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NEBRASKA FOOTBALL: Capital One Bowl Can Help Make Or Break 2012

By Huskerlocker @huskerlocker

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By Ryan Donohue

The Nebraska football team is already taking in the sunny skies, seventy-degree temperatures and learning firsthand that Orlando isn't a bad place to be in December. While it’s easy to get swept away by all the Sunshine State has to offer, Bo Pelini says he has these Huskers focused on the task at hand: winning the Capital One Bowl.
It's a January matchup between one of the Big Ten’s best against a rising star from the top conference in football. In this case, the SEC representative is coached by a familiar foe. In other words, it’s the perfect opportunity for Nebraska to get a quality win.
Lurking in swampy surroundings, behind the high-powered media focus and the pageantry of the bowl events, a true prize for the Cornhuskers awaits: the prize of momentum. An impressive win positions Nebraska as the co-favorite to win the Legends division along with Michigan and vaults them into national title talk for 2012.
Perhaps most importantly, a win over the Gamecocks would bring good vibrations to the program for the next seven months. If you don’t believe a bowl game can create a lasting effect, think back no further than the 2010 Holiday Bowl: a muddy, maligned mess of a game that hung a cloud over the Big Red throughout the offseason and into the inaugural Big Ten slate.
Ask the Old Ball Coach on the opposing sideline what a win could do for South Carolina as they attempt to notch an eleventh win for the first time in school history, not to mention position themselves firmly near the top of the conference pecking order, a goal all too familiar to Nebraska fans.
Let’s not forget that Florida is fertile recruiting ground and National Signing Day is roughly a month away. Big Red has cast a long reel this recruiting season, and is in on a number of high profile recruits waiting until all-star games and Faxing Day itself to announce where they’ll play. Nebraska will likely fill half of their recruiting spots for their unusually small class all in the next month. An impressive showing sends a signal that the program is back on the rise.
While the Huskers aren’t among the nation’s elite again yet, the idea of hopping aboard a winning program ready to return to its former full glory is an intriguing proposition to many recruits. A bowl victory could be far more than a much-needed feather in Nebraska’s 2011 cap. The necessary nudge that lands one or two more big fish is something else a bowl win provides.
One needn’t explain how important a couple of freakish athletes are: just roll some highlights from the decorated careers of Ndamukong Suh, and most recently Lavonte David. There’s an overall feeling that Nebraska is on a razor-thin edge from returning to elite status. With one or two small breaks, this bowl game could provide the motivation for the program to take the next step in 2012. This is assuming the Huskers walk away winners, of course.
If they lose, what’s the worst that could happen? It’s hard to imagine the letdown last year’s Holiday Bowl provided. The rematch with Washington was rendered lifeless as soon as it was scheduled. To find empirical data on the damage a bowl can do, let’s venture back to 2006.
The Huskers found themselves in a familiar spot. Back in a January bowl, this time the Cotton, against a strong SEC opponent in Auburn. Former head coach Bill Callahan appeared to be turning the corner in his third season as Nebraska’s head man.
A few bad decisions and perhaps the worst fake punt attempt in Cornhusker history officially branded the season as a mixed bag. Callahan didn’t add the exclamation point to a year that may have been pivotal to his career. Instead, Nebraska tenuously stepped into 2007 still not sure if it belonged with the big boys and, well, you were there.
Is Bo Pelini’s job on the line? Not when you look at his performance over the past four years. What’s missing from Pelini’s resume is the signature wins, those milestones that could elevate him to the level of Bob Stoops and Les Miles. The Capital One bowl is easy to overlook because there isn’t anything tangible on the line.
Ten wins in a season is nice, but a nine-win year is more than survivable. A preseason ranking boost is great, but means nothing come the season opener. However, these sleepy bowl games, the ones that can creep up on player and fan alike, are often the ones that count most.
They instill confidence and dampen negativity, pick up the beat of spring and fall camp and cultivate championships down the line. They are the seeds of revival. One of those wins will be the one Pelini needs to start chiseling his head coaching credentials in stone, and that Nebraska needs to finally take that big step forward. A loss means more rumblings, more questions, more waiting for a team growing restless in the rebuilding phase to step up.
Surely there are some hoping Nebraska wins, but secretly believe that it doesn’t matter much if they lose. That warm, comfortable feeling can melt into complacency, the kind of feeling easily found in states bordering Nebraska, but not in Big Red country…yet. It’s a feeling that should be avoided at all costs. The Huskers still sit perilously between reestablishing elite status and becoming the next Iowa.
Any game that can create positive or negative energy extending towards next season is a game worth pulling out all the stops for, not just because it’s the last game of the year. The next contest Nebraska must win is not a September 29 date with the Wisconsin Badgers, but their upcoming bout with the Gamecocks.
Everyone across the program, from coaches to fans, knows from experience that sometimes it’s the games not taken as seriously that matter most in the end. Pat Fitzgerald and Paul Rhodes can tell Husker fans all they need to know about that.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @DigitalRyan
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