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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Choose to believe it or not, that a game played at the end of December finds its way into the mind of a college kid while he's stepping into the weight room in June.

Nebraska sophomore wide receiver Stanley Morgan had it happen. Just this past summer.

The 37-29 win by the Huskers over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl provided the kind of final bite that made a player eager to come back and eat more.

To those on the outside, it was just the difference between a losing team finishing 6-7 or 5-8. To those on the inside, it was a needed boost of confidence and spirits heading into a new year.

"It started the season off right," Morgan said. "Last game like that, you just go through the summer workouts like, 'We can do this. We just did it the last game.'"

With that in mind while considering Friday afternoon's Music City Bowl matchup with Tennessee, Morgan sees the bowl game as having some significant stakes.

Because unlike the rest of the season, there is no chance to show a better side the next week. Good or bad, this performance is with you for eight months.

"You don't want to sit on no bad game," Morgan said. "That would be tough."

Morgan's friend, junior cornerback Chris Jones, can back up that sentiment.

"Nobody wants to go home with a loss," Jones said. "That's on your mind, thinking about that the whole eight months until you play someone again. That doesn't leave a good feeling in your mind. Nobody wants to be in summer workouts and the winter and be like, 'Ah, we lost our last game.' I feel it brings bad vibes around."

What specifically are the Huskers playing for?

The reasons that have been rattled off this past month include avoiding four losses in a season for the first time since 2001.

Or finishing ranked in the top 20 compared to not being ranked at all.

Or giving Nebraska a 10th win for the first time since 2012, and a win over an SEC team. A couple of nice lines to drop in a recruit's living room in January.

Just as much, though, a win could provide a jolt to a fan base that had its spirits dampened somewhat by a November that featured two blowouts: a 59-point loss to Ohio State and a 30-point drubbing at Iowa.

A win doesn't make people altogether forget those blowouts. The conference championship drought will remain win or lose Friday. It also certainly doesn't assure some amazing carryover for a team that will have a new quarterback and new peer leadership next season.

But the bowl performance always affects the way the program is analyzed and scrutinized in the offseason. In its own way, that surrounding climate matters, as does the attitude of belief that can grow or shrink in a team anytime it performs on a national stage.

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Last year's bowl game, no question, tilted the conversation about the program to a more optimistic tone despite NU suffering a losing season.

On the other hand, think of Bo Pelini's 2010 team, probably his best team, which ended a promising season with a 19-7 clunker of a defeat in the Holiday Bowl against Washington.

"This won't affect the offseason one bit," Pelini said after that game. "It will be a new team next year, with new challenges. This won't have any affect on them."

It's a fair take, but that game serves as an example that even those Husker bowls that seem trivial at first glance can have important chain reactions.

Perhaps it would have happened anyway, but the Huskers parted ways with two assistants soon after that loss. Whatever momentum the program had gained a year before seemed stalled.

Think now how dramatically different the reaction of some will be about this Husker season if NU wins on Friday compared to another disappointing showing in a nationally televised game.

When only 13 games are played in a year, there is significant weight put on all.

"It really is a launchpad game. I know that's kind of cliche, but it really is," said running backs coach Reggie Davis.

One of the things he stresses is that it's a big month for younger players, who are getting extra practices and, in specific cases, bigger roles in a game like that.

Sophomore safety Antonio Reed and true freshman cornerback Lamar Jackson are likely to start Friday, a not-so-gentle but gladly accepted push for them into 2017.

Also think of someone like sophomore running back Devine Ozigbo, who suffered an ankle injury midseason and saw few carries down the stretch. A bigger opportunity may come this game, and no question it's important to him.

"This is a chance for them to really get a good start on the season," Davis said of those players. "So it really is a big deal."

And while so many look ahead, Davis reminded his crew of how much this means to the Husker seniors — even if Tommy Armstrong, Jordan Westerkamp and Nate Gerry can't be part of it.

Think of a senior like Ryker Fyfe, set to make only his third start at quarterback, his biggest start, the kind of game the Grand Island native and friend of the late Sam Foltz would long be connected with if the Huskers won.

Or senior center Dylan Utter, a Nebraska boy who walked on, earned a scholarship and became a captain, and now gets one last chance to wear the "N" on his helmet.

"It could be potentially my last game playing football, so I don't want it to go out with a loss," Utter said. "I know all our of our seniors, and all the guys for next year are ready to go out there and put together a win."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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