LINCOLN — When seven AP Top 25 voters got down to the final spots on their ballots last Saturday night, they decided that Nebraska wasn't good enough to make the cut.
The 56-13 win over Southern Mississippi apparently wasn't enough to ease the lingering doubts from the 37-34 close call with Wyoming the week before.
The 2-0 start to this season wasn't enough to make some forget the ugliness of the 0-2 finish to the one before.
It was another reminder that the free pass — when it comes down to it — is long gone for a Husker program that usually got its name scribbled somewhere on those ballots on reputation alone.
So that's where Nebraska sits heading into an 11 a.m. game Saturday with UCLA: with the bruised psyches of Big Red believers seemingly always on the mend from the fits and starts of Husker momentum.
“If they can do it defensively, they're going to be pretty good,” said Chris Spielman, the former Ohio State and Detroit Lions linebacker who will be the color analyst Saturday for ABC's telecast. “All the tools are there, but until you do it on a consistent basis on both sides of the ball, people are going to have a show-me attitude.”
Spielman said some of the defensive breakdowns remain troubling and will continue to limit the Huskers' progress until they're ironed out. “That's just what I see,” he said, “and frankly the numbers don't lie.”
Those questions have led to Nebraska's strange ride in the Associated Press poll so far. After opening the season at No. 18, NU dropped to No. 22 after the Wyoming game and to No. 23 after Southern Miss. In addition to the seven voters who left the Huskers unranked, three had them at No. 25 and six at No. 24.
By comparison, Nebraska was No. 11 after a 2-0 start in 2011, No. 8 in 2010 and No. 19 in 2009 (NU started 1-1 a year ago).
Two AP voters responding to The World-Herald agreed with Spielman's assessment that it will take a good showing against No. 16 UCLA to change their thinking.
Anthony Gimino of the Tucson (Ariz.) Citizen said he isn't necessarily “down” on Nebraska and said he could see vaulting NU back into the Top 15 with a win over the Bruins. But he dropped the Huskers from a No. 20 preseason perch after the Wyoming win.
“I wouldn't argue with the majority of the AP voters who have them ranked,” Gimino said. “To me Nebraska is part of a group of teams on the fringe of the rankings that have wait-and-see résumés, along with Wisconsin, Arizona State, Georgia Tech and others.”
“On the fringe” remains the Huskers' place in the national snapshot because of days like the 70-31 loss to Wisconsin in last year's Big Ten championship game and three straight bowl losses. And although Nebraska swept a two-game regular-season series with unranked Washington teams in 2010 and '11, the Huskers are 0-3 in their other nonconference regular-season games against BCS teams under Bo Pelini (0-2 vs. Virginia Tech, 0-1 vs. UCLA).
“I started the season skeptical of them, honestly, because I was not impressed with what I saw in person a couple years ago when they played South Carolina (in the Capital One Bowl) or what I saw from afar in 2012,” said Josh Kendall of The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. “The narrow win over a Wyoming team that won four games last year didn't do anything to change that opinion, and neither did whipping a dreadful Southern Miss team that threw four interceptions.”
Kendall, though, is one of those who say the Huskers might change his opinion on his next ballot with three hours of good football.
“If I see something I like,” he said, “I won't hesitate to jump them in and even jump them in high.”
For their part, Nebraska players chose not to touch anything this week that had to do with ratings or respect or national perception.
Senior offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles said he couldn't have even told you that Nebraska is ranked No. 23 in the AP Top 25 and No. 15 in the USA Today coaches poll. Those things don't concern him.
“We just come out and play,” Sirles said. “We can control what we can control. We can't control what the polls say, we can't control what ESPN says … we can just go out there every week and try to put another W on the board, and at the end of the year hopefully we're sitting there with all W's.”
Nebraska had a chance to inch closer to the Top 10 last September but lost 36-30 to UCLA in Pasadena. It had another such opportunity — and with a Rose Bowl bid at stake — when it failed against Wisconsin in Indianapolis.
Although the Huskers have played in two straight January bowl games, their BCS bowl drought still dates to the 2001 season.
“We'll start getting the national attention when we start winning championships,” Sirles said. “So that's the ultimate goal.”
Senior defensive tackle Thad Randle said the Huskers' only focus this week has been on getting better, not shaping public opinion. UCLA also offers a high-caliber tuneup for the Big Ten season as Nebraska prepares to defend its Legends Division title.
“We're 2-0, and nobody can ask for more right now,” Randle said. “Polls are just polls. Everything else will matter at the end of the season.”
The opportunity at hand, however, is hard to deny.
Nebraska follows UCLA with a home game against South Dakota State and a bye week, then starts its Big Ten schedule against three teams that went a combined 5-19 in league play a year ago (Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota).
But redshirt freshman linebacker Michael Rose is with his veteran teammates when he says that such big-picture issues are not to be pondered.
“Our focus is going to be on UCLA and getting the game plan that's going to be good enough for us to get the win,” Rose said. “That's really all we're focused on as players and as coaches. We've got people in higher positions who worry about the implications of this and all the other stuff.”
* * *
Video: Pelini discusses the UCLA game following Thursday's practice
Video: Big Red Today Show, Sept. 10