Nebraska stays focused on Big 12

IRVING, Texas -- Everywhere he looked, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini was surrounded by the Big 12 logo.

On the microphone he spoke into. On the cup of water and nameplate in front of him. On the helmet in front of the moderator one seat over. And as he sat down and stood up, he couldn't miss the dozens of logos on the dark blue screen behind him.

So what did Pelini do when given a series of league-branded footballs to sign? He spun each one so he was facing the logo and put his autograph right above the X in the Big XII brand.

"We're excited about being in the Big 12 this season," Pelini said. "All of our focus is on the Big 12 this season."

His repeated use of the words "this season" are the key. This is the Cornhuskers' last season in the Big 12. They are headed to the Big Ten next fall as part of an exodus that just six weeks ago threatened to make this league extinct.

The politics made for an obvious subplot to the start of the conference's three days of preseason interviews with reporters. Almost as if by punishment, Pelini was the first to step onto the dais.

And he was ready for it.

Pelini brought up the subject in his opening statement, dismissing it as a non-issue. He still faced plenty of questions about it and stuck with his stance that it's been business as usual.

"All I'm concerned about is this fall," he said. "I haven't thought much about the Big Ten to be honest with you."

Really? Not even with recruits, kids who will never even play in the Big 12?

"No," he said.

Even though you played at Ohio State and know all about the traditions and histories that helped lure the proud Nebraska program in a new direction?

"No," he said.

How about your school's relationship with high school coaches in Texas, where the four conference schools decided to stay put -- that's changed, right?

"Like I said, it's been business as usual," he said.

The Cornhuskers certainly have other things to think about this fall.

They came within a second of winning the Big 12 championship game, then regrouped to win their bowl game and land at No. 14 in the final poll. It was their best finish since 2001.

The jump came in Pelini's second year, which is another part of the excitement in Lincoln. In the third year at his last job (defensive coordinator at LSU), he won a national championship.

"You have a lot of guys in the program who understand what you want, understand what the expectations are and understand exactly how to go about the process of becoming a good football player and a good football team," he said. "I really feel like we're at that point where we can beat anybody we line up against, or compete with anybody that we line up against."

There are some big challenges, though, like replacing Ndamukong Suh, the reigning Big 12 defensive player of the year, and settling on a starting quarterback between incumbent Zac Lee, Cody Green and Taylor Martinez.

Like it or not, the league change is something they will have to deal with, too. They'll find out Oct. 7 at Kansas State, Oct. 23 at Oklahoma State, Nov. 6 at Iowa State and Nov. 20 at Texas A&M.

And they'll really hear about it if they get back to the Big 12 title game Dec. 4 at Cowboys Stadium, about a 20-minute drive from the conference's headquarters.

So maybe it was a pre-emptive strike when he said, "The fans and the institutions in the Big 12 are highly respected ... very classy programs, very classy fans."

Perhaps the oddest part of Pelini downplaying the league change is that he could be using it to his advantage. There might be a great rallying cry in trying to go out on top.

"That's not my approach, I don't believe in it," he said. "The emotion can work two ways. It can work to your advantage, it can really work to your disadvantage, too. We worry about us and taking care of us -- our fundamentals, our techniques and getting better on a daily basis."

The Cornhuskers aren't completely devoid of emotion.

They're using their last-second loss to Texas in the conference championship as a motivator. Players are wearing reminders on their wrists, red rubber bracelets with the messages "0.01" and "FINISH" stamped in.

Should the Cornhuskers reach their goals, conference affiliations won't matter. At a school like Nebraska, the goal is winning a national championship, not just a conference title.

"We'll probably reflect on it at the end of the year knowing it was the last year in the Big 12," defensive lineman Jared Crick said. "As far as in the moment, we're not going to be real concerned. That's going to be the last of our concerns."