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Return to greatness

Like the days of old, Nebraska has the tools to win it all.


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000

[Photo: AP]
Cornhuskers coach Frank Solich says his squad has a lot of work ahead before it can tallk about
winning a national title.

What Frank Solich endured in his first season at Nebraska helped him appreciate just how dominant the program was while he toiled as a loyal assistant to one of college football's legendary coaches.

In 25 seasons, Tom Osborne never won fewer than nine games. His team went to a bowl game every year and captured the conference championship 13 times. He never lost as many as four games in a season.

So here comes Solich in 1998, and the glory is gone.

There was a four-loss season, a first in four decades. A bowl game defeat, after the program had just won the national championship in three of the previous four seasons.

There were cries that Solich was not head coaching material after being in the background for so many years. For one of the few times in Nebraska's recent past, there was doubt.

Just about all of that was erased when the Cornhuskers bounced back last season and finished 12-1, their only loss a 24-20 defeat at Texas in late October.

Many believed Nebraska was playing the best football in the country when the season concluded, viewing a dominating 31-21 victory over Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl as proof.

That is among the reasons Nebraska is an overwhelming preseason choice to win the national championship in 2000. The Associated Press preseason No. 1, the Cornhuskers are at the top of just about every poll.

"Nebraska fans are conditioned to winning," Solich said. "They set their goals very high. The players are the same way. Everybody expects to win, and win big. That's just the way of life here. All I can do is the best I can every day and hope I meet expectations."

Solich rebounded nicely from his difficult start, and the Cornhuskers appear to be the powerhouse of old. They return 16 starters from a team that was "four points away from playing Florida State," said wingback Bobby Newcombe.

"We sit down and talk about how we were more physically dominant than anybody in the country at the end of the year. When we played Tennessee, we would have beaten anyone we would have played that night."

"We just have to pick up where we left off," said running back Dan Alexander.

It was Solich who diffused a potentially volatile situation last season by moving Newcombe to wingback from quarterback, where he shared the position with Eric Crouch. Once that change was made, the offense flourished.

Although the Huskers set a school record with 49 fumbles (25 of which were lost), the offense was nearly unstoppable at the end of the season. The I-back position boasts a whopping five players, which also helps Crouch, who led Nebraska in rushing with 889 yards and also passed for 1,269 yards.

A year ago, Crouch had to compete for the job with Newcombe, and it caused the offense to sputter in the first two games. He got the job full time after that.

"It's a little easier going in and knowing that you're the quarterback, but there's still that drive inside of you that you want to get better," said Crouch, the co-offensive player of the year in the Big 12. "You just can't let being "the guy' get into your head in any way."

Crouch has four of the five offensive linemen back from a year ago, along with Newcombe, tight end Tracey Wistrom and wideout Matt Davison. Three 1,000-yard career rushers return in I-backs Alexander, Correll Buckhalter. "We return an awful lot of players with excellent talent and experience," Solich admitted.

But he also is concerned about all the preseason attention his team is receiving.

"We get the best shot out of every team we play because we've got a big bull's-eye on our back," he said. "I'm not complaining. Our players understand what it means to play at Nebraska. But a national championship? We've got a lot of work ahead of us."

What really works to Nebraska's advantage is the schedule. Although the Huskers travel to Notre Dame on Sept. 9, that is not viewed as a tough test, at least not this year. They also play at Oklahoma on Oct. 28.

The big showdown will come on Nov. 11 at Kansas State, where the Wildcats will be looking to avenge their only defeat of the 1999 season. That game likely will be for the right to play in the Big 12 Championship game, which is right where Nebraska expects to be.

"The major difference this year on both sides of the ball is leadership," Crouch said. "When you have a few leaders on your team, the chances of winning go up. Everyone seems to be on the same page. This team has a close relationship and we expect a lot from each other and ourselves."

"I feel good about the team coming back," Solich said. "A good mixture is there, and if we have the great leadership like we got last year, the unselfish play like last year, we could go from being good to exceptional."

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