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Lincoln, Neb. • A well-publicized brawl after a loss to a perceived lesser opponent in a minor bowl game. Legacy recruits choosing other schools, including longtime rivals. Another whiff in the NFL draft. The withdrawal a week before preseason camp of one of the most prolific and beloved running backs in school history. Summer run-ins with the law by a couple of projected starters that came to light in the dog days of camp.
It has been a long and difficult offseason for the BYU Cougars since they lost 55-48 in double overtime to Memphis and then fought with the Tigers afterward in an ugly melee in front of national television cameras at the Miami Beach Bowl.
Their large national fan base is growing restless and itches for some positive news at the very least a win or two in a scary September.
The Cougars can deliver some good headlines on Saturday at one of the most storied venues in college football, against one of the sport's true blue bloods, but it will take one of the better performances of the Bronco Mendenhall era.
Looking for redemption and a sliver of national respect, the independent Cougars take on the Big Ten's Cornhuskers and their new coaching staff at 1:30 p.m. MDT at sold out Memorial Stadium (capacity 87,000). The "suspension bowl," as it has been dubbed because several projected starters from each team likely will sit out the game, or parts of it, will be broadcast by ABC (Ch. 4).
Underdogs by a touchdown, the Cougars rolled into fired-up Lincoln on Friday thinking they could pull off what would arguably be their biggest season-opening win since they surprised No. 3 Oklahoma 14-13 in 2009 in Arlington, Texas.
"There is no greater feeling than showing up at a stadium that big and being able to come away with a victory, and [to] see a big sea of red that you just kinda conquered, I guess," said BYU senior receiver Mitch Mathews. "There's no better feeling."
But that's putting the cart in front of the horse. Nebraska has won 29 straight season openers, and former Oregon State coach Mike Riley has brought new energy and optimism to Big Red territory. On paper, Nebraska appears to have superior athletes at almost every position but quarterback, and at that the Huskers think bringing back QB Tommy Armstrong can at least match the exploits of Taysom Hill.
"They are very well-coached, they will be very disciplined, and they will have elite athletes," Mathews acknowledged.
As for the massive crowd and sauna-like weather conditions temperatures in the 90s and 50-60 percent humidity the Cougars feel like they can handle those sufficiently, having won big last year at Texas in similar circumstances and having spent months sweating under the tutelage of new strength coach Frank Wintrich.
"He's made us look like a different team," defensive end Bronson Kaufusi said.
But BYU will be without star running back Jamaal Williams, who withdrew for personal reasons in early August, and suspended outside linebacker Sione Takitaki. There will be other suspensions almost certainly starting safety Kai Nacua, for instance although Mendenhall would not reveal them before the game.
Nacua worked with the scout team this week, while freshman All-America center Tejan Koroma took every first-team rep. Linebackers coach Paul Tidwell hinted that a middle linebacker will sit the first half, possibly referring to Harvey Langi.
Nebraska's Riley announced on Thursday the names of five Huskers who won't play, most notably starting linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey and co-No. 1 cornerback Jonathan Rose. The other three are backups. The Huskers' best big-play threat, De'Mornay Pierson-El has a foot injury and is out for 6-8 weeks.
BYU is "going to be a really good football team that always plays with a lot of confidence, and they are very physical," Riley said. "We will find out a lot about our team through this game."
The Cougars have talked all summer about not being someone's measuring stick, but a legitimate force that's ready to move back onto the national stage with an outstanding senior quarterback in Hill and an offense that seemingly has enough weapons to overcome the loss of Williams.
"Especially as an offensive line, we know we are good," said senior tackle Ryker Mathews. "So, it is just a matter of showing it, because we are done talking about it. We just want to do it."
It certainly beats the alternative, because good was not the word associated with the Cougars the last time they were on the field.
BYU at Nebraska
P At Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb.
Kickoff • Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
TV • Ch. 4
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM and Sirius XM 143
2014 records • BYU (8-5), Nebraska (9-4)
Series history • First meeting
About the Cougars • Coach Bronco Mendenhall enters his 11th season at the helm with a 90-39 overall record and is 7-3 in season openers. … They are 2-2 under Mendenhall in true road openers. … Besides season-ending injuries suffered by Colby Jorgensen and Steven Richards in preseason camp, they are relatively healthy, with no players on the two-deep chart expected to miss the game due to injury. However, several players on the projected chart are expected to miss the game due to their roles in the brawl that erupted after the 55-48 double-overtime loss to Memphis in the Miami Beach Bowl.
About the Cornhuskers • They have 29 straight season openers, including a 37-34 win over Wyoming in 2013 and a 55-7 pasting of Florida Atlantic last year. … Former Oregon State coach Mike Riley makes his debut in Lincoln after compiling a 93-80 career record at OSU. … Memorial Stadium (87,000) has been sold out for every game since Nov. 2, 1962 (341 games) and is sold out for Saturday's visit from the Cougars.