Forget that in the last five years the Nebraska football team has won 47 games and lost only eight. Forget that Nebraska has won four Big Eight championships in a row. Forget that Nebraska's Bob Devaney has a better winning percentage than any other coach in college football (.820). Just take Nebraska and place it in the blazing lights of Miami's Orange Bowl on New Year's night 1966 against Alabama and watch the Crimson Tide's smaller, tougher players beat the Cornhuskers into corn mash, 39-28. Then, one year later, put Nebraska into the Sugar Bowl—where it deserves to be after winning nine of 10 games. Who does it face again? Alabama, of course, and now the Tide is after the same national championship it won from Nebraska the year before. Alabama wants to humiliate Nebraska and, at the same time, look good doing it. So even when the score reaches 34-7 Alabama's smaller players are calling Nebraska's bigger players by their first names as they give them a hand getting up after knocking them down. "They even knew our boys' home towns," says Bob Devaney sadly.
Now another season is about to start and Devaney has a good reason to be worried because, for the first time since he came to Lincoln, he is without a quarterback in the class of Dennis Claridge, Fred Duda or Bob Churchich. But what really bothers him is that last loss to Alabama. "Even though our guys never once gave up," he says, "it looked as though Alabama just wanted to win more than we did. But let's face it, a good quarterback with good ends will always give us trouble. We simply don't have the quickness to react in time."
The Cornhuskers have been called big and clumsy before, but it is hard to realize what a detriment their size can be until they meet a fast team that they cannot wear down, such as Alabama or Oklahoma. They have also been criticized for a rather mechanical approach to a game that is supposedly supercharged with emotion. They have a way of beating good teams and bad teams by three points. Devaney will try his utmost to change all that this year, but the Huskers look just as big and no quicker than before. And this time they well may have trouble holding on to the conference championship that has been theirs for so long.
Gone are 24 lettermen, including everybody but Ben Gregory in the starting backfield, seven all-conference players and two All-Americas, losses that almost no team could stand. There are huge (naturally) holes in the defense, and a whale of a problem at quarterback. Last year Churchich picked the Huskcrs up when they needed it most, and along the way he broke every school passing record worth mentioning. This year a big 6'7", 220-pound sophomore, Frank Patrick, is the man who would have to do the same thing. Patrick can think, throw and run. The big question about him is whether he can lead. If he cannot, and Devaney should find that out in the opener at Washington, Ernie Sigler, a junior, will step in. Sigler is an adequate quarterback, but he lacks the potential to pull an inexperienced team through an entire season.
Devaney has opened up his offense, installing pro sets and the I formation in order to improve the Cornhusker passing attack and help get Dick Davis, a fullback who has the ability to break away for long yardage, into the same backfield with Gregory. In this offense Gregory, who at 219 pounds is bigger than Davis, will move to tailback. Gregory was the workhorse of the 1966 attack. He carried for 418 yards and a 4.4 average and caught 12 passes for 121 yards and a touchdown. Tom Penney, the team's leading receiver, has moved to flanker to make room for Dennis Richnafsky at split end, while Dennis Morrison is back at tight end. The offensive line has Mel Brichacek taking over at guard for All-America LaVerne Allers, with Carl Ashman as his running mate. Between them is a weak spot, where Roger Kudrna, formerly a guard, will attempt to adapt himself to the center spot. Devaney expects much from his 6'5", 250-pound right tackle, Bob Taucher, but the other side is unsettled.
Defense was the subject of special attention in the spring, with only one returning regular among the linebackers and defensive backs. For the first time in his career, Devaney has appointed a linebacking coach, John Melton, and radical moves are being made. Two defensive backs, Al Kuehl and Adrian Fiala, who weigh only 200 pounds, are being tried as linebackers, along with returning Barry Alvarez. The defensive line looks sound. It is built around All-America Middle Guard Wayne Meylan. Jerry Patton moves to left tackle from defensive end, and Right Tackle Jim McCord was a starter last year. Marv Mueller, a two-year starter at defensive halfback, now moves to safety to play behind Halfback Bob Best and a gutsy little red shirt, 5'9" Jim Hawkins, whose career seemed ended after a serious injury in the 1965 spring game.
All of this rebuilding has resulted in Colorado becoming the favorite for the Big Eight championship, but Nebraska will not go down easily. It faces both Colorado and Oklahoma in Lincoln, where the Huskers rarely lose. "I just don't know," says Devaney. "We have so little experience. I've got to see them under pressure. They remind me of our '64 squad: good potential but no experience. That year, in the second game of the season, the boys came from two touchdowns behind to beat Minnesota. They went on to win nine of 10."
But would that be such a good idea? It might mean facing Alabama in a bowl again.
at Kansas State
*Box indicates team's toughest game