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Posted on Thu, Jul. 31, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Low expectations complete Nebraska picture

Blair Kerkhoff
Blair Kerkhoff

One more indignity in Nebraska's downward spiral: Expectations have bottomed out.

There have been bowl losses, regular-season disasters, recruiting failures, coaching gaffes and a staff overhaul. But the bashing Nebraska has endured since the end of the 2001 season has not included a season entrance utterly without fanfare.

Until now. For only the second time since Big 12 play started, Nebraska is not the division favorite. The Huskers aren't even the second choice, landing behind Kansas State and Colorado in the league's preseason poll. It's probable that for the first time since 1969, Nebraska will enter the season without being ranked in preseason wire-service rankings.

In that regard, the Cornhuskers have more in common today with lowly Kansas than mighty Kansas State.

Naturally, Nebraska accepts this predicament with gritted teeth and clenched fists, as a proud but wounded program should.

"Expectations for us might not be high around the country, but within this program, they're very high," said senior defensive end Trevor Johnson.

High enough to challenge the Wildcats for the North Division title? No doubt, said quarterback Jammal Lord, who also doesn't care for outside opinion these days.

"It doesn't matter what people think of us," Lord said. "The only thing that matters is what we think of ourselves."

With the season opener more than a month away, there's no reason for Lord to feel anything but positive about the Huskers. A new offensive coordinator, Barney Cotton of New Mexico State, will call plays, and the offense has been tweaked to help improve Lord's passing accuracy.

With a completion percentage more toward 57 percent than the 47 percent he delivered last year, Lord believes Nebraska's offense can attain the balance to run more efficiently. Last season's 373-yard average was the lowest since 1969.

Lord's legs carried the offense. He set the school quarterback record for rushing yards (1,412) and total offense (2,774), leaving few yards for everybody else. Lord again will be the centerpiece, but if he's doing it by himself Nebraska will head toward a repeat of last year's 7-7 mark or worse.

Much of last year's criticism was heaped on Lord, but there was enough blame to pass around. The Blackshirt defense turned red with embarrassment after losses to Penn State, Iowa State, Texas and Kansas State. Injuries were a problem, but the Huskers should never have found themselves with the depth problems of last season.

Now comes the most interesting season in the program's modern history. Nebraska had created such a monster -- the most consistently excellent team over the last four decades -- that the inevitable slip brought about six new assistant coaches and questions about head coach Frank Solich's security.

Talk about role reversal. The opening game Aug. 30 against Oklahoma State is seen as a huge statement game -- for the Cornhuskers. Credibility will be on the line when the surging Cowboys visit Lincoln. Lose that one, and Nebraska could drop three of its first four.

Won't happen, assured Lord.

"Just watch the games," he said. "Everything will be different. Attitudes, everything."

The different expectations we already know about.

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