The most interesting matchups of the season, chronologically.
- - -
There aren't many teams more vexing from a preseason standpoint than Nebraska, though the stark divide between the Huskers' talent and results under Bill Callahan -- and, honestly, in the last two years of Frank Solich's administration -- has hardly led to much indecision among the summer pronostoscenti. The magazines have not only decreed the Big Red fourth in the Big 12 North; it's a decisive fourth unanimous except for noted contrarian Phil Steele. Kansas and Colorado, less physically gifted teams that nevertheless sent the Huskers home victims of humiliating scoreboard assault last year, are much favored, and none but Steele dares consider NU for the top twenty-five.
Both results are virtually unprecedented in the last 40 years, but they're understandable on the heels of six years of steady underachieving, despite the relatively dreadful recruiting at the end of the Solich era and the potential payoff of the marked upswing in talent under Callahan, whose classes from 2005-07 all rivaled those from Oklahoma and Texas as the best in the conference (according to Rivals), and easily outpaced the rest of the North. Bo Pellini may be walking into a much better-stocked kitchen than Callahan, but until his results pass inspection, skepticism is inevitable.
Nebraska? Wasn't that kitchen full of rats the last time we were there?
- - -
On the other hand, take Virginia Tech, another team moving forward warily, but for exactly opposite reasons. Where the dichotomy between potential and recent results led to a strongly pessimistic view of Nebraska, the loss of every significant Hokie skill player -- including all of the expected up-and-comers in the spring, who will begin the season on the injured list -- and the core of veteran leadership on the most consistently dominating defense in the country over the last three years has caused barely a ripple in the summer consensus: Tech is a unanimous favorite to win the ACC Coastal, and to finish somewhere in the high teens to low twenties in the final polls.
When you're planning to fight the last war, continuity seems like everything. It trumps talent, ambition and innovation. Continuity is the reason Virginia Tech is expected to look like Virginia Tech more or less always looks, regardless of a red siren lack of experienced personnel. In the same way, the lack of continuity, despite advantages in experience and talent over most of the rest of its conference, dooms Nebraska to another year of stultifying mediocrity, of 'rebuilding,' until the Huskers, too, have reestablished a track record of success in the face of any and all levels of attrition. So thinks Athlon, anyway, which chalks up Nebraska as a near-certain 'W' for Virginia Tech, not even bothering with the courtesy of considering the home team a potential toss-up. That's pretty certain for this time of year.
Given the circumstances, of course, there's nothing certain about either team's prospects, in Lincoln or over the course of the season. In war terms, between the new brain trust at Nebraska and the green troops in Blacksburg, neither army looks the same in strategy or firepower. Expectations -- those holdover assumptions from "the last war," 2007 -- are good for three weeks, in Nebraska's case, through games with Western Michigan, San Jose State and New Mexico State, but the story of the ground gained or lost in 2008 is in complete flux until a real, competent enemy shows up on Sept. 27.
To that point, as through most of the Callahan era, the Big Red is a blank slate. But 4-0 in September, with the program's best win in three years as a jumping-off point for the conference gauntlet, immediately establishes Pellini's Huskers as a revived, hungry threat. If they're feeling confident now, the last thing Missouri and Kansas want to see is the old sleeping giant lifting its weary head on the horizon. Nebraska needs that before Mizzou comes in the following week.
We'll know a little more about the wisdom of the Hokie backers by then, and whether their rhetorical investments in another ten-win season were justified. Tech has division rivals Georgia Tech and North Carolina in the weeks just prior to its Midwest road trip, and the fate of the Coastal might be more or less sealed in those games, whether the Sean Glennon/Tyrod Taylor question is or not. If this is an ambitious team -- which Tech's success since joining the ACC gives it every right to be -- 4-0 entering the Nebraska game is a minimum. Five-and-oh coming out of Lincoln raises the bar another notch, where just meeting expectations is a clear enough warning to cynics who pay too much attention to things like depth charts.