By Chris Emma-
(CBS) Nebraska is back, and we’re here to stay.
Those were the words announced by coach Bo Pelini after the Cornhuskers won the 2009 Holiday Bowl, a grand declaration that seems comical given what Nebraska has accomplished since.
Nebraska followed that up with 10-4, 9-4, 10-4 and 9-4 campaigns, respectively. Such a run is impressive for any program, but not in Lincoln, where competing for championships is the expectation. Back refers to a place at the top of college football for the Cornhuskers. No, Nebraska has never quite gotten back, it’s just leveled out. That is, until now.
Maybe the Cornhuskers are back to their old ways as a college football power. A 5-0 start to the season seems to indicate Pelini has his Huskers poised for their best season since the glory days. In a wide-open Big Ten, they can make their move to the top.
These Huskers have what it takes to make a run for the inaugural College Football Playoff. It starts with their workhorse, Heisman contender running back Ameer Abdullah, who is putting up Nintendo numbers each time he takes a handoff.
The vaunted “Blackshirt” defense appears to be back in form, led by future first-round pick Randy Gregory. The defensive-minded Pelini has plenty to work with.
The Huskers’ hopes are riding on Saturday’s showdown in East Lansing and a date with the reining Rose Bowl champs, the Michigan State Spartans. If Nebraska wants to continue its rise – avoiding another 9-4 or 10-4 season – a win would go a long way.
Then, Nebraska will really be back.
1.) Watch closely, Brady Hoke fans – those of you left – because this may be the swan song for Michigan’s coach. A loss to Rutgers amid the Shane Morris mess may be the final straw for Hoke in Ann Arbor. With athletic director Dave Brandon on the hot seat too, a move seems inevitable, and Hoke appears to be the likely victim. A loss to Rutgers may be enough to make the move. A win would buy him at least another week.
2.) Count me in for liking the new Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern. It’s “Fitz Miles,” the little brother of Les Miles, who is quirky and entertaining. His best lines have included “No s––t,” “We’re an embarrassment” and “Chill out.” More importantly, Fitz Miles is tougher on his team. Gone is the country club feel the Northwestern program has seemed to foster under Fitzgerald. This new guy, who looks a lot like the old guy, is more demanding. In turn, he gets more out of his players. This is what the Wildcats needed.
3.) I feel for Illinois’ Tim Beckman, because his current position is one no coach would desire. This is the point where the bad gets ugly, and job security becomes virtually nonexistent. The Big Ten slate ahead is brutal, and it seems inevitable that he’ll be fired without a bowl berth. The pressure is impossible to work with, something which weighs on a coach’s mind. The outcry will grow louder, too. Beckman’s key is keeping his team intact, very possible considering these are his recruits on campus. But it’s hard to run a program without support, and support goes away without wins. The problem is, wins won’t be easy to find. Saturday’s home game against hapless Purdue is essentially a must-win.
4.) From a local perspective, Northwestern’s win at Penn State was an important boost for the Wildcats. But what was lost for the natives of State College is a truth they’ll soon learn. Their coach isn’t that good. James Franklin got out-coached by Pat Fitzgerald, and he’ll be out-coached many more times. He’s a brutal in-game manager and prone to many questionable decisons. Getting out-coached isn’t anything new; it happened frequently when Franklin coached Vanderbilt. But the Commodores’ lack of top SEC talent disguised it. Penn State has players, and Franklin has brought in big-name recruits to work with — but Nittany Lion fans should be ready to see their coach cost them games.
5.) Now, for the obsessive look at whether the Big Ten can get a team in the College Football Playoff. Preseason favorite Michigan State took a hit when the team that handed it a Week 2 loss, Oregon, lost to Arizona on Thursday night. A win over the Cornhuskers would go a long way for the Spartans this week, but then Michigan State would have to hope Nebraska could run the table and get to the Big Ten title game, where it would face … wait for it … the Spartans. A lot has to happen, but that’s why they play the games.
