Bruce Thorson-US PRESSWIRE
Nebraska and Wisconsin have extremely similar feels to them. They are both ran by schools with a bend towards programs of yesterday, they both have a penchant for Adidas, they both are run by guys who played football when the option was king and a pulling guard was normal, and they both have a lot of red. Also, both teams are looking for redemption. That's also where the differences lie.
Writing about Nebraska football in the vacuum that is a Big Ten Blog can be a difficult undertaking. First off, it is assumed that you respect the mystique that is the history and pageantry that is the B1G. Whether it is '3 yards and a cloud of dust' or 'Woody and Bo' it is generally assumed that everybody here has some notion of the rivalries and intricacies that make this conference great. While this is not a bad thing by any means, it becomes a bit difficult to appreciate that history when ones own history is clouded by both high highs and what can only be perceived inwardly as extreme lows.
Now let me explain that last line. I understand that Nebraska's worst decade in history is really nothing worst than falling into a cycle that can only be expected for a Midwestern state school. With little to no instate talent, shorter football cycles, and a recruiting edge that can only be summed up as, "well kid, we don't have beaches, bikinis, and bros, but the winter is much more manageable than Minnesota," you come to realize that even the mythos of Nebraska Football can be underminded by the Sun Belt and states that actually, you know, have a population base to speak of. Nonetheless, fans - and to be clear, I am a Nebraska fan - got used to success. The 70s were good to Nebraska, the 80s didn't have a National Championship, but those were years that the Huskers were churning out contenders and honestly should have won a title. Then came the 90s and the 20-somethings and up are all nodding their heads with me because those were golden. A five year run yielded a missed FG towards runner-up, back-to-back titles, a near miss thanks to Texas, and another title. We got used to the notion that Nebraska won Conference Titles so that they could compete for National Titles. I would assume that must be how Duke fans feel about basketball. Sure, it's nice to be in the tournament and to win ACC titles, but without that beautiful NC Title, everything feels a little hollow.
When Nebraska announced a move to this new conference, a lot of us were excited but skeptical. At that point, the years of winning conference titles were a distant memory. Sure, there had been opportunities, but more often than not it had been futility. That's why so many of us were so broken up about 2009. You thought Iowa's offense was terrible this year? Check out the Nebraska offense after Texas A&M that year. To overcome ineptitude, it took a Herculean effort by Suh and the Boys, and our team still came up short. Realizing that dream was never going to be fulfilled, we moved to a new conference that most of us disparaged for years. Now we were part of the history, according to BTN that is, and we had to like it. Of course there were a few who proclaimed dominance, but the brunt of us had a feeling this was going to be an uphill battle, and an uphill battle it has been.
Across the field from the Huskers will be a mirror image in a lot of ways. Well, if not a mirror image, maybe a carbon copy is a better analogy. Barry Alvarez has roots with the Cornhuskers and was influential in making this move happen. When Alvarez went to coach the Badgers, he took the Husker branding playbook with him and while he was his own man in very much the same way that Bret is his own man, there were elements of the simplicity and beauty of a power run team that relied on homegrown talent in the trenches all over this team. Simply put, even the uniforms evoked at least an homage to the heights that Alvarez hoped he would take Wisconsin and its fans too. In fact, these heights have been more or less imagined and most all of us would agree that Wisconsin is a high Tier 2 team nationally if not close to being a low Tier 1. That is not a knock on them at all either. It shows that success means something and on the eve of Wisconsin working towards a third trip to Pasadena in a row, we can all agree that this has been a beautiful run for Badger football.
So why do I think Wisconsin is looking for redemption? Is it just because Nebraska won the first time? Is it because the Badger uniforms that evening looked like they had electrical tape on them? Is it because Bret is the ultimate brah who probably doesn't understand what it means to be vindictive? Well, yes to all of those points, but the bigger reality is that this team has been mocked since last July. That was the moment that the NCAA and the B1G decided that Penn State would join Ohio State in a ban from the postseason. Sure, there was a moment that all of us thought that maybe Indiana or Purdue could be a darkhorse candidate, but we all put the expectation that Wisconsin would be in Indianapolis at the feet of a young and unsure team with new coordinators and dared them to not mess this up. As narratives often go, this was shaping up to be a losing battle for Wisconsin unless they won their division outright.
We all know how that went...
Twelve games later, the Badgers have been beaten up, heartbroken by lesser and better teams, and tested beyond what any team coming into a Championship Game should be. 7-5. I suppose we should take this time to thank our lucky stars that Wisconsin at least went 7-5. In the non-conference, it looked like this team could go 2-2 if not worse which would have made what might happen tomorrow an even more horrific outcome. The toughest part about this team is that they have managed to rescue defeat from the jaws of victory, victory from the jaws of defeat only to still come out on the losing end, and they have done it with a chip on their shoulder that they are really just a second class citizen that doesn't belong here. Sure, this team has nothing more to prove considering they are the defending defending champions and all, but it sure doesn't feel like it. Not this time.
For Nebraska, redemption is simple. Bo Pelini needs this. Taylor Martinez needs this. Tom Osborne needs this. Rex Burkhead needs this. Every single senior on that sideline was recruited by Bo to do something great and 11-2 and a trip to Pasadena would be something great. Yes, the years of National Championships in droves is most likely gone. That does not make me a lackluster fan, but rather a rational one. With a playoff chase coming, we can all see the writing on the wall. Repeats and dynasties struggle when you extend the reach of a season and the days of the Midwest rolling is long gone sadly. Still, there is something to play for here and you can tell by the players and coaches on Nebraska's sideline that this really isn't just another game. This game means that the program and process is going somewhere. Lose? Well, lose and be forced to reckon with difficult questions about that process. The lessons of loss should be seared into these kids and coaches minds. Now it's all about getting the job done.
Simply put, Saturday is a game filled with promise waiting to be tapped into. To the outside world, it's just another punchline. Heck, to many fans in the Big Ten, this game is just a slap in the face of tradition and what a travesty that Ohio State isn't there to put Nebraska in its place. Many have already clamored for a big red asterisk by the winner no matter what happens, but that doesn't change the fact that this game means something to the two teams that will face off. Once that ball is kicked off, the noise will be turned down for a moment and we'll all get to enjoy one last Big Ten battle. While I may not be completely filled in on what that means, I sure am going to savor it. I guess it really does feel like a good fit, doesn't it?