This is your chance, Nebraska. This is your moment.
The spotlight is shining. The red carpet is unfurled. The path to a Big Ten championship couldn't be more inviting if Jim Delany sprinkled it with gold dust.
Monday morning, Jim Tressel finally cried mercy, ending a prolific decade at The Ohio State University. He may as well pack an era of Big Ten football in one of his cardboard boxes.
Ohio State won or shared six consecutive conference championships. Now the Buckeyes are a mess.
The fallout from Columbus will focus on sanctions, successors and scoreboards.
How hard will the NCAA smack Ohio State? What big name will follow Tressel when interim coach Luke Fickell's time is done? And how will scandal affect the Buckeyes' win total this fall?
But 800 miles west, a different question emerges: Is Nebraska ready to seize control of this league?
The notion would've been preposterous had it been asked nine months ago.
That's when Delany announced Nebraska's schedule for its rookie season. Wisconsin and Ohio State on back-to-back weeks to start things off. Consecutive November trips to Penn State and Michigan.
Tom Osborne, during an interview on the Big Ten Network, looked like a man whose fishing pole had snapped just as the 50-pound catfish was ready to bite.
How in the world was Nebraska going to navigate those waters?
But since that September night, the Big Ten has slipped into turmoil. The three traditional powerhouses (Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State) are suddenly vulnerable.
At Penn State, an 11-2 season in 2009 gave way to 7-6 in 2010. Even if Joe Paterno finds a signal caller, the talent in Happy Valley isn't good enough to compete for a Big Ten title.
At Michigan, defensive guru Greg Mattison will need more than one year to fix a defense that ranked 110th nationally. Meanwhile, Brady Hoke must adapt his pro-style offense to spread extraordinaire Denard Robinson.
At Ohio State, interim coach Fickell could be the next Nick Saban, but suspensions to five Buckeye standouts are bound to hamper continuity. It'd take a minor miracle for OSU to win a seventh straight Big Ten title.
The Big Ten's second tier remains sturdy.
Wisconsin should pick up where it left off in 2010, bulldozing defenses with a punishing ground attack. Michigan State is trending upward, with a hard-nosed coach and an experienced offense. Iowa is capable, though threatened by its own offseason tribulations.
But the Big Three are down, and that means the whole league is down.
From the sky falls a Big Red opportunity.
A chance to secure a signature accomplishment in Nebraska's illustrious gridiron history. A chance to restore pride and power to a starving fan base. A chance to win a conference crown for the first time since 1999.
The sheer thought should get the adrenaline flowing inside the Osborne Complex.
But can Nebraska handle it? Is Nebraska ready?
A year ago, the Huskers were in a similar spot, holding an opportunity to make history and slam the door on the Big 12.
But in the season's two biggest games, they blew it. Dropped the ball against Texas, inexplicably. And gave away a 17-0 lead against Oklahoma.
Now Bo Pelini gets a mulligan. His Huskers face challenges in 2011, no doubt.
A new offensive scheme. An unsteady quarterback situation. The toughest schedule in the league. And the task of learning a new opponent each Monday — no one will happily cede ground to the new kid on the block.
But Jim Tressel is gone, and Ohio State is in shambles. Michigan is rebuilding, and Penn State is limping to the end of the Paterno era. There's never been a better time to enter the Big Ten.
Now is Pelini's best chance to make a name for himself and his program.
It would be a shame to waste it.
Contact the writer: