Huskers favored in first Big Ten season


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Bo Pelini stood behind a podium in a Chicago conference room, breezing through a 15-minute press conference.

The Nebraska head coach looked at ease in front of the large crowd of reporters at Big Ten media days on July 28, fielding questions about his team’s off-season development and how the Cornhuskers would adjust to playing in a new conference.

But something was wrong.

Pelini, who is almost never seen wearing anything but a gray Nebraska sweatshirt, was clad in a crisp, black suit and red necktie.

“Coat and tie — yesterday was the first time ever,” senior defensive lineman Jared Crick said on July 29 and laughed. “He usually wears that turtleneck, which looks good on him … He was saying, ‘This isn’t me, I hate this,’ but he looks good. He cleans up well.”

Pelini will be back in his preferred garb on Saturday when the Cornhuskers kick off their inaugural Big Ten season against Tennessee-Chattanooga. He’ll don his favorite sweatshirt and white cap and take his post on the sideline in Memorial Stadium, just as he has done the past three years as the head coach in Lincoln, Neb.

The league has changed, but, apart from clothing choices at Big Ten media day, Pelini and the Cornhuskers haven’t.

“Our approach, from year to year, doesn’t really change,” Pelini said in a teleconference on Tuesday. “You always have your challenges going into fall camp where you have different guys [and] different issues come up. You’re younger in some areas each year and deeper in different areas, and at the end of the day, we take the approach that we’re trying to make our football team the best that we possibly can.”

For the past three years, “the best we possibly can” has translated to “pretty darn good.” Nebraska won 29 games — including 17 conference matchups — in its last three years in the Big 12. The Cornhuskers won the Big 12 North in each of those seasons, and although they never won an outright conference title, they played in three-straight bowl games on Dec. 30 or later.

Many say it’s safe to assume that streak will continue in the Big Ten, too. ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and CBS Sports all picked Nebraska to play in the league’s first Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis as the winner of the Legends Division. Winning the conference title feeds into either the BCS championship game or the Rose Bowl, both of which occur in 2012.

But running back Rex Burkhead said he’s not letting the preseason hype go to his head.

“We have the potential to be a very good team, [but] we’re going to have to keep working in practice,” he said in July. “That’s the biggest thing: Stay focused, look at those little details that make us better, and hopefully, it shows on Saturdays.”

Still, it’s hard for Burkhead and the rest of the Huskers to completely avoid the spotlight that comes with their entry to the Big Ten — especially when their first conference contest will be against No. 11 Wisconsin in the Badgers’ famously rowdy Camp Randall Stadium.

For Crick, though, playing in front of hostile crowds is one of the best aspects of football.

“I love going on the road,” he said. “It’s not a vacation, it’s a business trip, but it’s a chance to get out of Nebraska and play our style of football … we’re going to miss going to [former Big 12 conference rivals] Texas and Oklahoma to get out of the cold, but it’s going to be cool going to these historical places.”

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