Rooney: Sweeping renewal of Nebraska rivalry could jump-start Mel Tucker era

CU Buffs seek spark that proved elusive after 2018 win in Lincoln

Steven Branscombe / Getty Images
Colorado quarterback Steven Montez completed a 40-yard touchdown pass to Laviska Shenault with 66 seconds to beat Nebraska last season.

Much like a showdown this week that’s been circled on the calendars of Buffs fans for years, Colorado had something to prove when it rekindled relations with the dreaded Big Red menace from Nebraska a year ago.

The Buffaloes went out and proved it. Not that it really did anything for CU. Or, really, either team.

It will be a welcome sight inside Folsom Field Saturday afternoon as the Nebraska Cornhuskers visit Boulder for the first time in 10 years. The rivalry was reignited last year in Lincoln with the Buffs gutting out a 33-28 victory courtesy of a Steven Montez-to-Laviska Shenault 40-yard touchdown with 66 seconds remaining, adding another chapter to a storied matchup.

It felt like a win that could change the fortunes of an entire season. And for at least a few weeks it did, with the Buffs’ 5-0 start stirring visions of a second Pac-12 South Division crown in three seasons. The rest was CU football history-altering, with a seven-game losing streak spelling the end of the Mike MacIntyre era.

Ultimately Nebraska didn’t fare much better, finishing 4-8 in the first season under Huskers favorite son Scott Frost. Yet because the Huskers flipped the script compared to what the Buffs endured, shaking off an 0-6 start to win four of the final six (in one of those losses, Nebraska led at Ohio State at halftime), the idea of Year 2 under Frost and sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez heightened the offseason expectations in Lincoln and even led to the extremely rare circumstance of an eight-loss team garnering a preseason ranking the following year.

Like last year, the Buffs have an opportunity to change the complexion of the season. But like, for real this time. While the results in 2018 certainly didn’t play out accordingly after the Buffs’ big win in Lincoln, the opportunity at hand feels oddly similar as the approach in Week 2 last year. As such, I dug through the archives and found a number of passages from last year’s pre-Nebraska column that still ring true.

If the Buffs can escape (Nebraska) with a victory, it will rewrite CU’s 2018 expectations.

…in that scenario (a CU win) even the more favorable predictions of a seven-win season becomes a far more realistic goal…

…the potential to change the outlook of an entire season remains…

You know a rivalry is rekindled when one side’s athletic director, in this case CU’s Rick George, feels compelled to begin a press conference arranged to announce Colorado’s new ambitious green endeavor (the unveiling of single-use aluminum cups Saturday at Folsom) by delivering a plea for Buff Nation to keep it civil. The Buffs can do their part by sweeping the brief home-and-home renewal until the old rivals meet again in 2023 and 2024.

If the Buffs’ unexpected 5-0 start a year ago can at least be partially ascribed to a weak opening schedule, then it’s equally fair to question if the Huskers’ apparent late improvement in 2018 also was aided by a favorable turn in the schedule. Bethune-Cookman was among those four wins. The other three also came at home, with two against Big Ten lightweights Minnesota and Illinois and another in an ugly 9-6 affair against a down Michigan State team.

Nebraska didn’t look like a top 25 team last week, and the Huskers still have to prove the second year of the Frost-Martinez attack can generate enough electricity to once again make the program relevant nationally. A potential 2-0 start for CU obviously would make a run at six wins and a bowl berth more viable, though the Buffs still would have to prove it during an extremely challenging Pac-12 slate. Topping the Huskers wouldn’t change the fact CU has won more than two league games just once in eight previous seasons in the Pac-12.

Yet if there is a Mel Tucker Factor in that equation, it’s that the Buffs are unlikely to suffer the complete emotional unraveling witnessed under MacIntyre’s watch in 2018. Earlier this week CU’s first-year coach rattled off the headlining rivalries in which he has coached. It was an impressive and historic list. Cleveland Browns-Pittsburgh Steelers. Chicago Bears-Green Bay Packers. Ohio State-Michigan. Auburn-Alabama. Georgia against Florida and Georgia Tech. His overall record in those matchups is 9-14, but those losses are skewered heavily during his NFL stints with bad teams in Cleveland (0-8 vs. Pittsburgh) and Chicago (1-3 vs. Green Bay). His college teams have been a different story, with Tucker-coached squads going 8-3 (5-2 with Tucker as defensive coordinator) in the aforementioned matchups.

This, of course, is Tucker’s first taste of a marquee rivalry as the leading man. Any win against Nebraska will count among the sweetest of any season for the Buffs and their fans. If it happens Saturday, the fool’s gold of last year’s victory in Lincoln should come to mind before anyone starts plotting bowl plans.

Still, for a new coach trying to instill a new mindset and culture, it would be a huge step in the right direction. But, you know, for real this time.