantly, they absorb the mantras he sets for every new year. Whereas we may not have been privy to them in years past, Pelini has made this year’s perfectly clear:
There is no second place in 2011 – it’s championship or bust.