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Published Sunday, December 31, 2000

Next year looks good for Huskers


Last modified at 1:42 a.m. on Sunday, December 31, 2000
  

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SAN ANTONIO -- Even before Nebraska teed it up in Saturday night's Sylvania Alamo Bowl against Northwestern, several Cornhuskers admitted taking a sneak peak at the 2001 season.

You really can't blame them. It's something many Nebraska fans, with their national-championship-or-bust attitude, have been doing for more than a month now.

This season, the Cornhuskers experienced the difficulty of being ranked preseason No. 1. Once the pollsters put Nebraska on top, the already-high expectations went through the roof.

Looking back, expecting the Huskers to run the gauntlet against their 2000 schedule might have been a little too much to ask. To finish the regular season undefeated, Nebraska would've had to beat three teams that are currently ranked in the Associated Press poll's top 11 (No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 10 Notre Dame and No. 11 Kansas State) and do it on the road -- a daunting task in today's world of college football.

With parity making waves throughout the college football ranks, home-field advantage has become more important than ever before. With that in mind, Nebraska and its title-hungry fans have to like the looks of the 2001 schedule for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their team's 66-17 rout of Northwestern.

The Huskers open the season with three consecutive home games (Troy State, Notre Dame and Rice) and the Big 12 Conference foes that must come to Lincoln's Memorial Stadium include Iowa State, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Kansas State. Next year's road games are at Missouri, Baylor, Kansas and Colorado.

WHILE IT WON'T be easy to win every home game, consider that Nebraska is 81-3 at home in the last 13 seasons and has won 13 consecutive games on Tom Osborne Field. The three losses came against two national champions (Colorado in 1990 and Washington in 1991) and Texas in 1998.

Assuming -- always a risky proposition -- that the Huskers can protect their home field, it would appear that Big Red fans might have plenty to be excited about. On paper, a healthy and happy Nebraska team's biggest roadblocks to an appearance in the national championship game would seem to be a game at Colorado and the Big 12 Championship at Texas Stadium in Irving, Texas.

A couple of outgoing Nebraska seniors agreed that the future looks promising for the Huskers in 2001.

"It will be tough, but great to have some of the major games at home," Nebraska senior guard Russ Hochstein said. "There should be some real battles next year. It should be fun to watch them play."

Senior split end Matt Davison agrees that Nebraska should be a contender next year. He said the Huskers have some holes to fill, but that there's plenty of talented younger players prepared to step up.

"If they can establish a fairly good defense and find a way to score some points, it could be a great year for them next year," Davison said.

However, Hochstein offers a few words of warning: don't look past Colorado. Nebraska has beat the Buffs nine consecutive times, but has won the last five games in the series by a total of 15 points, including this year's dramatic 34-32 win on Josh Brown's last-second field goal.

"The game to look out for and the game I think is going to be very tough is Nebraska-Colorado," Hochstein said. "We've been nipping them the last few years, but they'll be tough again."

NEBRASKA ALL-AMERICA center Dominic Raiola said he and his teammates are very upbeat about next season.

"I think we'll come back with a lot of confidence," Raiola said. "Just looking at the schedule on paper, it's very favorable for us."

Of course, that assumes that Raiola will return to Nebraska for his senior season to anchor the offensive line. Despite earlier assurances that he'd be back, some are speculating that Raiola will enter this spring's NFL draft, where's he's projected as a first-round selection.

With or without Raiola, Davison said that Nebraska shouldn't be counted out as long as it has quarterback Eric Crouch in the lineup.

"Any time you have a quarterback like Eric Crouch coming back, that's huge for an offense," Davison said. "Having an experienced guy like him to set the tone in practice and in games is going to be invaluable."

Should Nebraska once again be tabbed preseason No. 1 next August, Crouch thinks the Huskers would welcome the challenge.

"That's a tough road to battle, being No. 1, but I think the strong teams like the challenge," Crouch said. "I'd like that challenge of having everyone gunning for us again."


Contact Independent sports editor Terry Douglass at (308) 381-9414.



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