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The Heroes Game: AKA Nebraska Cornhuskers Defending the Status Quo

On Black Friday, the Nebraska Cornhuskers will take on the Iowa Hawkeyes in what has been branded the Heroes Game. There is a great deal at stake in this game—a potential playoff berth for Iowa; the Hawkeye's first modern undefeated season; a bowl berth for Nebraska; an ugly and contrived trophy; bragging rights—but is there more than the obvious?

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

There is according to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald. In a recent article, he called the Nebraska Cornhuskers college football's "gatekeepers," tasked with keeping the Iowa Hawkeyes out of the inner sanctum of college football's "landed gentry."

Aside from other issues within this statement, it assumes that Nebraska is in league with the Alabamas, Ohio States and Oklahomas of the college football world. That Nebraska still is amongst the elite, "landed gentry." In fact, McKewon says as much in his article: "the crown's a little rusty, sure, but it's still recognized."

With that in mind, let's first define elite. Nebraska has an elite history, to be sure. It has five national titles, an unprecedented 83% winning percentage between 1962-1997, and a slew of Big Eight championships to its credit. After 1997—after Tom Osborne stepped down as the head coach—it saw continued success for a number of years, going to the National Championship Game in 2001.

And it has seen success since 2001, which the last time it found itself in the top ten of the AP Poll. Between 2002-2014, it was the 23rd-winningest program in college football. But Wisconsin is 11th. Clemson is 20th. And it's safe to say nobody will call the Badgers or Tigers "landed gentry." Furthermore, unlike Wisconsin or Clemson, Nebraska didn't go to a single BCS bowl during that time. It didn't go to the College Football Playoffs. It didn't win a single conference championship in either the Big 12 or B1G.

Elite, of course, is a subjective term, but lately (meaning the last 15 years), Nebraska is about on the exact same boat as Iowa, and that boat, while an occasionally impressive ride, is not elite. In effect, let's look at 10 things that were around the last time Nebraska truly was college football's landed gentry:

  1. In 2001, the Nokia 8310 was one of the most popular cellular phones around. According to, it featured "premium features not normally found on handsets of the time, such as Infrared, a fully functional calendar and a FM Radio."


  2. Harry Potter was still a young'un, and the first installment of the Harry Potter movies was released in November of that year.
  3. I am a highschool teacher, and none of my current freshmen had been born.
  4. The current true freshmen on both Nebraska's and Iowa's teams were between three and four years old.
  5. Beyoncé was still with Destiny's Child, though she was on the verge of leaving for a solo career. And Britney was still "a virgin."
  6. George W was sworn into office.
  7. Facebook was three years away from its founding.
  8. Hillary Clinton was the outgoing first lady, and Donald Trump was a twice-bankrupt real estate mogul.
  9. Wifi? Nope. Instead you had this:
  10. There were 11 Big Ten teams (this was before "B1G" was a thing), and six "major" (BCS) conferences. Iowa was still iffy on its new coach, who, after three years, had delivered his first bowl team. Speaking of which, there were 25 bowl games. There are currently 40 bowl games and due to the number of said bowl games and lack of .500 teams, the potentially 5-7 Cornhuskers might still go bowling.
I'll say it again: Nebraska's history is as impressive as any team in the country not named Notre Dame. But history is what it is, and due to Nebraska's geographical limitations, which are the same as Iowa's, placing the Huskers within the "landed gentry" of college football after 15 years of mediocrity is a substantial stretch.

One team will come away from Black Friday with a win, and that won't change history, though it will change the narrative of right now. And right now? Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan State. None of them qualify as elite. Some are having great years, some are in the midst of great eras, some are mediocre, and some are bad. But only one has delusions about where it currently ranks in the college football landscape.