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October 20, 2006
Game of the Week: No. 5 Texas at No. 17 Nebraska
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November 23, 2001.
That's the day then-No. 2 Nebraska was uncharacteristically blasted by Colorado 62-36 and consequently fell from grace and college football's elite.
A series of upsets and poor BCS planning enabled the Cornhuskers to play for the national championship later that season, but after that 26-point loss to Colorado nobody took them seriously. Miami easily disposed of Nebraska, 37-14, in the Rose Bowl.
In following years, the Huskers - no doubt boosted by their glorious history - made cameo appearances in the top 10. Those appearances were dealt serious blows after a 40-7 thrashing at the hands of unranked Penn State in 2002 and a 41-20 trouncing to unranked Missouri in 2003.
Since that day in 2001 when the wrinkles first appeared, Nebraska has finished no higher than 19th in the final AP poll and is 0-4 against opponents ranked in the top 10.
On Saturday, the No. 17 Cornhuskers (6-1, 3-0 in the Big 12) can show they again belong among the nation's elite if they can upset No. 5 Texas (6-1, 3-0) in what could be a preview of the Big 12 championship game.
"We want people to notice and, if you beat a team like Texas, you'll get that kind of respect," Nebraska senior quarterback Zac Taylor said. "We feel like, if we have the successful season that we're on track to have, people will notice us."
It's a big and meaningful game for Nebraska, even if coach Bill Callahan would prefer to play down its importance.
"They're all big. Every game is big in the Big 12," Callahan said. "Every game, every week, every game's a big game. And that's how we're treating it. It's just the next game.
"We've had tremendous focus in that respect and our kids have really concentrated and prepared on who they're playing next. And as a player and as a coach, that's all you can do. We don't get too high or too low. We just have to keep an even keel in our approach and the way we go about our business. That's worked well for us in the last nine of 10 games, so we're going to continue on with that type of format and that emphasis."
The problem is the one loss Nebraska has endured in its last 10 games was a 28-10 setback to then No. 4 Southern California, the Cornhuskers' latest failed test against a top-10 team.
Texas and USC have their similarities.
Like USC quarterback John David Booty - who followed Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart - Texas' Colt McCoy is in his first year as a starter and is replacing a legend in Vince Young. The Texas offensive line is experienced, powerful and productive. Texas' 6-foot-4 junior receiver Limas Sweed is a deep threat and physical mismatch for smaller cornerbacks just like the Trojans' Dwayne Jarrett, who scorched the Cornhuskers for 11 catches and two touchdowns.
McCoy, who has completed 68.7 percent of his passes and has 18 touchdowns, might have a little more difficult time than Booty had against Nebraska because this game is in Lincoln, Neb. It will also be McCoy's first game played outside of Texas and in front of a hostile crowd.
"This is (Texas') first road game outside of Texas this year. That's what makes me believe we have a fighting chance. We need to rattle Colt McCoy early and often with the crowd and d-line."
-- Phoenix_Husker on the Red Sea Scrolls message board on HuskersIllustrated.com.
"Colt has gained so much confidence from his teammates," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "They're believers now. When a quarterback shows the ability to come from behind and lead his team, they buy into it."
McCoy has gotten great protection this season - the Texas offensive line has allowed just six sacks. But injuries have thrust redshirt freshman tackle Adam Ulatoski into the starting lineup. Ulatoski will be facing defensive end Adam Carriker, the Cornhuskers' best pass rusher.
An effective pass rush figures to be crucial for Nebraska to ease the burden on the secondary. Sweed, who already has caught eight touchdown passes, has been a key target for McCoy.
Texas can also rush the passer, which its 25 sacks prove. The Longhorns also boast the nation's second-best run defense, which will be a key factor in denying Nebraska success with play-action passes.
The Longhorns have won 18 consecutive Big 12 games and have prevailed in 26 of their last 27 games, including last season's national championship game win over USC.
But Brown reminded that neither Texas' recent success nor Nebraska's recent failings against top-10 teams will be a factor on Saturday.
"In sports you learn the best team is going to win today," Brown said. "It has nothing to do with four or six or eight years ago. The best team will win Saturday. We have to be careful we haven't won so much that we just expect to win."
Elite teams do expect to win, and Nebraska can expect to soon regain elite status if can beat a top-10 team like Texas.