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Nebraska isn't back just yet, but Pelini has Huskers on right track

It was the morning after, and Nebraska assistant coach Mike Ekeler wanted to gauge the players' mindset. He asked Cody Glenn what the linebacker had been thinking during the previous day's loss to Virginia Tech, how he'd felt when it was over, what lessons he could drawn for the future.

The player told the assistant coach about an epiphany. A year earlier, Glenn said, the Huskers would have known going in they were headed for a thrashing. But this time, he said, "we thought we had a shot." It got better. Sometime in the first quarter, Glenn recognized, "Hey, we can play with these guys." By midway through the second half, he knew: "We can beat these guys."

Ekeler listened to Glenn depict the Huskers evolving like the Little Engine That Could (ultimately, they couldn't; a late rally fell short and the Hokies won 35-30), and had an epiphany of his own. He homed in on Glenn's newly discovered confidence and optimism and realized: "Oh, boy. We've got a lot of work to do."

That was a year ago. If preseason rankings and predictions mean anything, a lot of work has been done. Media are ranking the Huskers near the bottom of various top 25s and projecting them to win the Big 12 North. Second-year coach Bo Pelini and his staff seem to have Nebraska on the right track. But listening to Pelini, it's clear there's still plenty left to do -- and examining a linebacker's exuberance after a tough loss might be as good a way as any to start explaining why.BIG 12 PREVIEW: SI predicts how they'll finish

When Pelini arrived in Lincoln in December 2007, fresh off a stint as LSU defensive coordinator, the Huskers had suffered through their second losing season in 45 years. The other came in 2004, the first of Bill Callahan's four years as coach. During Callahan's watch the longest bowl streak in the nation ended and Nebraska slide further away from the elite. To those associated with the program -- and in the state of Nebraska, that's everybody -- this realization was even more dispiriting:

Not only was Nebraska no longer among the nation's best, the program didn't much resemble Nebraska.

Pelini knew he'd inherited a rebuilding project. But it might not have been until the Virginia Tech game that a true picture emerged showing just how far the Huskers had fallen. Ekeler played at Kansas State, grew up in Blair, Neb., and is one of several Nebraskans on Pelini's staff. He understands what Husker football is supposed to be. Glenn, these boys, they didn't have that confident swagger. Players thinking they had a shot in a big game? Discovering they weren't outclassed? Recognizing they could actually, you know, win?

The Virginia Tech game was just the beginning. Missouri came to Lincoln the next week, and the score looked like so many other scores in the lopsided series. Only this time it was the Tigers winning 52-17. Oklahoma hung 62 on Nebraska. Nothing, not a four-game winning streak to finish '08, or a 9-4 record, or a Gator Bowl win over Clemson, erased that.

"Our players don't feel like Nebraska's back," Pelini told reporters recently at Big 12 media day. "Our expectations are very, very high in our football program and what we want it to be and where we're headed."

Which brings us to Year 2. The preseason hype reflects the positive momentum Pelini has generated more than the state of the team. With a new quarterback to break in and other holes to fill, favorite's status might be premature.

On the other hand, the division isn't exactly loaded; Missouri's run appears over now that Chase Daniel and several other talented Tigers have departed. There's Kansas, but if you're a Nebraska fan, you're never really concerned about Kansas. The division title's in reach, and yet here's Pelini, saying, at every opportunity, there's a lot of work left to do.

It's easy to understand why. At Nebraska, where success is measured in championships, the standard isn't beating Kansas and Missouri. If the question today is whether Nebraska is back, the answer is clearly no.

"With the tradition here and the expectations in the program and what the people are used to, we made some progress last year," Pelini said, "but we're nowhere near where we need to be."

Pelini gets it, and that alone is cause for celebration, from Omaha to Scottsbluff, and all points between.

He gets this is bigger than 2009, gets this is about proving Nebraska can regain its status as one of college football's perennial powers and show that no matter how much the landscape has changed, the Huskers aren't part of a bygone era.

Tom Osborne's power option attack is a thing of the past, and Nebraska doesn't benefit from a natural recruiting backyard, and the Big 12 is all about Texas, Oklahoma and a third fill-in-the-blank South Division team. That's no excuse.

"I will never buy into the idea that the Big 12 North, because of a geographic reason or whatever, cannot compete with the Texases and the Oklahomas," said Trev Alberts, the former Huskers standout who's now the athletic director at Nebraska-Omaha. "That's a cop-out."

