The beasts were enormous, frighteningly magnificent. Mammoths and rhinos once roamed the plains of western Nebraska, and the lineage of these monsters, complete with fearsome life-size replicas, is on display here in a small museum at the corner of 14th and Vine.

Oh, and also a block away. At Memorial Stadium.

Sure, the history housed there is a little more recent, but it's no less revered by the state's 1.8 million inhabitants. The exhibits are labeled "Rimington" and "Rozier" and "Suh," and bespeak a bygone era -- and one Nebraskans believe may be dawning again.

"We love our history at Nebraska, no question," said Tom Osborne, the courtly athletic director who doubles as an icon of Cornhuskers history himself. "That's what made this a little bit difficult."

He means leaving the Big 12, not joining the Big Ten, which the Cornhuskers do this season. Nebraska has played Kansas in each of the past 105 seasons, the longest continuous streak in college football history -- and that's not even the rivalry that Huskers fans regret leaving behind.

"When the Big 12 was formed and we lost that annual game with Oklahoma, it did put things in a little different complexion. It wasn't why we left, but it was a factor that was sort of in the background," Osborne said of the annual Oklahoma-Nebraska showdown, which was played for 70 consecutive seasons until 1998. "Had we still had that annual game, we might have made a little different choice."

Instead, the choice was to move all that tradition, that 311-game sellout streak that dates to 1962, the "Blackshirts" defense and the five national championships and three Heisman Trophies, and become the 12th member of the Big Ten.

A new challenge

It's like they were meant to be part of it all along.

"Everybody seems very excited about seeing new venues and people. And I think they do sense that the Big Ten is a good fit for us in terms of culture," said Osborne, who scrapped his plans for a Cornhusker Cable Network in order to join the new league. "The way we see things, and do things, is probably more similar to the Big Ten. Every business, every family, every league has its own culture, and we feel pretty good about what we see here."

Of course, he doesn't have to coach the football team anymore. Bo Pelini does, in the shadow of Osborne's 255 victories and 84 percent winning record, and while he supports the move like everyone else in Lincoln, the coach admits it has made for a long offseason.

"We're the only team in our league that has to prepare for 11 new opponents this year," said Pelini, himself an Ohio State alum. [Nebraska's only repeat opponent from last year is Washington, in a nonconference game.] "We started watching film, putting our work in, getting ready, last February. Our staff had to learn a whole new league, and it wasn't easy, but they did a good job of it."

Little will be easy for Nebraska this season, beginning with the schedule. The Huskers' first conference game, at Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium on Oct. 1, is already being touted as the most anticipated Big Ten game in history, outside of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. Nebraska follows that challenge by welcoming Ohio State to Lincoln the following week, and the Huskers also take road trips to Penn State, Michigan -- and Minnesota.

Might that matchup of the league's westernmost campuses, scheduled for Oct. 22 at TCF Bank Stadium, evolve into an annual grudge match? "Minnesota has not talked to us about it, but it could very well be," Osborne said. "We'll play them every year. So who knows? It may happen."

Of course, a rivalry requires competitiveness, which the Gophers haven't demonstrated lately. Though Minnesota leads the all-time series with Nebraska 29-20-2 -- only Oklahoma and Missouri have beaten the Cornhuskers more frequently -- the Gophers have lost the past 14 games, dating back to 1960, and have surrendered 111 unanswered points.

Tough on defense

For now, the Huskers will settle for a trophy game with Iowa, to be played each year on the day after Thanksgiving, as the Oklahoma rivalry, and later the Colorado game, always was.

"Frankly, the [Colorado] rivalry wasn't really my favorite. People started telling Nebraska jokes that week on television stations, and some of it came from people involved in the program," Osborne said. "It got to the point where some of our fans wouldn't go out there to the game because of the way they were treated. ... But I think people will be pleased with they way they are treated in Lincoln. We have a tradition of being very hospitable to visiting fans."

Not so to visiting football teams, though. Nebraska had the nation's top defense just two seasons ago, and while the offense fizzled at times last season, the Blackshirts appear formidable once more. "It's the best defense I've ever played on," said defensive tackle Jared Crick, and while he is one of the biggest reasons that's true, he's not alone.

Alfonso Dennard "is as good a corner as there is in the country," Pelini bragged. Linebacker Lavonte David, who broke the school record for tackles last season, "scares me sometimes the way he gets in on every play," Crick said. "It's great knowing he's always back there."

That defense has made Nebraska the favorite to become the first Legends Division champion in history. But even if the Huskers don't dominate from the start, they are already delighted with their new home.

"When I think of the Big Ten, I think of class. I think of tremendous tradition. I think of integrity. That's what the Big Ten has represented for a very long time," Pelini said. "I think it serves as a model for the rest of college football. That's why it's such an honor for us as an institution to become part of it."