Nebraska, Mike Riley chasing 'special place' in Big Ten title race

Nebraska fired Shawn Eichorst on Thursday, and it's time for the Huskers to steal a page from their co-national champs from 1997.

Nebraska is a special place.

Third-year coach Mike Riley knows that. He recruits there, honed in on a 500-mile radius around the state.The passionate fan-base and lofty expectations will never change for a program entering its seventh season in the Big Ten. Riley doesn't need affirmation of that.

"We areAmerica's team here," Riley said on the Big Ten teleconference Wednesday before taking the next question."I'm more confirmed every dayabout the factthat this is a great place.It's a great place for young people in general, not just out student-athletes. I think that the atmosphere, environment as a city, as a campus,universityis really special and I appreciate that."

That place appreciates football more thaneverything, and what place the Huskers finish in the Big Ten West is always the biggest question.Thatwill be asked before, during andafter Saturday's spring game at Memorial Stadium.

MORE: Huskers three big questions

Nebraska reached the nine-win mark in Riley's second season, and played in a few big games that determined that division race.But the Huskers didn't win those games. Nebraska is31-18 in conference play since joining the Big Ten in 2011, and that includes a 4-9 record against ranked teams. It's a program still looking for that firstdefinitivestatement rest of the Big Ten. That comes in the form of a championship.Nebraska piled those up in the Big Eight and Big 12. It was almost a birthright.

Can they reclaim that in 2017? The answer to that lies in two big questions.

Nebraska'squarterbackcompetition is at the first big question.Redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien and Tulane transfer Tanner Lee opened spring practice with a coin flip. The winner will replace four-year starter Tommy Armstrong. Last season, Huskers quarterbacks combined for 18 TDs and nine interceptions, but that came with a 50.4 completion percentage.

Riley split the reps in spring practice and "kept it clean." The Lincoln Journal Star reported Riley expects to name a starter shortly after spring practice is completed. Thatcompetition, however, added something extra to those practices.

"We've been through it a few times in our life, the one thing itdoes it kind of keeps an edge if that is necessary for some guys," Riley said. "They always have an edge. There is an edge that you need tokeep day to day and it provides opportunity."

MORE: Fleck admits he's 'not for everybody'

The second big question lies in the transition to a 3-4 under newdefensivecoordinatorBobDiaco, who won the Broyles Award in the same position in 2012 while leading Notre Dame to the BCS championship game. The "Blackshirts" have yet to be feared in Big Ten play, especially over the last two seasons.

Nebraska is2-7 in games where they allow 30 points or moreunder Riley, including losing three of their last five games to Ohio State, Iowa and Tennessee last season.The Buckeyes essentially ended the Huskers' playoff hopes with a 62-3 blowout in Columbus to open the November schedule.

Riley said everyonewill notice the structural changes. Alex Davis, for example, is a standup linebacker now instead of a hand-on-the-ground rusher. That's not all.

"With newness comes a natural energy change probably andpeople are again whether or not they are comfortable arecompeting for a spot with a new group of coaches."

"With newness comes a natural energy change probably andpeople are again whether or not they are comfortable arecompeting for a spot with a new group of coaches," Riley said. "That's there.CoachDiacopersonally brings aspecial energy to practice.He's a great teacher and does itenthusiastically and that's noticeable."

Those are the keys to theBig Ten West title hopes, where defending division champion Wisconsin will be the prohibitive favorite. The schedule features a nonconference trip to Oregon and cross-over games against Ohio State and at Penn State. That won't be easy, but winning those games is what made Nebraska a special program.

With Riley, it's time to find that special place again.

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