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Nebraska, Illinois both good? In the same year?

A DEEP dive into B1G (adjacent) history...

[NOTE: Some of you have expressed interest in occasional pieces that have a historical focus. I really enjoy such things as well. My first thought—and what I’ll probably go with, loosely, going forward—is to focus on entertaining, if overlooked, past matchups involving teams playing each other that week. However, this is Week 0 and Illinois and Nebraska don’t really have any entertaining matchups from years past (I want to focus on games more than 10 years old.) So...this week will be a little different. If you have thoughts/suggestions/requests, feel free to throw them out in the comments.]

This article is about 1983. Why 1983? Two reasons. 1) Nebraska and Illinois both won their conference in 1983, the last time that happened, and 2) 1983 was the year the Kickoff Classic, the cash grab forerunner to Week 0, began.

I had the whole “everything is interconnected/Beautiful Mind/Charlie Day” piece in place about 1983, but I’m going to pump the breaks on that, in part because MNW already covered the Kickoff Classic angle a couple of years back:

So, I’m going to make a list and tantalize you with the Big Ten-relevant weirdness of 1983. You can get your own yarn and make your own connections.

The Kickoff Classic. Penn State gave Nebraska their only loss in 1982. In rather controversial fashion. Penn State won the national title in 1982. Nebraska was first in multiple computer rankings, SRS, etc. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that these two teams would meet in the first-ever Kickoff Classic, but that’s how it ended up. Nebraska won 44-6. Read MNW’s piece and weep/smirk over Miami’s shocking 31-30 upset over Nebraska in the 1984 Orange Bowl.

Would go on to catch some passes from a different Illini QB and share SB XX misery.

Illinois went 10-1 and became the first—and probably only—Big Ten school to go undefeated in a full round-robin schedule. The shine of being 9-0 in conference play was only slightly marred by a season-opening loss to Missouri. But it was substantially marred by a 45-9 loss to 6-4-1 UCLA* in the Rose Bowl.

*UCLA went 6-4-1, but actually were a really good team. Their losses? Nebraska, who finished 12-1 and #2; Georgia, who finished 10-1-1 and #4; BYU, who finished 11-1 and #7; and Arizona, who went 7-3-1.

Imagine a 4-team playoff in 1983. Miami probably doesn’t even make it, and #1 Nebraska is playing #4 Illinois in the semifinals. A committee may have wanted to avoid a #2 Texas vs. #3 Auburn matchup since it would be a rematch of Texas’s opening-game victory over Auburn, but Nebraska was the clear #1, and Auburn played a much tougher schedule than Illinois, so that’s probably how it would’ve broken.

Michigan and Ohio State Buckeyes both had pretty good teams. Michigan went 8-1 in conference and Ohio State 6-3. Michigan’s non-conference loss was against Washington (a matchup on this year’s schedule, too), and their offense was inconsistent throughout the year. However, they gave Auburn a real fight before losing 9-7 in the Sugar Bowl, which probably helped cost Auburn the national title. OSU posted a victory @ #2 Oklahoma for a marquee non-conference win and gave the Big Ten its only bowl win, with a fun 28-23 Fiesta Bowl victory over Pittsburgh.

1984 Fiesta Bowl

[Pitt’s head coach was Foge Fazio. He lasted until 1985 then headed to Notre Dame to be Holtz’s first DC there. After two years, he was off to the NFL, replaced by Barry Alvarez. In 1998, he was DC of the Minnesota Vikings under Dennis Green.]

Iowa finished 3rd at 7-2, and the loss to Michigan was on a long last-second FG after an Iowa fumble. The Hawkeyes had one of Hayden Fry’s better teams, but were blitzed by Illinois 33-0 the week after Iowa had beaten OSU for the first time in 20+ years (in a Top Ten showdown), which knocked them out of the national picture. At 9-2, a Gator Bowl win over Florida would’ve seen Iowa finish somewhere in the 6-8 range, but a really cold, sloppy night in Jacksonville saw Florida win 14-6.

As for the rest of the Big Ten? It was interesting.

Wisconsin finished 5th at 7-4/5-4, with their only losses being to the top four teams in conference play. In non-conference play, the Badgers beat the Missouri squad that gave Illinois their only loss. By SRS, this was the best team of the Dave McClain era. Al Toon was awesome! But there weren’t as many bowls, and UW stayed home that year.

Purdue went 3-7-1, but their 3-5-1 conference record was good for 6th. Jim Everett was backing up Scott Campbell, and Rod Woodson was in the secondary (and returning kicks), but it was clear this program was in post-Jim Young decline (though there was a dead cat bounce in 1984).

Michigan State (4-6-1/2-6-1) was in their first year under George Perles. One of the nonconference wins came in South Bend over #4 Notre Dame!* Despite such a win, MSU had a rough conference season, notching victories only over Northwestern and Minnesota. But Lorenzo White hit campus the next fall...

*Notre Dame is almost always overrated, but they were never SO overrated as Septembers under Gerry Faust.

Northwestern (2-9/2-7) won the 8th place tiebreaker by virtue of their H2H win over Indiana (3-8/2-7).

Let me try that again.

On September 24, 1983, Northwestern defeated Indiana 10-8 in a game where the head coaches were Dennis Green and Sam Wyche! These two guys combined for almost 200 NFL victories, one of the toughest Super Bowl losses ever (Wyche, 1988 Bengals) and one of the best teams to miss the Super Bowl (Green, 1998 Vikings), and, in 1983, there they were overseeing terrible football.

Northwestern didn’t have a ton of talent on their roster* but Indiana did have a very good WR by the name of Duane Gunn, and a backup QB by the name of, um, Cam Cameron.

*Though NW OT Chris Hinton was the #4 overall pick in the 1983 draft, and was part of the trade that sent John Elway to Denver. Hinton had an excellent NFL career. Multiple Pro Bowls, and two-time first-team All Pro.

The best story of Indiana’s 1983 season was the 49-3 loss to Iowa. Iowa’s 3rd-string QB threw a TD pass in the last minute.* After the game, Wyche took his team into the end zone (maybe midfield, stories differ) and pointed to the scoreboard (maybe a picture was taken, stories differ) letting his players know that this wouldn’t be forgotten.

*Hayden Fry run up the score? No way!

Alas, Wyche was gone after one season in Bloomington. He got the Bengals to a Super Bowl, and Indiana got Bill Mallory, so it worked out fine for everybody, but come on: a Hayden Fry/Sam Wyche grudge through the rest of the 1980s would’ve been awesome.

And then there was Minnesota (1-10/0-9, thank God for Rice) and their historically awful defense (47.1 ppg, dead last in the NCAA that year). They went 0-5 against ranked teams giving up 84 to Nebraska, 69 to OSU, 50 to Illinois, 58 to Michigan, and 61 to Iowa. Against everybody else, they were just bad. Either way, Joe Salem wasn’t keeping his job. Enter Lou Holtz. Any thoughts WSR?

To round things off, Rutgers was 3-8 as an independent. The wins were over FCS Colgate, FCS UConn and a William & Mary squad in their last year as an FBS school.

Getty Images

Maryland went 8-4/5-1 and won the ACC. They lost to Clemson, who went 6-0, but the Tigers were on probation and ineligible for the conference title. Maryland’s next ACC loss was in 1986. Who helmed such an impressive run? Bobby Ross, who would go on to win a national title at Georgia Tech and make a Super Bowl with the Chargers in 1994. Who was Maryland’s best player? Boomer Esiason, who headed to the Bengals, where he was the NFL MVP in 1988, running Sam Wyche’s up tempo offense to near perfection...until the Super Bowl.

It was a strange year all around.