College football countdown: No. 1 Nebraska

Monday, August 7th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

In true Nebraska tradition, Solich places national title hopes in hands of defense

They were wrong before. Frank Solich knows they could be wrong again.

Barely a year ago, Solich appeared to be on the road to ruin as the successor to Nebraska coaching icon Tom Osborne. Now he's on easy street, or so it seems, as coach of college football's best team going into the 2000 season.

"I don't see it as good or bad," Solich says of the Cornhuskers' preseason No. 1 ranking. "It's meaningless to me."

Certainly, it beats the alternative. Last season began with Solich scrambling to rectify a 9-4 Nebraska showing in his 1998 debut. Two games into the season, he scraped plans to use fleet-footed wingback Bobby Newcombe at quarterback. He sliced his best I-back, discontented DeAngelo Evans, from the roster.

The victories rolled in anyway - until fumbles cost the Cornhuskers an October showdown with Texas. Then came a new winning streak, retribution against the Longhorns in the Big 12 title game and a 31-21 thrashing of Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl.

Now 10 starters – including all the key offensive components – are back to help the Cornhuskers indulge themselves in a schedule that looks more like a national championship treasure map.

Solich, as serious and subdued as his predecessor, doesn't have to accept the high assessment of his team. But a good coach, Solich has learned, has to anticipate anything.

"The hype has come from a couple of things," he says. "First is the great tradition of football at Nebraska. Second is the way we finished last year. We played a very good schedule coming down the stretch and we played very well."

But Solich believes one part of the equation is being overlooked.

"I've always felt," he says, "that great defenses give you your best chance to contend for championships."

And Nebraska's defensive prospects clearly rest more on tradition than proven talent. Even part of the tradition is now gone.

Charlie McBride, coordinator of the Cornhuskers' famed Blackshirt defense the past 18 years, opted for retirement after the 1999 season. Linebacker coach Craig Bohl, a six-year staff veteran, takes his place.

"He was our Tom Osborne," middle linebacker Carlos Polk says. "Just his presence demanding something out of you. But coach Bohl has stepped in there just like coach Solich did."

Last year Nebraska's defense bought time for the Cornhusker offense to adjust its personnel and find its balance. The offense may have to return the favor this fall.

Kyle Vanden Bosch brings a degree of celebrity to one defensive spot. Polk has a chance to establish himself as one of the best linebackers in school history. But there are no irresistible replacements for departed stars Mike Brown and Ralph Brown in the secondary.

"We don't want to be so complex defensively that our new players don't know what we're doing," Solich says. "We may try to cut back a little early in the season."

It'll be up to the offense to cut loose. Newcombe is back at wingback, ever dangerous and ever a relief valve for the running game, regardless of whether his number is called. Tracey Wistrom rates as the best tight end weapon in the Big 12.

The line meets all of Nebraska's traditionally high standards. The Cornhuskers' top six rushers return, including both workmanlike I-backs: Dan Alexander, who gained 6.5 yards a carry last year, and Correll Buckhalter, who averaged 6.0. The two combined for 14 rushing touchdowns.

That fell two short of the 16 rushing TDs posted by quarterback Eric Crouch, now recognized as the No. 1 offensive threat in the entire Big 12. After replacing Newcombe last season, Crouch ran for 889 yards and passed for another 1,269.

He became the first Cornhusker quarterback to lead the team in rushing since 1955.

"The big difference with this team," Crouch says, "is that everybody knows what his role is. Everybody knows what they have to do to make us successful."

If success means roping in a little luck, the Cornhuskers are already off to a good start. Dan Hadenfeldt, a seasoned punter slowed by back problems early in his career, received a sixth year of eligibility in the off-season. So did Jason Schwab, who'll reclaim the starting right tackle job he held until suffering a knee injury in two-a-days last fall.

"We feel we have some areas of concern that we have to address," Solich says. "But we feel we have a chance to be a very good football team."

Nebraska Schedule- Sept 2 San Jose State; Sept 9 at Notre Dame; Sept 23 Iowa; Sept 30 Missouri; Oct 7 at Iowa State; Oct 14 Texas Tech; Oct 21 Baylor; Oct 28 at Oklahoma; Nov 4 Kansas; Nov 11 at Kansas State; Nov 24 Colorado

Nebraska Cornhuskers Capsule

COACH: Frank Solich (21-5 in 2 years and overall)

LAST YEAR: 12-1 (7-1 in Big 12, beat Texas in Big 12 title game and Tennessee in Fiesta Bowl)

OUT: Longtime defensive coordinator Charlie McBride, now retired. Also, the Blackshirt Browns, Mike and Ralph, two of the best big-play secondary hands in school history.

IN: Thunder Collins (and that's his real name), a sophomore from the California junior college ranks who may develop into Solich's first franchise I-back. Collins rushed for 1,548 yards and 23 TDs in just 10 games last season.

BIG PLUS: Offensive stability. Every position is a loaded gun – cannons, in most cases. Next to Virginia Tech's Michael Vick, Eric Crouch might be the most versatile quarterback in the nation.

BIG MINUS: New faces at four of the front seven positions on defense. Three of the four new players need to develop into name talents.

NATIONAL TITLE IF: The defense rises to Nebraska standards and Crouch stays healthy. Newcombe is available to replace Crouch, but first preference will be redshirt freshman Jammal Lord, who'll try to rebound from a spring knee injury.

BOTTOM LINE: It's all about winning games, and the Cornhuskers will face their two biggest challenges on the road, against revitalized rival Oklahoma and North nemesis Kansas State. Victories in those games would even erase the poll stigma of a September loss at Notre Dame, if that happens, which isn't likely.

Dallas Morning News Pre-season Top 25

25. Clemson
24. Mississippi
23. So. Miss.
22. Utah
21. Texas A&M
20. Penn State
19. Tennessee
18. Colorado
17. Oklahoma
16. Purdue
15. Illinois
14. Kansas State
13. Florida
12. Ohio State
11. TCU
10. USC
9. Wisconsin
8. Michigan
7. Georgia
6. Texas
5. Florida State
4. Miami
3. Alabama
2. Virginia Tech
1. Nebraska