Nebraska is back just in time to leave the Big 12.
With a no-nonsense coach and freakishly athletic quarterback, the Cornhuskers look like their old selves again — and somewhere Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is smiling.
THE BIG STORY
While nobody should be handing No. 6 Nebraska any trophies for beating up a Washington team that does not look ready to make the jump many thought it would this season, the Cornhuskers did prove Saturday that they are nationally relevant again.
Bo Pelini’s first two seasons as coach provided plenty of evidence the Huskers were on the right track. They won nine games in Pelini’s first season and went 10-4 last year, coming oh-so-close to upsetting Texas in the Big 12 championship game.
Nebraska said goodbye to hulking defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh after last season, but still expected to return a nasty defense. Defense is Pelini’s forte.
The Blackshirts were back but Nebraska’s offense still had questions to answer.
That was until Pelini handed the quarterback job to redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez. It’s as if Eric Crouch or Tommie Frazier returned to Lincoln. Martinez is seventh in the nation in rushing at 140 yards per game, averaging 10 yards per carry. He accounted for four touchdowns in the 56-21 victory at Washington.
Pelini, predictably, downplayed Nebraska’s latest statement.
“We are getting better,” he said. “This was a good step for us, being on the road against a national program, but we still have a lot more to do, we can still get a lot better.”
The Huskers already might be the best team in the Big 12.
With Texas and Oklahoma showing flaws in their 3-0 starts, the Cornhuskers seem to be at least the equal of the Longhorns and Sooners.
Since the Big 12 was formed in 1996, when the Big Eight merged with Texas and three other Southwest Conference teams, that has rarely been the case.
Oklahoma was in the midst of its dark days, otherwise known as the John Blake era, in the Big 12′s early year. At Texas, the Longhorns were underachieving under John Mackovic.
Meanwhile, Tom Osborne’s long and successful reign at Nebraska was winding down. Longtime assistant Frank Solich succeeded Osborne in 1998.
The Huskers played in three of the first four Big 12 title games, winning two. They have reached the conference title game only twice since and lost both times.
While the Huskers were struggling to beat out Colorado and Missouri in the Big 12 North, Texas and Oklahoma were blossoming into national powers, Mack Brown leading the Longhorns and Bob Stoops guiding the Sooners.
The Big 12 has been terribly imbalanced on the field for most of the last 10 years. Only twice has the North division winner won the league title game.
Off the field, the imbalance was also stark, as Texas and Oklahoma raked in more revenue and held more power in the conference than Nebraska.
The result: Nebraska is in its final year in the Big 12 before it moves to the Big Ten next season.
After all these years, the Big 12 has Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas at the top of their games at the same time. A power threesome even the Southeastern Conference could have a hard time matching. And it will last one season.
In the long run, the Big Ten will get a powerful Nebraska program that the Big 12 only saw glimpses of through the years.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Daniel Thomas, the best running back much of the country has never seen, is on his way to carrying Kansas State back to respectability.
Thomas, who played quarterback in junior college, quietly led the Big 12 in rushing last season with 1,265 yards. This season Wildcats coach Bill Snyder has apparently decided to ride the 228-pound senior as far as he’ll go.
Thomas went for 181 yards and two touchdowns on a career-high 37 carries in K-State’s 27-20 victory against Iowa State on Saturday.
Thomas ranks second in the nation in rushing at 184 yards per game and Kansas State is off to a 3-0 start, with Central Florida visiting Manhattan on Saturday. After a week off, Nebraska comes to the Little Apple.
The Wildcats certainly have a chance to be a bowl team. The bigger question is: Will they win enough to get Thomas some serious Heisman Trophy consideration?
— Stanford’s Andrew Luck is everything Washington’s Jake Locker was hyped to be: A Heisman Trophy candidate and future first overall NFL draft pick.
— It’s been an inauspicious start to the season for the Big East with Connecticut and Cincinnati already taking two losses and Pittsburgh losing its opener. West Virginia can give the league a boost with a victory at LSU on Saturday.
— Colorado coach Dan Hawkins’ make or break season has started this way. 24-3 victory against Colorado State; embarrassing 52-7 loss to Cal; 31-13 victory against Hawaii. Buffs get a week off before Georgia comes to town for a game that looks far less daunting right now. Maybe Hawk Love has some life in Boulder?
It’s maybe the biggest game in Fayetteville, Ark., since Frank Broyles was coaching the Razorbacks and they were contending for national titles in the late 1960s.
No. 1 Alabama comes to town to face No. 10 Arkansas. It’s a chance for Arkansas to thrust itself into the national championship race and for Ryan Mallett to become the Heisman Trophy front-runner.
Ralph D. Russo covers college football for The Associated Press. Write to him at rrusso(at)ap.org.
Ralph D. Russo/The Associated Press