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Into the Unknown

You probably have a lot of questions. I don’t have a lot of answers.

How does Nebraska come out and have the worst performance of the Bo Pelini era? How can it happen with a group of 29 seniors who were this close to a pair of conference titles in 2009 and 2010? How did it happen against the third-place team in the Leaders Division during a down year overall for the Big Ten?

Many will say that last one is the most painful question. On paper, Nebraska may never have an “easier road” to a conference title. But the 70-31 beatdown Wisconsin put on Nebraska Saturday night showed there is no such thing as an easy conference title. Even in the much beleaguered Big Ten. Even against a team that was .500 in conference play.

Even when almost everybody thought Nebraska was going to win.

“When you play the way we did, I don’t have an answer for that,” Pelini said. “I don’t. Unfortunately.”

That’s an alarming quote. Things don’t end well when the guy who’s supposed to have the answers doesn’t have the answers. That’s the coaching game.

But Pelini doesn’t have to have those answers minutes after the worst loss of his career. He does have to have them eventually, however.

When will they come? Another unanswerable.

That’s the bigger loss. Prior to the game, Nebraska looked like it was close to being back. This team was making a case for being Pelini’s best. When you looked at next year’s schedule and put at least a conference title on the 2012 resume, the Huskers were poised to start next year in the top 10 with good odds to be back in Indianapolis a year from now. Nebraska was knocking at the door of the nation’s elite and Wisconsin opened it just long enough for the Huskers to get a foot in before slamming it in their face.

The Badgers and Bret Bielema are headed to their third straight Rose Bowl. Pelini is headed back to Lincoln with an 0-3 record in conference championship games and plenty of time for reflection.

“It’s not indicative of the foundation of this program,” Pelini said of the loss.

What is it indicative of then? Throw that one on the pile of questions accumulating over there in the corner.

Nebraska was favored in this game. That fact will be used to reinforce the idea that Nebraska under Pelini struggles to deal with success. The conventional wisdom is that the Huskers are good with their backs against the wall.

But that’s the easy part. From a motivation standpoint, nothing’s as simple as saying nobody believes in you. So easy, in fact, that coaches will go to great lengths to manufacture that perception.

The hard part is when things start to snowball and you’re asked to examine your belief in yourself. Nebraska is still figuring that part out.

Despite what will be and has been said in the aftermath of this latest loss, the people in Nebraska still believe in Nebraska. When I got down to the field with just under five minutes remaining, the number of Husker fans who were still in their seats shocked me. Some had left early, but many were still there. Slouched and despondent, yes, but still there.

That’s not an answer to any of Nebraska’s newest round of on-field questions, but it’s what the Huskers have to build on right now. Maybe it’s time to retire the “nobody believes in us” card. Nebraska football has been defined by the uncommon amount of belief surrounding the program.

That’s being tested, again, but it always comes back. Play up that angle. There are thousands of people, no matter where the team goes, that believe in Nebraska football.

There can’t be better motivation than that. Any of the many answers everyone is searching for right now should start there.