Cowboys look to take another chink out of Huskers

Updated: August 28, 2003, 1:26 PM ET

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Coming off its best season in more than a decade, No. 24 Oklahoma State is seen as one of the teams on the rise in college football.

Nebraska, on the other hand, would appear to be on the decline after its 40-year run of unprecedented success came to a screeching halt with last year's 7-7 campaign.

The direction of each program should become more apparent when they meet Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

"This isn't the Super Bowl," NU linebacker T.J. Hollowell said, "but it's a game we have to win."

This is arguably the most highly anticipated opener for Nebraska since Bob Devaney took over as coach in 1962.

About 800 former Nebraska players are expected to be on hand as part of the first "Husker Nation" reunion.

The game itself will offer a first look at head coach Frank Solich's revamped staff. After last season, Solich hired six new assistants and removed himself as offensive coordinator.

Ex-Husker lineman Barney Cotton will call the plays in an offense that will mix more passing into the team's traditional run-oriented system. New defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, a nine-year NFL assistant, will unveil what is advertised as a more aggressive, less complicated scheme.

Solich hopes the changes lead to a quick return to national prominence.

"Is respect an issue out there around the country? It's there," Solich said. "We need to generate that kind of respect. What we're all concerned about is lining up and playing Nebraska football. Nothing more, nothing less.

"We're anxious to get that rolling. We'll see where it leads us. It will be a very interesting year."

The Huskers have won 35 of 39 games against OSU, but last year's 24-21 loss in Stillwater ended their 35-game unbeaten streak in the series.

That loss was part of their worst season since 1961, and the first since 1968 that they failed to win at least nine games.

OSU's 8-5 record equaled its win total in 1997, but the Cowboys' victory over Southern Mississippi in the Houston Bowl was their first in the postseason in 14 years.

The Cowboys, who won four straight and six of their last seven in 2002, come into the season ranked nationally for the first time since 1985.

The Huskers dropped out of the Top 25 after last year's late-September loss at Iowa State, and they haven't reappeared since. This is the first season since 1969 they've been out of the preseason rankings.

The Cowboys will be seeking their first win in 20 visits to Memorial Stadium, where they have scored more than 14 points on only two occasions.

The Huskers, meanwhile, hope to stretch their nation-leading streak of wins in season openers to 18. They haven't lost an opener since falling to Florida State in Lincoln in 1985.

The last time Nebraska opened against a conference opponent was in 1995, when the Huskers posted a 64-21 victory at Oklahoma State to begin their final march through the Big Eight.

That victory started a 12-0 run to a second straight national championship.

Those days seem like a long time ago. Throughout the offseason, the Huskers endured criticism and predictions of the program's demise.

"Just listening and reading stuff before the season, it's like we're Kansas now," NU cornerback Fabian Washington said. "I don't understand how you can go from being Nebraska to Kansas in one year."

OSU coach Les Miles doubts Nebraska has evolved into anything resembling a Big 12 bottom feeder.

"Nebraska is a very talented football team both offensively and defensively," Miles said. "We expect a great game from them. . . We want to make our mark in this conference, and this is our first opportunity."

The Cowboys have arguably their most potent offense since the days of Mike Gundy, Hart Lee Dykes and Barry Sanders in the late 1980s.

Quarterback Josh Fields is coming off a school record-setting season that saw him throw for 3,145 yards and 31 touchdowns. Wide receiver Rashaun Woods set Big 12 records with 107 catches for 1,695 yards and 17 TDs. Tailback Tatum Bell was OSU's first 1,000-yard rusher since 1996.

Nebraska counters with quarterback Jammal Lord, who was inconsistent last year despite rushing for a school position-record 1,400 yards. Josh Davis will make his first career start as an I-back, running behind an offensive line that was often outmuscled last year.

"We can have confidence, but you can never overlook a team," OSU senior safety Elbert Craig said. "Nebraska is still a good team. Jammal Lord is a great quarterback. At any time Nebraska can break a good run. You can never be relaxed about playing them."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index