- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Buzzwords around Nebraska football tell a story representative of the program’s progression over the past decade and a half.
There was dominance in the mid-to-late 1990s.
Chaos followed, from about 2002 until Bo Pelini arrived to coach in 2008.
Now, it’s relevance -- or a lack thereof.
Nebraska last finished a football season ranked in the top 10 in 2001, the same year it most recently played in a BCS bowl game. And while Pelini’s record is impressive -- he sits among four first-time coaches to win nine games in each of his first five seasons -- the Huskers finished outside of the top 15 in four of those years.
Nebraska is not moving the meter nationally. It is not connecting consistently with elite recruits. It rates as an afterthought outside of its conference and, often, outside of its state.
The Huskers over the past few years have failed on the big stage. In three conference title games, Nebraska lost heartbreakers to Texas in 2009 and Oklahoma a year later before Wisconsin ran it out of Lucas Oil Stadium last December.
The same Badgers welcomed Nebraska rudely to the Big Ten two years ago in a top-10 showdown.
And really, that’s it. As a borderline elite program, chances to vault into the national conversation arrive rarely. At every chance of late, save for perhaps a 10-3 win over 20th-ranked Oklahoma in 2009, Nebraska found a way to stay out of sight, out of mind.
The next opportunity comes Saturday at noon ET. The Huskers dropped in the Associated Press poll after each of their two wins to open this season. A victory over 16th-ranked UCLA won’t entirely fix Nebraska’s image, but it’s the only way the Huskers can stay relevant until November.
With South Dakota State on deck and a soft opening set of Big Ten games that include Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota, the Huskers won’t make any noise if they’re 6-1 when Northwestern visits on Nov. 2.
Not until a Nov. 9 trip to Michigan would Nebraska demand more than a passing glance on the national landscape.
Unless, that is, it wins on Saturday.
The road back to relevance goes through Michigan. Until then, UCLA offers Nebraska its only ticket to the big show.
Senior defensive end Jason Ankrah said he understood the "sense of urgency."
It's time to make a statement, he said.
"We set our goals to do certain things this year," Ankrah said, "and they're just another team in our way."
That said, the Huskers wanted UCLA on their schedule this year, according to Ankrah, after the Bruins beat Nebraska 36-30 last year at the Rose Bowl.
"We're in the same boat as a lot of other teams," linebacker Michael Rose said. "We're a program trying to re-establish ourselves. We've got the right players and the right coaches. I don't think there's a lack of respect at other places for Nebraska."
Fuller is now a top receiving target for UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley. Peat starts at left tackle for Stanford. Maybe a couple of conference titles this century would have provided an edge for the Huskers.
Senior center Cole Pensick grew up around this program. His dad, Dan, played defensive tackle for former coach Tom Osborne. Cole attended Lincoln Northeast High School. To him, relevance was never the issue. Friends of his father surrounded Cole as a kid. He lived through the championship era of the '90s and heard stories about the significance of Nebraska football to a worldwide fan base.
"It's kind of giving me chills right now just thinking about it," Pensick said, "how many people out there love Nebraska."
I-back Ameer Abdullah came to Lincoln from Homewood, Ala., learning quickly of the tradition.
Abdullah, discussing the importance of Nebraska's relevance, rattled off a few stats -- the Huskers have won more games than any other program over the past 50 years. They've sold out every home game since 1962.
The list continues.
Nebraska's notable tradition and passionate fan base, at some point, provide a crutch: The Huskers have fought for a decade to regain their edge, but hey, no program can claim more victories since 1970.
Ankrah grew up in Maryland. He graduated high school in 2009. Before Nebraska began to recruit him, Ankrah said, he knew little about the Huskers.
"I'm not going to lie," Ankrah said. "I did not know where Nebraska was."
That's relevance for you. Irrelevance, more precisely.
UCLA is coming to Lincoln. Opportunity awaits.
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