Nebraska ready for life in the Big Ten
CHICAGO -- Nebraska's final two games as a Big 12 school were largely forgettable, as the Cornhuskers blew a 17-point lead in a 23-20 loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game, then went flat in a 19-7 loss to Washington in the Bridgeport Education Holiday Bowl.
At least Nebraska's postseason performance matched the results of its new conference, the Big Ten.
The Cornhuskers' arrival couldn't come at a better time for the Big Ten, which went 0-4 in New Year's Day bowl games and enters the 2011 season with two of its flagship programs, Michigan and Ohio State, going through coaching transitions for entirely different reasons.
The Wolverines will start the 2011 season with their third coach in five years after hiring former San Diego State coach Brady Hoke to replace fired coach Rich Rodriguez. The Buckeyes are reeling from an NCAA investigation that forced coach Jim Tressel into retirement and star quarterback Terrelle Pryor into the NFL's supplemental draft.
Here come the Cornhuskers to the rescue with their Sea of Red, Blackshirts defense and five national championships.
If the Big Ten is to rebound and challenge the SEC for college football supremacy, the Cornhuskers will need to fare better than they did in the Big 12. The Cornhuskers' last Big 12 championship came in 1999, which was also the last season in which they won a BCS bowl game, defeating Tennessee 31-21 in the 2000 Fiesta Bowl.
SEC teams have won the past five BCS national championships. Ohio State was the last Big Ten team to do it in 2002.
At least the Big Ten is now armed with another traditional power that has a championship pedigree.
"Everybody in the whole city and whole state is excited to see what it's going to be like," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "There's that sense of something new."
After Nebraska announced in June 2010 that it would leave the Big 12 for the Big Ten in 2011, Pelini and his staff began acclimating themselves to their new league. They've spent the past eight months becoming familiar with the Big Ten from Iowa's pink visitor locker rooms to Wisconsin's mammoth offensive line.
"The summer wasn't much different," Pelini said. "The winter and spring were a little different. We had a lot of opponents to get to know."
But after watching hundreds of hours of film, Pelini realized: The Cornhuskers can't change who they are just because they've changed conferences. In fact, as Nebraska prepares to play in a league that traditionally has been dominated by power running games and rugged defenses, new offensive coordinator Tim Beck is trying to speed up his team's pace.
"We don't change how we go about our business," Pelini said. "We're going to do what we do. You can't all of the sudden change your philosophy because you're changing conferences. Are you going to make adjustments because you're playing new teams? Yeah, but you're not going to overhaul your program."
Pelini doesn't necessarily believe that the Cornhuskers are better equipped to play in the Big Ten than the Big 12, either.
"Stylewise, it's a little different," Pelini said. "It depends on which team you're talking about. Are we better equipped to play in the Big Ten instead of the Big 12? You recruit kids to build a football team that can line up against anyone."
The Big Ten didn't exactly roll out the red carpet for Nebraska in terms of scheduling. The No. 10 Cornhuskers, who bring back seven starters on offense and defense from a team that went 10-4 in 2010, will play in the Legends Division with Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota and Northwestern.
Nebraska will play its first Big Ten game at No. 11 Wisconsin on Oct. 1. It will face Ohio State at home on Oct. 8 and visit Penn State on Nov. 12. The Cornhuskers won't play Indiana or Purdue -- the two teams from the Leaders Division that didn't play in bowl games last season.
"Playing at different stadiums will be a lot of fun," Cornhuskers running back Rex Burkhead said. "Playing in different cities and states will be a lot of fun. It's a lot of different faces and different teams."
Burkhead said that playing in a new league doesn't put the Cornhuskers at a disadvantage. They know as much about their Big Ten foes as their opponents know about them.
"We have a new offense, and we're a new team for the Big Ten," Burkhead said. "I guess they're at the same disadvantage we are."
At least the Cornhuskers can lean on Pelini, who grew up in the heart of Big Ten country in Youngstown, Ohio, and played college football at Ohio State.
"It will be fun," Pelini said. "It will be an interesting year. I've never been a part of anything like this, and not many have."
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.