We all knew there were going to be certain causalities when Nebraska moved from the Big 12 to the Big 10. The long series with Big 8 rivals all ended, and new schools, schools to the east of Lincoln, will now dot Nebraska’s conference schedule. Granted, this is the way major college sports has to move, from small regional conferences to larger ones that merit more TV revenue. The unfortunate part is that now, when you loose to a school like Northwestern, there’s this sense of un-definition that comes with the displeasure of loosing.
I was at Nebraska’s 9 home loss to Iowa State back in 2009 that featured eight turnovers, four inside the five yard line. I felt so horrid about the loss, when Nebraska beat Iowa State the next year 31-30, I left Jack Trice Stadium fumed over the fact that Nebraska hadn’t beat Iowa State worse than they did. That’s what you get out of the regional series. Contrast those two games to Nebraska’s home loss to Northwestern this past year, and you see what fans loose in conference realignment. While I still burnt on the Iowa State loss after a year, the Northwestern was just a loss. Maybe I jst assumed they were a pasty going, maybe it was the lack of history between Northwestern and Nebraska, or maybe I knew Nebraska was primed for a let down that week. Either way, the ghost of another formerly forlorn program in purple nicknamed “wildcats” was there to leave my heart empty that day; it’s just this program was from Chicago, not rural Kansas.
For Northwestern, it almost isn’t fair: the best coach in college football not named Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Mack Brown, or Les Miles just happens to be a Northwestern alum. Without Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern is likely struggling to get a conference win in the new, tighter Big 10. With him, Northwestern walked into Memorial Stadium and completely worked Nebraska for four quarters, making plays the second the Huskers let their guard down. The Big 10 schools should all chip and help Arkansas (or another big-time school) offer Fitzgerald $8 million a year, and another $5 million a year to pay his assistants.
And in their own city, Northwestern alumni rank tenth or eleventh among Big 10 alumni in the city. Michigan and Michigan State probably wanted to be in the same division as the Wildcats so that they each get a fifth-conference home game every other year. Northwestern alumi care more about the Cubs, the Bears, the Bulls, and the Blackhawks over their football team. Plus, drum up the fact that Northwestern alumni Mike Wilbon and Mike Greenburg just happen to be major ESPN personalities, and the Wildcats’ success becomes particularly annoying the more it gets pumped. Consider all this, and I guess I have some reason to get pumped about playing Northwestern next year, even if the school is 531 miles and another culture from Lincoln.
The Northwestern loss showed Nebraska the realities of the Big 10 and of the super-conference: you have to win multiple big games in a row in order to play for the conference title or have a shot at an at-large BCS berth. In 2010, Nebraska had to win one big game, against Missouri at home, in order to get to the Big 12 Title Game. The next week, they went to Iowa State, played a so-so game, and were able to escape with a win. Michigan State was thought would be the de facto Legends Division title game, and given the special defense Bo Pelini designed for that game, he apparently thought the same. But the next week, Nebraska arguably played a game at home no worse than the game they played in Ames a year ago, yet got worked. Of the six teams that Nebraska will play every year in the Big 10, Northwestern’s program right now is fourth or fifth. In the Big 12 North, the fourth best program of the dissolving division were the Colorado Buffaloes, fresh off the Dan Hawkins-disaster.
So here we are in the new era of college football, the Nebraska-Northwestern series. Could this be an interesting series? Maybe; Iowa has drummed up some passion against Northwestern after Fitzgerald handed the Hawkeyes their first loss after a 9-0 start in 2009, so anything’s possible. There is something of a culture class: uppity, city academics, versus a rural farm school. But maybe this is just wistful thinking, a sign that Nebraska may end up as Arkansas has in the SEC (until Texas A&M and Missouri joined). At least Nebraska’s capable of putting 20,000 red shirts in Ryan Field every other year (did it at Minnesota), not that Wildcat Nation will find that embarrassing.
Could it be a sea of red?