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Nebraska was Glen Mason's preseason pick to win the Big Ten West Division. Now, with conference play beginning in earnest, Mason still feels good about the Huskers' chances.

Meanwhile, here at Cram Session headquarters, the board of governors (yours truly) is in reassessment mode.

My preseason pick was Iowa (3-1), which couldn't even defeat Iowa State in Iowa City but came back with a spirit-lifting win against a tough Pittsburgh team.

Even so, my new pick in the wild (mild?) West is Nebraska (4-0). But count this as a reassessment made with halting confidence.

You obviously can't ignore Wisconsin (2-1) and its nation-leading ground game. You also can't ignore the Badgers' second-half meltdown against LSU, a team that allowed 302 rushing yards to Mississippi State in a loss Saturday at Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

If you like Nebraska to capture the West, you feel better after talking to Mason, the Big Ten Network analyst and former head coach at Kent State, Kansas and Minnesota.

You feel even more confident after talking to Gerry DiNardo, BTN analyst and former head coach at Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana. DiNardo originally picked Iowa to capture the Division. Not now.

"So far, Nebraska has clearly separated itself," he told me this week, basing his change of heart mostly on NU's potent offense — it ranks eighth nationally —  which should allow the defense to develop.

Mason also makes a valid point: The Huskers possess a greater number of potent "difference-makers" than their division rivals.

Ameer Abdullah is playing at a Heisman Trophy level. Iowa has no skill player in Abdullah's stratosphere.

Kenny Bell is living up to expectations (14 receptions for 284 yards and a touchdown). Jordan Westerkamp has perhaps exceeded expectations as a consistent big-play threat (14 catches for 285 yards and three TDs). Westerkamp had 20 catches all of last season.

Tommy Armstrong generally has exceeded expectations. Put it this way: Nebraska's quarterback situation is in much better shape than Wisconsin's or Iowa's.

Randy Gregory is Randy Gregory, disruptive and chatty. He may want to curtail the latter.

Abdullah is the team's heart and soul.

"How he fights for that extra inch, to me, that's what really great backs do," Mason said.

Mason feels the best teams have a few elite players sprinkled among good players who know their roles. Maybe Nebraska is that sort of  team.

Nebraska's offensive line has played well most of the time during an unusually down season for Big Ten O-lines, most notably at Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Minnesota and even Iowa.

Iowa was Mason's runner-up pick in the West based on its light schedule and its line play on both sides of the ball. But the Hawkeyes' O-line has been somewhat disappointing to this point, Mason said.

"Maybe that comeback win at Pitt will turn Iowa's season in the right direction," he said.

Nebraska's win against Miami was a shot of momentum, with one caveat: The Hurricanes' speed at the skill positions caused problems for the Huskers' back seven, but Mason liked how hard NU fought. He still sees a defense "that is greatly improved," he said.

Nebraska's close shave against McNeese State gave Mason pause.

"Then when you watch Nebraska play Miami. ... It was a hard-hitting game, a well-played game," he said. "You look at it and think, 'The Huskers are pretty darn good.'"

Upon further review, a good pick to win the wild West.


These games are key

The obvious: No. 1 Florida State (3-0) at North Carolina State (4-0), 2:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2: Upset alert. FSU has posted three relatively unimpressive wins — Oklahoma State (37-31), Citadel (37-12) and Clemson (23-17 in OT). Of course, the Seminoles defeated the Tigers without suspended quarterback Jameis Winston. But FSU netted 16 rushing yards against Clemson, an embarrassing number for a defending national championship team. It's high time for the Noles to assert themselves. Do they have it in them?

The not-so-obvious: Minnesota (3-1) at Michigan (2-2), 2:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2: I really don't have a burning desire to watch this game. I swear, I don't. But because of the train wreck in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I'm not sure I'll be able to turn away. It's sort of like watching the "Real Housewives of New Jersey" with my wife. You can't help but wonder how bad things will get for Brady Hoke and his team, which is 4-8 dating to last season.

Heisman Trophy watch

QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon

RB Todd Gurley, Georgia

QB Everett Golson, Notre Dame

QB Kenny Hill, Texas A&M

RB Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska

Keep an eye on: Mariota. Keep an eye on the  6-foot-4, 215-pound junior in part because he leads a high-octane offense run by Scott Frost, the former Husker great. What's more, keep an eye on Mariota because, as points out, "If Mariota maintains his current statistical pace and the Ducks don't suffer any major letdowns, he might run away with the trophy." Even the most-rabid Abdullah fan would have to admit Mariota's passing statistics are ridiculous: 71-of-96 (74 percent) for 1,135 yards and 13 TDs, with no interceptions. His passer rating is 217.9.

Thumbs up: To Nebraska's special-teams play. You generally see increased aggressiveness and fewer mistakes. Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini dialed up his involvement and emphasis during the offseason, and it's shown. And with De'Mornay Pierson-El breaking off long punt returns, it becomes that much easier to sell the importance of special teams to the players.

Thumbs down: To the crew of ACC officials who worked the Miami-Nebraska game. For those wondering, it's teams that determine which officials work their  games — it's written into series contracts. A Big Ten crew will work the Nebraska-Miami game next season in Miami Gardens, Florida.

I chuckled (to myself) when: I finally nailed down who former Minnesota coach Glen Mason looks like. Watch the Big Ten Network and try telling me Mason doesn't bear striking resemblance to ... Pat Sajak.

Good point, my friend: "In this business, you make all kinds of predictions and nobody holds you to them," Mason said.

Five to go ... Football Bowl Subdivision active career leaders in rushing yards:

1. Jahwan Edwards, senior, Ball State, 3,696

2. Ameer Abdullah, senior, Nebraska, 3,602

3. Braxton Miller, senior, Ohio State, 3,054

4. Jawon Chisholm, senior, Akron, 2,834

5. Todd Gurley, junior, Georgia, 2,776

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or​


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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