Lincoln, Neb. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is more on edge than usual.
The 24th-ranked Huskers are breaking in a new quarterback and young players at several other positions, yet they’re three-touchdown favorites at home against Florida Atlantic today — an opponent that has won back-to-back bowl games and is accustomed to playing in some of college football’s biggest venues.
Therein lies Pelini’s fear of the unknown.
“I hope we light it up on both sides of the football and play a perfect game,” he said. “I’m realistic enough to know that’s probably not going to happen.”
Expectations are high. One of the major story lines nationally entering the season focuses on whether Nebraska is primed for a return to prominence. The Huskers are favored to win the Big 12 North, and they’re in the Top 25 for the first time since October 2007.
The hype has been building since last year, when they won their last four games and six of seven to finish 9-4.
Pelini, true to his nature, won’t allow himself to get caught up in the excitement. His goals are much higher.
“I didn’t think we had a great season last year,” he said. “I didn’t come here to win nine games. That’s why I’m excited for this season.”
If Pelini is worried about what could go wrong, he has reason to be.
The margin between being very good and very average is slim for his second Nebraska team.
The successor to record-setting quarterback Joe Ganz, Zac Lee, has thrown only two passes in a Nebraska uniform. Roy Helu Jr., who has a history of hamstring problems, is backed up by a true freshman at I-back. Two red-shirt freshmen and a sophomore could be starting at linebacker.
“Questions need to be answered,” Pelini said. “We’re going to have guys who haven’t been out there. There’s the unknown of how they’re going to react. They always say you hope to make a big jump between the first and second games. You have to work the kinks out.”
Pelini’s anxiety has been apparent at recent practices. Last week, he lit into defensive players after what he considered a poor workout and followed that up with a testy exchange with the media.
“I think he’s gotten more intense,” nose tackle Ndamukong Suh said.
Center Jacob Hickman said the players are feeding off Pelini.
“It gives you a little bit extra to play with,” Hickman said. “He’s one of those coaches you want to play for. You can have his emotion affect you. Once he starts getting riled up, it’s about game time.”
This will be the fifth straight year that Florida Atlantic has played a Big 12 team.
The Owls also have played at Clemson, Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky — and they beat Minnesota at a neutral site in 2007.
Their marquee player is Rusty Smith, who owns Sun Belt Conference career records with 8,197 passing yards and 62 touchdowns.
Pelini said his players have a better understanding of his expectations, and he thinks they’ll be ready for the opener.
But doubts, he said, always creep into his mind.
“I go to bed thinking about certain plays, situations and scenarios that could come up,” he said. “You hope you coach the players the right way and that you taught them the right way, but sometimes you are at their mercy.”