Nebraska: No. 1 and then some in early going

By , Sports writer of The Christian Science Monitor

By now, it seems clear that Nebraska fields the kind of monster team that comes along maybe only once in a decade. The so-called experts, at least, are convinced, having made the Cornhuskers a unanimous No. 1 pick in both current wire service polls. That says a lot, too, since there's virtually always a hard-boiled coach or writer somewhere who goes against the grain.

With Nebraska, it's not just a question of being 4-0 either. Other Top 20 members can claim as much, but none has devastated opponents the way Nebraska's Big Red football machine has.

A sign of things to come occurred in the season's first game, the Kickoff Classic, when the Huskers crushed Penn State, the defending national champion, 44-6. Next came a 56-20 victory over Wyoming, a 84-13 rout of Minnesota, and a 42-10 decision over UCLA.

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In the latter game, Nebraska got its first opportunity to come from behind, and did so dramatically, scoring 42 unanswered points after UCLA jumped to a 10- 0 lead.

Anyone looking for a better team may have to return to 1971, when yet another Nebraska squad staked its claim to greatness. In fact, a panel of outstanding past and present coaches voted the undefeated '71 contingent college football's best ever, ahead of such notable juggernauts as Bud Wilkinson's 1956 Oklahoma team and Earl Blaik's Army elevens of 1944 and '45.

The coach of the 1971 Cornhuskers was Bob Devaney, who has been the school's athletic director since handing over the coaching reins to Tom Osborne in 1973. Devaney is in an ideal position to draw comparisons, and last fall claimed that the 1982 Huskers were better at a similar stage than the squad that won 13 games under him 11 years earlier.

Position by position Devaney gave the edge to the '82 squad, even in the backfield, where he placed Irving Fryar ahead of Heisman Trophy-winning wingback Johnny Rodgers and Turner Gill (''the best quarterback Nebraska has ever had'') over Jerry Tagge. And with Mike Rozier joining Roger Craig, he also felt last year's team had superior running strength.

Despite Devaney's assessment, however, Nebraska lost in the waning moments to Penn State in the season's third game. Nebraska went on to win the rest of its game and finish 12-1.

Gill, Rozier, and Fryar certainly form the star-studded nucleus of the team's present, highly explosive offense. But the line has been equally devastating, which may come as a mild surprise to those who wondered what would happen at the point of attack without Dave Rimington, last season's All-American center and two-time Outland Trophy winner as the nation's top collegiate lineman..

Actually, the blocking may be better than ever. ''I think Nebraska's line would be one of the best in the USFL (United States Football League) right now, '' said Conrad Dobler, a former all-pro offensive lineman who witnessed the Wyoming game. ''In five or six years, if they stayed together, they'd be one of the best in the NFL. They don't make mistakes.''

Up until now, about the only signs of sloppiness have surfaced in that dream backfield. The Cornhuskers, who have fumbled 20 times, coughed up the ball the first three times they were on offense against UCLA.

Their next opponent, Syracuse, has won its last three games, but the Orangemen are not a realistic threat to spring a major upset.

After Syracuse, Nebraska swings into its conference schedule, where the Huskers will attempt to become the first Big Eight squad since the Oklahoma powerhouses of the 1950s to go unbeaten in league play a third straight season.

During the past three Big Eight campaigns Nebraska has outscored its conference brethren 840 to 195 and lost just once, to arch rival Oklahoma at the tail end of the 1980 season.

On the whole, the Big Eight is not as strong as it was in 1971, when Oklahoma and Colorado finished right behind Nebraska in an incredible sweep of the top three slots in that year's final writers' poll.

Even so, Oklahoma is a constant thorn in the side, and this year Nebraska travels to Norman to meet the Sooners Nov. 26. And lest Nebraska peek too far ahead, there's Kansas to think about on Nov. 12. The Jayhawks just upset Southern Cal to stamp themselves as dangerous.

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