6.) For all the questions as to how Ohio State would survive without Braxton Miller as its quarterback, a solution seems to be emerging. Freshman J.T. Barrett is improving on the fly. The Buckeyes’ offense is thriving under Barrett’s leadership. He leads the Big Ten with 13 touchdowns, has tallied 278.1 yards per game and has 205 rushing yards to his name. These statistics aren’t quite what Miller has been known to produce, but they’re good enough to make Barrett known as a top Big Ten quarterback. He’s exceeded expectations, showing great improvement just in time for conference play.
7.) To either no surprise or a great shock, depending on your outlook last week, Indiana looked like Indiana again. The Hoosiers that upset the Missouri Tigers in Columbia were nowhere to be found as Maryland had its way with them. The defense was a disaster, and that high-powered offense never arrived at Memorial Stadium. Kevin Wilson’s team is a confusing one, that’s for sure. Maybe the Hoosiers can play like they did against the Tigers, but they’ll need to do so consistently for that elusive bowl game.
8.) Some fortunate news crossed the wires on Thursday night as Wisconsin announced Joel Stave would be its backup quarterback. Stave has battled a bout with the “Yips” since the preseason, but he has since recovered during weeks of practice. If Stave remains stable in his throws, he could even return as the Badgers’ starter. This was a sad situation — for Stave, his teammates, coaches and fans. Hopefully, it has come to an end.
9.) Dare I say it? Rutgers may actually be decent. The Scarlet Knights are 4-1 and playing pretty good football under the direction of coach Kyle Flood. The loss of running back Paul James is sure to catch up with them down the road, but they have shown encouraging signs during their first five games. Many observers, myself included, thought Rutgers would be a doormat in the new-look Big Ten. Perhaps it can continue to prove doubters wrong. So far, it’s been a good start toward that.
10.) Those fascinated by car crashes and old people falling will enjoy watching Purdue travel to Illinois for their new annual tradition, the Big Ten Bottomdweller’s Bowl. The Boilermakers offered Beckman his first conference win last season. They could provide his second this Saturday. These are two programs that are slowly but surely working their way to normalcy, but it’s a long, grueling process, something fans of each school can attest to.
Quote of the week
“In my judgement, there was a serious lack of communication that led to the confusion on the sideline.” — Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon on the Shane Morris mess.
Big Ten power rankings
1.) Michigan State (3-1) — Hold off the Huskers at home, and they’ll stay atop the Big Ten power rankings.
2.) Ohio State (3-1) — Good luck with your first true road test, J.T. Barrett. Maryland won’t be easy.
3.) Nebraska (5-0) — What an opportunity ahead for the Cornhuskers.
4.) Wisconsin (3-1) — The Melvin Gordon for Heisman campaign is just beginning.
5.) Iowa (4-1) — If only the Hawkeyes could have that loss to Iowa State back.
6.) Penn State (4-0) — Where were you, Christian Hackenberg? Penn State showed its weaknesses last week. Oh, of course, and the statue is still locked away.
7.) Maryland (4-1) — Want a sexy upset pick? The Terps could beat the Buckeyes.
8) Minnesota (3-1) — Good for Jerry Kill, getting a big win in Ann Arbor.
9.) Rutgers (4-1) — What a treat for the Big Ten’s newcomers, with weary Michigan coming to town.
10.) Northwestern (2-2) — Welcome back to the middle of the pack, Cats. Good luck with Wisconsin, because you’ll need it.
11.) Indiana (2-2) — The Hoosiers remain confusing as ever. It’s time to give up figuring them out.
12.) Michigan (2-3) — Anything happen this week?
13.) Illinois (3-2) — Simply put, the Fighting Illini have to beat Purdue.
14.) Purdue (2-3) — Simply put, the Boilermakers have to beat Illinois.
Purdue at Illinois (-9) — Purdue, 23-20
No. 20 Ohio State (-8) at Maryland — Ohio State, 31-26
North Texas at Indiana (-14) — Indiana, 41-23
No. 17 Wisconsin (-9) at Northwestern — Northwestern, 24-21
Michigan at Rutgers (-2) — Rutgers, 31-10
No. 19 Nebraska at No. 10 Michigan State (-7) — Michigan State, 24-20
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.