LINCOLN — Have you met the new coach in town? His name's Big Game Bo.
He's a long lost cousin to Big Game Bob, the one-time national champ and owner of a jewelry store of Big 12 rings down at Oklahoma.
Big Game Bo hasn't been around here much. There are always rumors of him making an appearance, but something always comes up, sometimes at the last minute.
Here we are, the last weekend in October. The weather's turning. It's big game season in college football. The Michigan Wolverines are making a historic appearance at Memorial Stadium. The home crowd is anxious.
This would be a really good time for Big Game Bo to introduce himself.
Has there been a bigger game at Nebraska for Bo Pelini? Yes. In 2009 and 2010, Bo's Huskers played for the Big 12 championship, losing both. Had he won either title, people would look at the coach a lot differently than they do today.
But there is not a more important game this year for Pelini, unless it's the Big Ten championship game in December. And Bo can't get there without solving tonight's game first.
This is not Oklahoma State or Missouri. The win in the rain in Columbia in 2009 was huge at the time, but its significance faded with losses to Texas Tech, Iowa State and Texas.
This isn't about ranking or even quality of opponent. The Wolverines are ranked 20th in the polls (Pelini beat ninth-ranked Michigan State last year), but this is a different animal altogether. Michigan anytime makes you sit up and take notice.
But the Wolfies couldn't have picked a more opportune, or inopportune, time for their first visit to Lincoln in 100 years.
How badly does Big Game Bo need this one?
Win and the Huskers forge a tie atop the Legends Division at 3-1, with work to be done but control over their Big Ten fate with four weeks left.
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Win and you make a statement that Nebraska will stand up to the oncoming Brady Hoke Express.
Win and even if NU doesn't win the Legends Division, there's something tangible, something meaningful, to take into 2013: a win over Go Blue.
Win and the growing anxiety about Pelini's program recedes and everyone can take a deep breath.
On the other hand ...
Lose, and the Huskers fall two games behind Michigan, and three if you count the tie-breaker.
Lose and the season, for all tangible purposes, is over and Husker fans have nothing to do for four weeks but write emails and call their friendly neighborhood sports talk therapists.
Lose and, well, things could get downright ugly. Especially if it involves a special team circus or turnover fiasco.
If it feels like we've been here before, writing and reading this very topic, we have. Just a few weeks ago, Ohio State loomed as the opportunity for Bo to take to the big stage and elevate his program.
We know how that turned out.
Nebraska coaches are judged on big games and championships. Nine-win seasons are great, but it's the substance in the record that is the stuff of legends and longevity.
Tonight is the biggest game of Pelini's career. Until the next one.
Tom Osborne can relate. In an eerily similar scenario, Osborne went into his fifth season at NU with 37 wins in four years but nary an eye-opening pelt. That changed in week two of 1977, when Tom took down Bear Bryant and his fourth-ranked Alabama team at Memorial Stadium.
That turned out to be a Liberty Bowl year, but it gave Osborne credibility and breathing room to get to the next big one — the breakthrough win over Oklahoma in 1978. There was the loss the next week and Osborne was back on the path, looking for the next big game, the next championship.
Winning a big one brings no guarantees. Frank Solich won a Big 12 title and Fiesta Bowl in 1999, then beat Big Game Bob at home in 2001 before the roof caved in at Colorado. At Nebraska, it's rarely what you've done but what you haven't done yet.
But in many ways, a Nebraska coach's career doesn't begin until he bags that first Big One.
Pelini looks for it in a game that feels a little like a crossroads for his NU tenure. He's had really good wins and lopsided losses, moments of great coaching and other times of poor execution and sloppiness. A nondescript era. Good, not great.
At this moment in time, this one looms large on all sorts of levels: big picture, small picture, internally and externally, for confidence and credibility and all the hyperbole we heap on a game that boils down to blocking and tackling, vision and guts.
Nebraska will need to block Michigan's stout defense and tackle the shifty Denard Robinson to win tonight. Cut out turnovers. Simple as that.
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If only it were so simple for a Husker team that always seems to do things the hard way. Scaling this next level, closing the deal, will be the hardest thing Pelini has done.
But he's going to do it one of these times, isn't he?
For a while, Ohio State looked like the one. Nebraska took OSU's first shot, grabbed a lead, traded big plays and scores. But again the Huskers melted in the moment.
What gives? This looks like a confidence issue. Or a lack thereof. In the big games, the big moments, it's almost like this program no longer expects to win. When things go wrong, the Huskers expect more things to go wrong.
Maybe last week's great escape is the catalyst to reaching the other side. Sloppy as it was, the Northwestern win was full of character.
Or maybe it takes beating down Michigan in a game loaded with desperation for the home team.
There has never been an opportunity like this one for Pelini's NU: big game, night game, home game. Pelini can take the winds of discontent and change the forecast. Or it could be another long, cold winter.
That's why we love big games, why we live for them. Win or lose, they're the mile markers of the program. They write legacies. Define coaches.
Big Game Bo. It has a nice ring to it. As in, jewelry.
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