Shatel: Major bowl no minor need for Bo's Huskers

This 70-31 thrashing at the hands of a five-loss Wisconsin team in the Big Ten championship game leaves many Husker fans wary of becoming overly optimistic about the 2013 season, even with the return of quarterback Taylor Martinez, a talented supporting cast and a favorable schedule.


LINCOLN — I'm no banker, but here are the major talking points of the 2013 Nebraska football season.

Rose. Fiesta. Orange. Sugar.

The season will be a huge success if Bo Pelini can turn the conversation toward those bowl games and away from a western Nebraska banker talking about a security. That is, a coach's job security.

You may have heard about the comments that North Platte banker Mike Jacobson gave to the Associated Press during the week. Jacobson discussed the need for Pelini to eliminate blowout losses and get NU back into the national title hunt. He added that if the Huskers didn't make the Big Ten championship game, that “could be a big problem for Bo.”

I assume he meant Bo would have a hard time getting a loan in North Platte.

What Jacobson said certainly isn't new. The Husker fan echoed the sentiments and frustrations of many Big Red fans.

The news was that a booster would be so brazen about it, and so public. I don't remember many Husker boosters making bold and critical statements about the football coach.

I certainly don't recall them doing it in August.

It didn't happen in 2003. Months before Frank Solich was fired, the landscape of Nebraska was ablaze with the optimism that came with a retooled coaching staff and a fiery new defensive coordinator named Pelini. There weren't boosters of substance shouting “fire” until K-State fans and their band had taken over Memorial Stadium in mid-November.

It didn't happen in 2007, either. Just two months before the world would come crashing down on Steve Pederson and Bill Callahan, the world of Big Red was buzzing. Sam Keller was here and USC was coming to town. There was hope.

Remember hope?

Hope used to set up its headquarters every August at 10th and O Streets. Barry Switzer may have cut out your heart the previous November, or the Miami Hurricanes may have smacked around your favorite team in January, but that was last season. Nebraskans would dust themselves off and get back on their horse.

So the defense had to be replaced? Big deal. So everyone was picking Oklahoma to win the Big Eight? Not a problem.

Nebraska would be there again, knocking on the door, fighting to crash through it. Nebraska would find a way this time.

If a Husker team had a four-year starter at quarterback, along with this arsenal of offensive weapons, and the 2013 schedule, nobody would be worrying about a young defense. People would be making their Jan. 1 hotel reservations.

Alas, I think Husker fans have forgotten how to make those plans. And I think some of them are forgetting how to hope.

I hear too many conceding the Legends division to Michigan and the Big Ten championship to Ohio State. Really? The Michigan team coming off an 8-5 season, with a quarterback who hasn't started a full season at the position and a team with holes to fill? The Ohio State team that Nebraska traded haymakers with last October at Ohio Stadium before collapsing?

The Buckeyes have a lot of talent. But they are not measurably more talented than NU. They aren't the old Florida State or Miami teams. This isn't Alabama. What OSU has is a great coach with a proven record, a guy a lot of people — including Nebraskans — have confidence in to find his way to Pasadena.

Some Husker fans don't have that same confidence in their own coach or their own team.

Some. Certainly, not all. You can't paint a broad brush over a fan base. There is still an army of “Bo-lievers,” who vigorously stand by their coach and insist he's making progress, recruiting better, gaining on the championship, and will get there in due time.

But I also hear from and notice another group, which can be called the “Bo-skeptics,” who have serious doubts about whether the coach will ever reach the destination.

I don't know which group is bigger, but the Bo-skeptics have grown the last couple of years. I also know that the make-up of each group will change depending on victory and defeat.

I've heard some of the skeptics say they are done with Nebraska football. I don't believe them. I don't believe in apathy when it comes to Nebraska football. Everyone in this state has an opinion on the topic. Everyone pays attention. That won't change.

What I think they're saying is that they no longer are willing to buy into the team or the expectations. They don't want to buy into hope. They're afraid of getting hurt.

Where do you stand? Is your glass of red Kool-Aid half-full or half-empty?

I've always been fascinated with the species that is the Nebraska football fan and its behavior patterns. When I was speaking to a Kiwanis club the other day in Omaha, I turned the tables. I asked the question: What's going on here this year?

There were different answers. Somebody said it was the soft Big Ten schedule, the lack of big games this year. Somebody else said it was Pelini's negativity, and as a fan it's hard to embrace the coach.

Understood. But once upon a time, Nebraska's Big Eight schedule was filled with gimme putts up until the Oklahoma finale. And Tom Osborne was not always universally revered, and though he consistently did public appearances and interviews, he did a lot of that stuff grudgingly.

Then somebody suggested it was the blowout losses, namely Wisconsin.

Bingo. We have a winner.

There was something about that 70-31 loss in the Big Ten championship game last year. It rocked the psyche of your average card-carrying Husker fan.

More than Colorado in 2001 or Texas Tech in 2004 or either of the two Kansas losses in Lawrence. This one pushed some fans over the edge. It was such an inexplicable performance, from a coach hired to stop the madness.

My take: It's been a long 10 years. Nebraska fans have been through a lot the last decade or so. If there's a reason for skepticism in August, clouds over sunshine, it's the cumulative effect of devastating defeats, without being able to drink from the well of Fiesta or Orange.

It's why, when you hear the coaches say this year will be different, the turnovers and penalties and execution breakdowns will be fixed, there's a group out there that no longer believes.

Now there's a breed of Husker fan, a new breed if you will, that is not afraid to talk about coaching changes. This sort of dialogue comes easier and freer the more you change coaches. Most programs that change coaches on a regular timetable typically find that that's all they become good at.

But once you get on that train, it's hard to get off.

Here in August, there are a lot of other things to talk about. An offense that should be a thrill ride, finding its stride in the third year of Tim Beck's system. A schedule that sets up for a boatful of wins. A defense with hungry, young wolves who should get better as the leaves and weather turn.

A season that could end up with another at-bat, a chance to swing away at a championship.

What this program can do, rather than what it can't.

The thing is, a lot of Husker fans say they know how this movie always ends.

What Pelini, the players and the good folks of Nebraska need is a new script. A change of conversation.

The way that happens is if Pelini can find his way to a BCS bowl — a major bowl, as we used to call them — in the last year of the BCS, before the playoff overshadows these classic old bowls.

Let's be real: Forget the national title chase. A Big Ten championship? It's doable, but not the only goal.

The minimum goal this season should be a 12-1 or 11-2 record that would put the Huskers in prime position to play in the Orange, Fiesta or Sugar Bowl. I spoke to a Fiesta Bowl official in Chicago last month, and he was salivating over the thought of the Huskers back in the desert for the first time since 1999. But he said the Orange and Sugar, who pick before the Fiesta, would surely take NU first.

Perfect. And that's almost what NU will have to be this year to get there. No more than two losses. No toes stubbed. Time to step up in class.

In Pelini's sixth year, with a fourth-year starting quarterback, that should be the expectation. Get back to a major bowl, and it will transform how the nation — and some Nebraskans — see Pelini and his program.

Nebraskans always showed up in August with the belief they would be in Miami. Where's that belief now? At times, Nebraska doesn't coach or play like it believes.

The chance to get that back is sitting up there on a tee this season. Imagine an Orange Bowl against Florida State or a Fiesta matchup against Texas or LSU. It will be like old times around here.

You can take that to the bank.

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>> Video: See coach Bo Pelini address the media Saturday:

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