Forgive me, during this potentially gorgeous weekend, for revisiting dark clouds in Nebraska's past.

Some Husker football fans are still haunted by the Big Ten Championship Game last December. The last thing those folks need is another nationally televised embarrassment.

Of course, same goes for Nebraska's players.

"I think a lot of people lie and say it doesn't mean anything," NU junior cornerback Josh Mitchell says of playing on national television, as is the case Saturday against UCLA (ABC). "But as a player, you know when everyone's watching. Nobody ever wants to embarrass themselves.

"So, when you're on that big screen, you're aware of it."

He also is aware of what the world -- the national analysts, fans, et al -- is saying about Nebraska. Or perhaps more important, what it isn't saying. The 23rd-ranked Huskers (2-0) seldom get to breathe the rarefied air presently reserved for Alabama and LSU and Oregon and Ohio State and Notre Dame and Stanford and a few others.

When the world does talk about Nebraska nowadays, the narrative often goes something like this: The Huskers have a good program, but it appears to be stuck in neutral. And my heavens, what happened in that Big Ten title game?

Thing is, Nebraska has absorbed plenty of other brutal Saturdays since, oh, about 1997. The Husker brand name's edges have frayed. Although the program remains relevant on a national scale, strong in a lot of ways, the cumulative impact of recent high-profile losses is bound to hurt perception, however difficult to measure.

The body blows exact a toll -- 63-38 at Ohio State, 45-17 at Michigan, 48-17 at Wisconsin. Losing is one thing. Getting embarrassed is another.

"All we can focus on is going out there and playing great," says Mitchell, third on the team with 10 tackles. "When we play great, the recognition will come. But that's not what's important around here. Winning games is what's important, especially when you've had such historically great teams that have played here.

"You don't want to let down those alumni ..."

I don't think Nebraska is playing a must-win game against No. 16 UCLA (1-0). Too early for must-wins. Talk to me after Big Ten play commences. But I agree with Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo that Nebraska is in a "must-play-well" position, thanks to those recent jarring defeats.

If Nebraska plays poorly and loses big, coach Bo Pelini's job becomes that much tougher. It seems most Husker fans are patient with the program's progress. They've seen enough positive signs (i.e., a six-game Big Ten win streak last season). But still, they wonder. Lose big, and toxicity within the fan base would rise to a level that might become a distraction to the team. And confidence among players, or lack thereof, likely would become an issue. I don't think the team lacks confidence at this point.

Conversely, a victory, or even a well-played loss, would send a message -- or at least create the perception -- that Nebraska is indeed ready to trade punches with Michigan (and perhaps Northwestern) for the Legends Division crown. A resounding victory would silence Pelini's detractors, at least temporarily.

You never want to read too much into one game. But Nebraska-UCLA will tell us plenty about the home team, even though the home team's youthful defense is a proverbial "work in progress." The Blackshirts' best days are ahead. Remember that, Husker fans.

Even with ample youth and inexperience on defense, Nebraska should be able to play on even terms with UCLA. The teams' talent is comparable. And note: During Pelini's tenure as head coach, NU is 17-1 against nonconference teams at home. No way should the Bruins pull away for an easy victory. That would be a burning red flag for the home team.

By the way, the home team can play the revenge card, if it so desires. UCLA's 36-30 triumph last season was an example of a jarring high-profile loss for Nebraska because the Bruins racked up 653 yards and generally stunned the Husker defense.

Mitchell remembers UCLA hammering Nebraska with big plays -- 12 covering at least 19 yards. Even so, the Huskers were in contention in the final minutes.

"If we would've just made one or two more stops, I think the game would've been different," he says.

Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis, in postgame interviews, looked and sounded like a man who had no idea what hit him.

A month later, of course, Ohio State waylaid Nebraska. Two months after that, the wheels came off in Indy.

"I think it's hurt the perception of our team," Mitchell says of the dramatic defeats. "But you can't control it once it's over. All you can do is bounce back the next year or next game and do better."

Now comes a chance for a proud Nebraska program to show the world it is on solid ground, and perhaps poised to climb to a higher plateau.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.