Shatel: Signature wins can get NU out of rank and file

Under coach Bo Pelini, Nebraska lacks signature wins to make a bigger splash nationally.

Eighteen? Sounds about right for the Under The Radar Gang.

The Associated Press poll is an educated guess made by educated guessers. It's a lot of things to a lot of people, depending on where their favorite team is picked.

For me, it's a clear depiction of your team's national perception heading into the new season, made by the folks whose job it is to perceive and shape opinion.

So Nebraska is 18. That's where the program is. The Huskers aren't a Top 10 team. They got waxed in the Big Ten title game, then had the No. 7 team on the ropes in the Capital One Bowl but couldn't close.

They're on that second or third level, of would-be contenders that can get up there if things go right, or fall into the “others with votes” category if they don't. Based on returning talent and schedule, Nebraska should start in the top 25.

Excuse me, Sports Illustrated on line two.

SI left the Big Red out of its top 25 altogether. This caused a minor uproar for SI writer Andy Staples on Twitter, but didn't get nearly the outrage in Nebraska that it would have years ago. Maybe it's not shocking anymore.

It's not unprecedented. Nebraska started the year unranked in the polls four straight seasons, from 2003 to 2006, and then again in Bo Pelini's first year, 2008.

Pelini's third and fourth teams began the year in the top 10 (No. 8 in 2010 and No. 10 in 2011). But the Huskers haven't been closers. They've bounced around the rankings. They've taken some lumps. They've become this team that nobody in the national news media knows what to make of or do with.

Not on the national radar, but not far off. They're somewhere in the low-lying clouds.

Look, there are two ways to be relevant in college football. The first is with the folks who count TV ratings and dollar bills. The Big Ten picked Nebraska three years ago because it has a national brand. When the Husker game is on, people watch. People buy their merchandise.

In that sense, Nebraska is still very relevant.

Then there's relevance that the fans and news media follow, on the field and in the conversation, playing in big games and occasionally winning them. The Huskers aren't in that conversation.

I tried to start up my own conversation with some of the nation's leading image-makers. What I found: The Huskers may be off the radar, but they aren't forgotten.

>> Ralph Russo, national AP college football writer: “Nebraska has fallen into a weird place where it is not good enough to come up in the national championship conversation, and hasn't been for several years.

“But the Huskers aren't bad enough, as they were for a couple seasons under Callahan, for guys like me to lament, 'What has gone wrong with Nebraska?' They have the helmets and the history and the name recognition, but we're going on about a decade where the Huskers are just another team that consistently is in contention to win its conference, like Clemson or Georgia or Wisconsin.”

>> Bruce Feldman, “I think people outside of Nebraska probably would be surprised to see just how good of a record Pelini has had with all those 10- and nine-win seasons. The problem is there hasn't been any signature wins. Their record wasn't bad last year, but with that dreadful showing in the Big Ten title game, and then giving up 45 and losing by two touchdowns in the bowl, leaves some of us wondering if they can get this program back to being a legit top 10 team again.”

>> Chris Dufresne, Los Angeles Times and president of the Football Writers Association of America: “I have the Huskers at No. 16, a cut below upper echelon. The offense should be potent, but the defense is not where I thought Pelini would get it ... yet. Nebraska without a good D is like, well, Nebraska with Callahan. Ouch.”

>> George Schroeder, USA Today: “Nebraska's tradition ranks among college football's all-time best. But we live in a world that is outdated as soon as it is re-tweeted. Tradition that actually brings a tangible return is about 24 seconds old. Everything has changed, including the Huskers' uniforms.

“To be considered elite, programs must play in and win BCS bowls and contend for the crystal football. It has been far too long since Nebraska did either.”

>> Staples, SI: “All they need to do is prove they can play defense. We know they can score. If the D is improved, they'll shoot up the rankings.”

That's the thing about relevance: it's never very far away. Especially with Nebraska's offense, and schedule, in 2013.

If the Huskers can outscore UCLA on Sept. 14, they have a legitimate shot at being 7-0 going into the Northwestern game on Nov. 2. Win that one and they could easily be in the top 10 by the time they board the plane for Ann Arbor, Mich., the following week.

There will be some heavy lifting to get there and stay there in November. But there's an opportunity this season to get back some reputation, some field cred. A lot of experts have Nebraska in a bunch with Michigan, Northwestern and Michigan State. There's not much separation in their minds. The separation will come on the field.

But this season comes with a sense of urgency, in a way. We tend to rate the elite in college football by those who make the major bowls and the top 10. Chances are that won't mean the same when the playoff starts in 2014.

It will be interesting to see if things like the Associated Press poll matter as much. For instance, Russo said he's not certain if the AP will still crown its own national champion after this season.

The release of the AP poll has always been an unofficial kickoff to the college football season. It may become just another tool for The Committee to use to tell us who's who and who's not.

Maybe the release of the preseason RPI will be the big deal in August. Yippee.

For now, Nebraska still has a chance to make a name the old-fashioned way. And at least one national scribe is intrigued by it.

“I find Nebraska to be very interesting this season,” Russo said. “Ohio State and Michigan look like they're set to really take off, to challenge those SEC teams. I'm not sure Nebraska is going to be able to keep the gap between itself and the Buckeyes and Wolverines from growing.

“Will Nebraska be satisfied being Wisconsin? A program with tempered expectations that does less with more, is capable of winning the conference and maybe gets into the national title conversation now and then if everything breaks right. Wisconsin is a tremendous program. But I'm not sure what Wisconsin has will satisfy Nebraska fans.”

Hey, at least the Huskers are ranked ahead of the Badgers. That's a start.

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