Phase two is here.
Four tuneups with ascending challenges left Kansas University's football team with a 3-1 record after nonconference play. Now, the Big 12 Conference season begins, and KU will face perhaps its toughest test of the season Saturday at Nebraska.
The Huskers are ranked 21st in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll and have three blowout victories to go with a loss at Southern California. Helping their cause even more is the location of the game - Nebraska's Memorial Stadium, where 80,000 red-clad fans will make up the "sea of red," giving the Huskers an electric edge.
"I really think the atmosphere really excites our kids," KU coach Mark Mangino said. "Nebraska is one of the best venues in college football."
Last year, Kansas smashed a 36-game losing streak to Nebraska in impressive fashion, routing the Huskers, 40-15, in Lawrence. Coupled with a solid effort in Saturday's 13-7 victory over South Florida, some Kansas players are confident heading to Lincoln, Neb., for the league opener.
"We feel pretty good about where we are," cornerback Aqib Talib said. "We know Nebraska is an excellent team, probably one of the best teams in the North, probably one of the best teams in the Big 12.
"We played good against them last year, so hopefully we can follow that same game plan and let that momentum from last year carry over to this year."
Pundits, however, think the tables have turned. The Huskers are considered the favorite to win the Big 12 North, and with Saturday's contest being played in Lincoln, Neb., the Huskers opened as 191â2-point favorites in Las Vegas.
There's no need to remind KU players of the looming challenge Nebraska brings - nor the importance of the conference season that awaits.
"Any game in the Big 12 North is a big game for us," running back Jon Cornish. "Those games are special. I'm really looking forward to it."
¢ Meier participates: KU returned to the practice field Sunday before taking today off. Injured freshman quarterback Kerry Meier participated, though Mangino didn't say to what degree Meier's involvement was.
"Kerry was out there," Mangino said. "He's making improvement. He's showing improvement."
A good ol' quarterback controversy may be on the horizon this week, especially after the solid play of backup Adam Barmann in KU's 13-7 victory over South Florida on Saturday. Mangino hasn't hinted at who might play, but Meier's health will be the number one factor.
Of course, Barmann's 273-yard performance against USF will have an impact, too.
"It's going to be hard to ignore what Adam Barmann did tonight," Mangino said after Saturday's game.
¢ Stuckey, Holt closer: Free safety Darrell Stuckey and linebacker James Holt, injured during preseason camp, are closer and closer to making a return.
Both practiced on Sunday and apparently are getting closer to full strength. It's possible one or both could be available at Nebraska, though Mangino wouldn't speculate when asked Sunday.
"They got work in all the drills," Mangino said. "It's just too early to tell just yet."
¢ Duncan dinged: One player noticeably absent from the defense was freshman Brandon Duncan, who had a good game at Toledo on Sept. 15.
"He's been nicked up," Mangino said, "and just hasn't been 100 percent or close to 100 percent."
¢ He's fine: Another player that appeared to get banged up Saturday was tight end Derek Fine, who made a catch in the third quarter then appeared to have his left leg twisted during the tackle. He came out for the rest of the series but later returned.
"I was just being a sissy," Fine quipped.
Fine has seen an increased role in KU's offense in the last two weeks, and caught three passes for 25 yards against South Florida.
¢ One down: KU cornerback Aqib Talib bagged his first interception of the season Saturday, picking off a Matt Grothe pass before his momentum took him out of bounds at the Kansas 1-yard line.
Always ready for a challenge, Talib envisioned returning it 99 yards for the score, but it wasn't to be.
"It feels good to get on the board," Talib said. "I wish I could've went the other way with it, but I'll take it."