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Barking Carnival's Nebraska Football State of the Union

Bill Callahan is an offensive mastermind. I know this because it's on his business card right over his mobile number and because I've watched several Nebraska/Iowa St games where he lines up in an unbalanced look, sends two men in motion, has the QB gesture vigorously to his receivers, they all shift again, an illegal procedure penalty is called, the camera pans to Callahan screaming into his headset, they redo the entire scenario again, and then they successfully run a shovel pass for seven yards. Callahan nods sagely as it is now 4th and 7 and their punting field position has been upgraded substantially.

He will then fake that punt, by the way.

There are clever coaches and there are Oh-isn't-he-clever coaches (said with an eye roll). Callahan is currently in the latter camp. He might change to the former, but that's 2-3 huge wins away.

Every morning Callahan goes to the same diner in Lincoln to eat a giant country breakfast: buttermilk pancakes, sausage, crisp bacon, a large glass of fresh squeezed orange juice, toast, scrambled eggs. When he reaches for a fresh pot of strong black coffee, the waitress slaps the shit out of his hand.

That's because coffee is for closers.

Up 16-0 on the road against Oklahoma St? Lose 41-29. Whipping Auburn in the Cotton Bowl? Mismanage the kicking game to a 17-14 loss. Beating Texas in front of the rowdiest crowd in Nebraska history? Cough up the rock and give up a game winning drive into 25 MPH winds and a blizzard - allegedly your element. height=

Coffee is also for beginners. See USC. Observing Callahan's scrotum recede into his body cavity as if he'd been Muay Thai kicked by Mirko Cro Cop was one of the most incredible pieces of college football theater I've ever witnessed. There's a catchy rallying cry for the youngsters: We didn't get blown out! We leave with our Midwestern dignity intact!

True, the Huskers have gone from 5-6 to 8-4 to 9-5 under the Callahan regime. This is progress; though the underlying numbers are sobering: he sports a 10-5 record against his North brethren and has gone a sweet 3-7 against the South. His personal credo: TGFB (Thank God For Baylor, a 2-0 record against that powerhouse) is inspiring to all.

He does get some credit for referring to Oklahoma fans as "fucking hillbillies." Outstanding. In fact, I'll upgrade his record at Nebraska from 22-15 to 28-9 for that one. I'll even throw in a BCS game.

This year Nebraska and Mizzou are the bell cows of the North by simple virtue of the fact that the other four teams are varying degrees of hopeless. That we lost to one of these hopeless teams last year still boggles the mind. That Nebraska has lost to five of them over the last three years does more so.

Sam Keller will QB the Huskers, whatever the staff's summer posturing about Joe Ganz. Keller is 6'4" 235 and has a cannon arm. His only weakness is that he's apparently a prick - at least according to ASU fans, his ASU former teammates, the woman in Lincoln he hummed a plastic cup at for taking a parking space he coveted, and anyone who watched his meltdown against USC in '05. According to Nebraska fans he's not a prick but a "competitor" (this is code for a prick who wins, except that he hasn't). I wasn't sure what to believe until I found out he's from Danville. Ha. Prick. Trust me on this one. He's a NFL prototype QB and the first really physically gifted guy to run the Callahan offense. He also enjoyed every one of Rudy Carpenter's 14 interceptions immensely last year.

He'll throw the ball to Maurice Purify, who is Limas Sweed-lite and their best receiving threat (if he's on the team). Terrence Nunn complements him and he's adequate. The Nebraska tight ends are irrelevant, but the starter is a dead ringer for Herbie Husker, and Nebraska fans dig that.

Nate Swift? Isn't.

Marlon Lucky was a ballyhooed national recruit (a five star) who should carry the bulk of the load now. I think he suits Callahan's offense. He's outstanding out of the backfield and I wouldn't be shocked to see him rush for 1,000+ and catch 45 balls. Cody Glenn will see plenty of action as the change of pace power guy.

The OL didn't impress me last year and I remain skeptical of their prospects in 2007. Callahan has a strong resume as an OL coach (he was Alvarez's guy at Wiscy), but I see a group that's not cohesive against higher quality D-lines (USC, Auburn, OU, Texas). They're not terrible, just not up to Nebraska's historical standard.

The starting LB corps is comprised of seniors and they're the best squad in the Big 12, though only The Octavien (wasn't this a Chuck Norris flick?) is an elite athlete (Ruud and McKeon are All-Big 12 performers though). They'll be the mainstays of the defense as the DL replaces all four starters. The NU secondary is mediocre and I'm not sure if returning starters there is a positive or negative for them. One would hope that some of Callahan's recruiting classes would have started to edge some of these guys out by now, but it seems likely that they'll start four seniors (unless a highly touted JUCO name Asante wins the safety gig). College broadcasters like to make a big deal about their track times, but I notice they're generally using them to run down a guy who just used their ass.

The schedule is daunting in parts. USC is dominant, Wake is dangerous, even Nevada and Ball St are a slight cut above the typical non-con doormats. The roady to Austin looks like a loss on its face, meaning a 1-7 record against the Longhorns since the league's formation. That has to sting. They'll play for the North marbles in Columbia. Bill Callahan vs. Gary Pinkel - mmm, it just doesn't get any better than that, does it football fans? If you don't have the chills right now, I pity you.

So the '07 Huskers: experience, four years in the Callahan system, genuine talent in spots, a general sense that things are getting better in Lincoln. Callahan's recruiting has been quite good, but the overreliance on JUCOs is troubling. Herbie's traditional recruiting grounds for skill athletes, California and Texas, are currently dominated by USC and the Longhorns. UCLA and Cal are cleaning up the remaining four stars in California and OU, LSU, and A&M are doing likewise in Texas. Factor in the loss of the old Prop 48 loopholes in the formation of the league and Nebraska is having to look increasingly to the JUCO ranks to stock their defense and skill positions - Grand Island High just isn't cutting it. Call me a snob, but I don't think JUCOs are a lasting model for stability and although I know it's not exactly easy to get ghetto fabulous to attend school in a state where Kevin Bacon had to punch-dance in the barn for fear of the town elders frowning at him, the Huskers need to work harder here. Given the tradition and passion of the Big Red fanbase, the resurgence in recruiting, and the current level of the program, anything but total dominance of the North is unacceptable from this year onward.  height=

To their credit, the Nebraska faithful are patient. Part of this is tribute to their sophistication and their understanding of how badly Solich damaged the program on the recruiting trails, but they were also profoundly shaken by the number of coaches who passed on what was once considered to be one of the elite jobs in college football. That doesn't mean Nebraska can't be great again, it just shows what the market thought of their prospects.

When Houston Nutt passes on you, you've got to wonder what memo you missed.