Big Red Alert

Nebraska's heading straight for the top. Sorry, CU.

Itching for a fight?

Put a pipefitter from the Bronx and a cabbie from San Francisco on adjacent bar stools and ask which team will win the World Series. Or get a couple of lifelong Broncos fans going about where the worm must turn this season -- in Brian's brain, Terrell's toes or Romo's medicine chest. As a last resort, chain a Republican to a Democrat and let 'em argue the merits of the Texas preppie versus Slick Willie's towel boy.

But if you're looking for certainty of thought and unanimity of opinion, just ask the experts who's going to win the national championship in college football this year.

Their answer? Nebraska.

This, of course, pains the Colorado mind. The Nebraska grid dynasty, scented with alfalfa and cow dung, has tormented fans here for so long that it's become a condition of life. Last year's day-after-Thanksgiving game between the Cornhuskers and the Colorado Buffaloes was especially irksome: Late in the proceedings, the poor Buffs placekicker, whose name shall not be uttered again here, hooked a baby field goal that would have put the entire Boulder police force on riot alert. Instead, Nebraska prevailed 33-30 -- in overtime, no less.

But then, what's new? CU hasn't beaten NU since 1990, and although the Buffs have lost the last four contests by a total of only thirteen points, their futility is much larger than that, and it's tinged with obsession. It might be easier for Colorado's linebackers to take out Moby Dick than to stop the Huskers' fearsome running game.

And now this. Everybody but Bill Owens and Vladimir Putin is picking Nebraska as number one in the 2000 preseason polls. Prophets at the Sporting News predict "a smooth ride to Miami" (and the Orange Bowl) for the Huskers, while the Broncos' favorite publication, Sports Illustrated, crows: "In Lincoln, football is serious business, and this year's team is very, very serious." Virtually every college football annual but one (Athlon) and all of the coaches' polls see the Big Red as world-beaters. L'il ol' Florida State, last year's national champ, finishes second in the current polls and prognostications. In fact, the only question remaining for the pundits seems to be which school will need the bigger paddy wagon following the team bus: Among the Cornhuskers and the Seminoles, a lot more players go to jail than to grad school.

If they aren't charged with felonies, this year's Nebraska players look formidable indeed. On offense, third-year coach Frank Solich starts with tough guy Eric Crouch, a bruising runner who last season became the first quarterback since 1955 to lead the Cornhuskers in rushing (889 yards, 16 touchdowns). Only a junior, the Omaha native runs Nebraska's vaunted option attack like a master -- and he's gained seven pounds of muscle in the off season. He's recovering from a shoulder injury, and critics say he's an inaccurate passer who can't throw deep. But don't tell that to wingback Bobby Newcombe, the former quarterback whose job Crouch took, or to tight end Tracey Wistrom, who averaged 27 yards per catch in 1999. The real question in Lincoln is whether Crouch is the best-ever Nebraska quarterback -- better than former Colorado-tormentors Turner Gill and Tommie Frazier. It certainly doesn't hurt that the linemen he has playing in front of him are all the size of hay silos. Two of them are Outland Trophy candidates.

Those who say Nebraska's a little short of star I-backs this year may be whistling past the graveyard. Solich has no fewer than seven ball-carriers on scholarship -- including a junior-college transfer, Thunder Collins, who may be as good as his name if the early reports hold up. Naysayers point out that Nebraska fumbled 49 times last year, losing 25 of them, a national high. Sounds pretty inept, doesn't it? Well, if you got to run about 800 plays per game, you'd fumble a few times, too -- out of sheer exhaustion.

The Sporting News calls Nebraska's ground-pounding offense "boring." And "simplistic." And "archaic." Kind of like Nebraska country life in general. But the Husker ball-carriers are punishingly effective: Last year the Huskers averaged 266 yards rushing per game and lost exactly one game -- to an inspired Texas team. In 2000, all but two starters return on offense.

Now, then, want to hear about the Big Red defense?

Solich lost two outside linebackers to graduation, but returning middle linebacker Carlos Polk is said to be the best in school history, and the current defensive ends continue a long, long tradition of excellence. Otherwise, last year's "D," one of Nebraska's best ever, returns seven starters. This does not bode well for Nebraska's rivals in the Big 12. Meanwhile, Nebraska's special teams are outstanding: Newcombe, Joe Walker and Keyuo Craver are all fleet return men, and the kicking/punting game is impeccable.

There's also the matter of the schedule. Saint Tom Osborne is gone, so the Huskers won't be playing Northwest Alaska Teachers' College in the season opener. But if visiting San Jose State (preseason ranking: 103rd in the nation) knows what's good for it, it will get the engines on the jet fired up early in the third quarter on September 2. Tickets will be hard to come by (although a win probably won't) when Nebraska visits Notre Dame for the first time in 47 years on September 9, and then it's home again to face lowly Iowa, judged to be tenth of eleven teams in the Big 10 and 71st overall. Sports Illustrated says it plainly enough: Nebraska faces the 52nd toughest schedule out of 115 Division I-A schools. Number-seven Texas isn't even on its dance card this year.

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