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The University of Utah will begin its 100th year of football this afternoon, and rarely have the Utes started a season with greater optimism and expectation.

With 18 starters returning from last season's 7-5 team, they fully expect to challenge for a conference title and a bowl game. But all this optimism notwithstanding, nobody truly believes the Utes can win today's season opener.The Utes face national powerhouse Nebraska in their annual "money" game today - a game that guarantees them a win at the gate but a loss on the field.

Players and coaches dutifully maintain an air of optimism, but sometimes honesty and reality get the best of them. Earlier this week, after learning that the Utes were 28-point underdogs to the Cornhuskers, one Ute player said, "It's not going to be that bad." Then, catching himself, he added, "Any team is beatable. If we play to our capabilities . . . ."

Today's game, which will be televised live on Channel 2 at noon MDT, will be a big test for the Utes right out of the blocks. Nebraska, the defending co-Big Eight Conference champion, is ranked 11th in the national polls.

"It will be a true test of how we stack up with a national power," says Utah coach Ron McBride. "This team (Utah) has been a real goal-oriented team since the end of last season. Everything we've put in front of these guys they've accomplished, and then gone on to the next thing."

The Cornhuskers could be another matter. They return 14 starters from last season's team, including their top two rushers, Derek Brown and Calvin Jones, reputedly the best 1-2 punch in the country. If that isn't enough, the Huskers will be supported by the usual sellout crowd Saturday afternoon in 73,650-seat Memorial Stadium, which becomes the third largest population in the state every time the Huskers play a home game.

Not surprisingly, Nebraska coach Tom Osborne has tried to sound the alarm to awaken his team and fans to the possibility of an upset.

"I don't want to be proclaimed an alarmist or a phony," he told a reporter this week, "but I really believe the team we're playing Saturday probably would finish in the upper division of the Big Eight . . . There will be some well-known teams in the country that won't be better than these guys. For sure . . . It'll probably be decided late. I'm just hoping people in the stands don't get antsy if it isn't easy. There's not any reason it should be."

Osborne is convinced the Utes are much improved since the Cornhuskers beat them 42-30 in 1989, and no doubt he's right. Since then, the Utes have changed coaches, assembled the best defense in the Western Athletic Conference and overhauled their roster with new players.

The Utes' biggest challenge today will be overcoming the Huskers' decided size advantage. NU's starting offensive line averages 289 pounds, compared to the 262 pounds of Utah's defensive line. NU's defensive line outweighs Utah's offensive line by an average of 278 to 271.

For weeks McBride has worried about how his team will fare against big, physical teams. Today he'll find out. Utah is loaded with fast, athletic players, particularly on defense, but they are relatively small in the trenches.

"It's in our game plan to utilize our quickness," says Dave Chaytors, Utah's star defensive tackle. "We want to use our speed to fill the holes."

"I'm concerned about their ability to outphysical us," says McBride. "But we're fast on defense. Speed can make up for it (size). We need to get off blocks and get to the ball."

McBride also hopes that the Utes defend the option play against Nebraska better than they did against their own scout team in training camp. Nebraska's I-back offense has forced the Utes to abandon their base nickel defense this week in favor of their new 4-3 alignment, which is better for defending the run.

The Ute offense has been mediocre in two years under McBride, but there is reason for the team to hope for improvement this season. The Utes return a 1,000-yard rusher (Keith Williams), a 1,000-yard receiver (Bryan Rowley), and a 2,000-yard passer (Frank Dolce) from last year, plus they have several promising newcomers in tailback Pierre Jones, fullback Jamal Anderson and wideouts Curtis Marsh and Greg Hooks.

How good are the Utes really? Today's game will give us a clue.