Not surprisingly, others say similar things. But they can't ignore that when former athletic director Steve Pederson fired Frank Solich after the 2003 season, he famously said he wouldn't surrender the Big 12 to Oklahoma and Texas. That, of course, was before he bungled the search process, hired Callahan and surrendered not only the conference, but also the division.

Callahan's demise, like most, was about too few wins and too many losses. But it was also about something more, about what many Nebraskans perceived as a wholesale dismantling of Husker football. "There's no place like Nebraska," goes the school song, and it's correct. There's no place more Joe College than Nebraska, at least. And perhaps no place where a football program is more important.

"As straight football, Nebraska is about as pure as you can get," said former Huskers quarterback Scott Frost.

Callahan was a nice guy and a decent enough coach, but when he came in from the NFL, it was like force-feeding soy milk to a dairy farmer. He installed a complicated West Coast offense, ill-suited for the talent on hand when he arrived. But that wasn't his undoing. In fact, Callahan's later teams proved passing was possible on the plains, and he won the North in 2006 behind junior-college transfer Zac Taylor.

Callahan's biggest mistake was ripping up the roots of the program. Even former players felt unwelcome. Longtime employees were let go. Pictures came down off the walls, traditions were discarded -- including a cherished, long-established walk-on program that had produced starters and occasional stars -- and a shared ownership of the program was lost.

"You don't take something that is the best in the country and do everything you can to change it," said Frost, who watched with dismay from afar.

Many shared Frost's sentiments. "Nebraskans place a lot of emphasis not only just on what happens, but they're also quite concerned with how it's done," said Osborne, now the athletic director.

The former coach returned to the program after a stint in politics, then retirement, because of what he called "a confluence of issues" and "some disturbance within the athletic department." This meant a lot of things, but mostly the focus was football.

"We lost some games where we really weren't competitive at all," Osborne said of 2007, Callahan's final season, when the Huskers lost to Missouri by five touchdowns, to Oklahoma State by 31 points, and gave up 76 points to Kansas. "That was kind of hard to watch, and that was something that people reacted against really strongly."

They reacted just as strongly in favor of Pelini, who had been Solich's defensive coordinator in 2003, and the Huskers' interim coach when they won the Alamo Bowl after Solich was let go. Fans clamored then that he should get the permanent job, but he didn't receive Pederson's genuine consideration.

Four years later, there wasn't much debate. Pelini spent a year at Oklahoma, then moved on to guide Les Miles' defenses at LSU, where he helped the Tigers smother Ohio State to win the BCS championship. Then he turned his full attention to rebuilding the Nebraska program -- and was embraced by fans and players who desperately needed a dose of confidence.

Pelini hails from Youngstown, Ohio, but might as well be from Grand Island. He comes across like a regular guy. Honest and direct, he looks you in the eye and keeps looking. He's blunt and focused and, well, if he's not a Nebraskan, he seems like one.

"Bo is very straightforward," Osborne said. "I don't think he's got any phoniness to him, and ... Nebraskans particularly appreciate that. They appreciate someone who is straight-talking and down to earth."

So if it feels like Husker football is back, Pelini's a big reason why. He's embraced the tradition, and there's a sense the natural order has been restored. His teams pass, by the way, and like everybody else, they'll spread you out. But the team philosophy preaches defense-first, and a ball-control offense, discipline and toughness. Especially toughness.

The old-fashioned approach might just work, especially in a conference currently caught up in fancy passing games and pinball wizardry.

Is Nebraska back? No, not yet. Yeah, Pelini and the Huskers managed nine wins last season, which was a nice debut. Maybe they're good enough to win the Big 12 North this season. But you might recall Solich got the boot after a nine-win season. At Nebraska, the standard is higher.

"People are excited, but we've got a long way to go," Pelini says. "How close we are, I don't know."

Nobody knows, really. Elite status is a few years off, if it comes. But Alberts, for one, has been watching closely -- and he likes what he sees.

"They go 9-4 (in '08), and it's a remarkable year," he said. "But all the talk is they're not back yet and they have a long way to go. That says they get it. There's a culture of excellence around the state, second to none.

"Bo has embraced that."

And that's why, though it may be early, Nebraska has embraced him.

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