AUSTIN - When the Big 12 Conference began play four years ago, you knew it would change the face of college football. But Nebraska never dreamed it would have to face anything quite like this.
The Texas Longhorns are no mystery for the Kansas State Wildcats. Frequently, they are not even a mystery for the Texas Tech Red Raiders. But it doesn't seem to matter how talented or prepared or aware of the magnitude of the situation the Cornhuskers are.
They can't beat Texas.
At least they haven't in three Big 12 attempts, and that's all that mattered late Saturday afternoon at Royal Memorial Stadium. The largest crowd ever to see a football game in the state of Texas (84,082) saw one of the finest as the Longhorns fought back from a 10-point halftime deficit for a 24-20 upset victory.
"I didn't think we had to play perfect," coach Mack Brown said. "But we had to be near perfect. It was one of the best football games I've ever seen."
That was a perspective shared by most in attendance but not those robed in red. The Cornhuskers lost the Big 12 championship game to Texas in 1996, and they had their 47-game home-winning streak snapped by the Longhorns last year.
This one probably hurt worst of all because it was most damaging. In the past, Nebraska had already suffered losses before being dumped by Texas. This time, the Cornhuskers were unbeaten and ranked third in the country.
A national championship date in the Nokia Sugar Bowl loomed as a real possibility for Nebraska. Only an outbreak of upsets across the country could create such a scenario now.
"I know the kind of character this team has, and we might see those people again," longtime Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride said. "We'd look forward to having that opportunity."
But would a rematch in the Big 12 championship game actually serve Nebraska's needs? Does McBride really believe he can solve the Texas riddle if necessary in six weeks?
Nebraska's offense may have outgained the Longhorns, but three turnovers detonated the visitors chances. And as good as Nebraska option quarterback Eric Crouch was at times, he was outplayed when it counted by Major Applewhite.
Saturday was Applewhite's 18th start at Texas. He had never failed to produce 200 yards passing in those first 17 games, but 45 seconds before halftime, his team trailing, 13-3, Applewhite's numbers were beyond dismal. He was 6-for-15 for 21 yards.
When you can add your completions and attempts to get your yardage total, it's a rough afternoon.
But in Applewhite's next 15 passes, he completed 11 for 192 yards and two touchdowns. Maybe we should stop being startled by this, but Applewhite again was the difference in a big game.
"They made some plays that certainly needed to be made," a frustrated Nebraska coach Frank Solich said. "Major Applewhite is a tremendous competitor, a tremendous player. He did a great job of bringing them back in the second half."
Before Applewhite took control, Saturday's game was dominated by wind. The first 37 points were scored by team's traveling downwind toward the south end zone. So when Nebraska took a 20-17 lead with 7:52 to play in the fourth quarter, the road to victory for Texas looked decidedly uphill.
But things just seem to go Texas' way in this rivalry. On the kickoff, Nebraska committed a senseless 15-yard facemask penalty to bring the ball out to the 40. On the next play, Applewhite hit Ryan Nunez on a post for 39 yards, the biggest Texas gain of the day.
Three plays later, faced with third-and-6, Texas stunned the Cornhuskers by throwing to seldom-used Mike Jones. The tight end caught Applewhite's short pass, broke three tackles and made use of Kwame Cavil's unseen holding on a Nebraska defender to reach the end zone.
When Texas held Nebraska on downs with 2:15 to play, the game was virtually over because the Cornhuskers inexplicably had wasted all three second-half timeouts.
Sometimes the Longhorns create their own good fortune. Sometimes Nebraska goes out of its way to do it for them.
"I'm amazed at how far the team has come right now," said Brown, whose record since replacing John Mackovic is 15-5. "They're really feeling better about themselves. I want them to understand how good Nebraska was."
On the other hand, maybe it's best that the Longhorns don't regard Nebraska as anything special. There's a good chance these two teams will be in San Antonio on Dec. 4 to meet again.
And unless the Cornhuskers play better or smarter or unless the Longhorns develop an unlikely fear of a team they have mastered - the result is going to be the same.