LINCOLN, Neb. – The campus union at the University of Nebraska is usually pretty slow on Sunday mornings. On bye weeks, when students take the chance to head home and 100,000 fans don’t plan their weekends around Memorial Stadium, it’s downright barren.
The food court by Subway and Valentino’s is empty. The bookstore is closed. A handful of students crowd around a computer in a booth and quietly take notes.
The only sounds are Shayne Arriola and Randy Terry debating Huskers football. The words bounce through the halls of the empty union, and echo the debate Huskers fans have had through this bye week.
Is this team for real? Is this 5-0 record legit? Is Tommy Armstrong really this good? Could this team actually win enough games go to the Big Ten Championship game?
Arriola is a junior marketing major; Terry has been a Huskers fan for decades and stops by the Union to talk football and grab coffee on Sunday mornings. Arriola is optimistic. He likes how the defense is playing and how few interceptions Armstrong has.
“I think we have a legitimate shot at going to the Big Ten Championship,” Arriola said. “11-1 is doable, for sure.”
Terry? He’s seen lots of Nebraska teams and is not sold yet. He doesn’t think the Huskers have proven themselves, especially given Oregon has now lost three straight games.
“Don’t be surprised if this team losses to Indiana this weekend,” Terry said of the Huskers.
They represent a conflicted fan base that after five weeks is still trying to wrap its collective head around this perfect start after last year’s embarrassing 5-7 season. Does this mean Nebraska is back? Or is this just another tease?
Because Nebraska fans are used to hot starts and disappointing finishes, Huskers Fever isn’t sweeping through the state yet. Despite starting eight out of its past 10 seasons 4-1 or better, Nebraska has no conference titles to show for it. In each of those eight seasons, Nebraska lost at least two games in the latter half of the season.
And even in the three seasons since 2006 when Nebraska did reach a conference title game, it lost to Texas, then Oklahoma, and most recently to Wisconsin in 2012.
So Huskers fans like Terry probably have reason to be wary about the third 5-0 start in a decade. But fans like Arriola have reason for hope, too.
Across campus, outside Memorial Stadium, Diann Fleharty of Hastings, Neb., finds herself right down the middle of Terry and Arriola.
“We haven’t played any tough teams in the Big Ten yet, but I’m glad I think the boys are playing better together,” said Fleharty, who along with her husband brought friends from New Mexico to see the stadium on Sunday morning.
Fleharty, who has had season tickets since 1994, admits she was a Bo Pelini believer. She was upset when Nebraska Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst announced Pelini and Nebraska were parting ways in 2015 despite Pelini’s seventh straight season with at least nine wins. Her dissent grew after the 5-7 year.
But the win over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl last year, plus the upset of then-No. 7 Michigan State last November, and the victory over Oregon this season, have given Fleharty hope for Riley and the Huskers.
“I was very upset when Bo was let go,” Fleharty said. “So I probably was a little prejudiced, but (Riley has) definitely earned my respect.”
That’s one thing Fleharty, Terry and Arriola all agreed on: Riley is righting the ship. The next question will be, can he get Nebraska back to the prominence of the 1990s?
Nebraska will likely be in the Top 10 of the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since 2011 when the poll is released Monday. But Fleharty won’t label Nebraska “back.” Neither will Terry or Arriola. All three said they don’t know how long it will take for the team to get back to the 1990s.
“I told some friends back in the day, after 1996, that Nebraska didn’t have to win another game and I’d be happy, since we were so good for so long,” Terry said. “So a few wins a year, yeah I’m good with nine wins. I can take that.”
Fleharty thinks it’s nearly impossible to get back to that kind of dominance. Going undefeated in conference play is tough with teams getting better and better each year, she said.
So, no, this 5-0 start doesn’t have her breaking into the level of Nebraska craziness she had in 1995, 1996, 1997 or even 2001.
“On any given day, any team can beat somebody else, so I’m old enough now that losing isn’t the worst thing in the world,” Fleharty said. “We naturally would love the Big Ten Championship, I don’t know if that’s feasible or not this year. I guess my thing is as long as we’re playing good, I’m OK.”
Arriola has a different take. He wants the Huskers to win. Now. And he says it can happen.
“If we have a chance to win the Big Ten Championship or a National Championship before I graduate, this year is the best chance of that,” Arriola said.
With seven weeks remaining in the regular season, there’s plenty of time for either narrative to play out. For now it’s all just talk, echoing through campus.