To anxious Huskers fans, it's championship or bust
Eric Otte was killing time shelling corn in the back of his red pickup during a break from work on a warm afternoon this week when a buddy who owns the car repair shop across the street came over to chat.
The conversation, as it eventually does here and everywhere else in this state, turned to Nebraska Cornhuskers football.
It's not all happy talk these days.
''This is my year where I'm deciding if I like where it's going because this is all of Bo's picks, all his recruiting,'' said Otte, a 24-year-old crop insurance adjuster. ''This is the year where it will be figured out.''
This is Bo Pelini's fifth season as head coach. No one disputes he cleaned up the mess Bill Callahan left behind.
Pelini has yet to win fewer than nine games in a year.
But he also has yet to lose fewer than four.
Twelve seasons have gone by without a conference championship for the proud Huskers, their longest such drought since 1941-62. And it's going on 11 years since Nebraska last played in a Bowl Championship Series game.
Judging by the tenor of fans on social media and radio shows - or in Otte's case, in the back of a pickup on Sixth Street in Wahoo - they're not willing to accept a new normal of nine- or 10-win seasons that end in second-tier bowl games.
They want the Huskers playing for the conference championship - every year - and in the national title conversation most years.
Asked what he would say to a fan base growing edgy, Pelini said: ''What do you want me to say? I'm pretty edgy myself.''
Tom Osborne, who retired from coaching in 1998 after three of his last four teams in Lincoln won national championships, hired Pelini shortly after becoming athletic director in 2007. Osborne, who announced his Jan. 1 retirement this week, declined an interview request for this story.
Lots of other folks are talking in this state of 1.8 million, in addition to fans around the nation, as 22nd-ranked Nebraska (3-1) heads into Saturday's Big Ten opener against two-time defending champion Wisconsin (3-1). The consensus is that last year's third-place finish in the Legends Division was a big disappointment.
This year they believe the Big Ten, based on its collective mediocrity the first month of the season, is there for the taking. A caller to an Omaha radio show this week suggested it would be a ''colossal failure'' if Nebraska doesn't win the conference.
Are the high expectations justified?
The Huskers' offense, for the most part, looks better than a year ago. But the defense is still a question mark. Nebraska surely doesn't stand out over any of the other teams mentioned as title contenders, not after its humiliating loss at UCLA the second week of the season.
Still, the fans are clamoring for Pelini to deliver.
''I try not to concern myself with what people think or say or anything else because that in the end can lead to me making bad decisions,'' Pelini said. ''I do the best I possibly can, day in and day out, to run the best football program I can and make our football team the best I possibly can every single day. As long as I do that, and I can look myself in the mirror every night before I go to bed knowing I've done that, knowing I've done everything in my power, I can live with myself.''
The state's passion for football dates back more than a century. Nebraska was the only team to beat Notre Dame and the Four Horsemen in the 1920s. Dana X. Bible built the Huskers into a Big Six power in the 1930s.
There were the bad years in the 1940s and `50s before Bob Devaney arrived in 1962 and raised the program's stature. Devaney won national championships in 1970 and `71, and the Huskers remained a fixture in the Top 10 under Osborne until he broke through with his national titles in the `90s.
From 1993-97, the Huskers won 60 of 63 games for the most dominant run in major-college football history.
Fans still pine for those glory days.
''People hang their hat and ego on the success of this football team,'' said 72-year-old Gary Mouden, a Lincoln native who attended his first game in 1945 (a 61-7 loss to Minnesota) and now is president of the Huskers' Las Vegas booster group.
Every home game for 50 years has been a sellout. Saturday's will be the 322nd in a row. Athletic administrators are counting on that streak continuing after Memorial Stadium's capacity grows from 81,000 to more than 90,000 next year.
Jason Peter, an All-America defensive lineman on the national championship teams of the `90s who has hosted radio shows in Omaha and Lincoln, said the fans' high expectations are the fuel that drives the program.
''That's why I am always pushing that you can never ever lower your standards,'' Peter said. ''The standards were raised because of the `90s. You don't go backward. You don't accept anything less. If you do, you eventually become just another program.''
And that's the fear, that Nebraska is just another program.
Ritchie Grala, a security supervisor for an Omaha business and a season ticket holder for six years, said he senses anxiety among the fans he knows.
Grala, 53, mentioned a tense exchange between defensive coordinator John Papuchis and a fan at a recent booster breakfast in Omaha. The fan suggested to Papuchis that the program's goals aren't as lofty since last year's move to the Big Ten. Papuchis strongly objected, saying the Huskers still shoot for national titles.
Grala said he wants the Huskers competing for national championships as much as the next guy. But he said fans should remember that if Nebraska doesn't win its division first and the conference second, it's almost impossible to win the national title.
''That 60-3 stretch, it's not going to happen,'' Grala said. ''It's happening for Alabama right now, but how many teams is that happening for? We don't have everything cornered anymore like we did in the Big Eight when it was just us with Oklahoma. We're a Big Ten school now. The Rose Bowl is what we need to focus on. It's going to have to get accepted now. It's hard to win those games. The competition is big right now, I think.''
Otte and his friend, Ryan Watts, said they like Pelini's fiery coaching style but reserve judgment on his recruiting ability.
Otte said his only knock against Pelini is that he doesn't sign a lot of homegrown high school players, the heart-and-soul kind who were the backbone of Osborne's teams.
Speaking of Osborne, Watts, 33, pointed out that it took time for Osborne to elevate the program. Osborne lost his first five games against Oklahoma and, feeling the pressure, almost left to take the Colorado job in 1978.
''We have a team that is better than a lot of others, like Iowa and Kansas,'' Watts said. ''We should be feeling fortunate with what we have.''
That said, what would be an acceptable outcome this season to Otte and Watts?
''Conference championship with a Rose Bowl,'' Otte said.