Conference realignment created a lot of of strange looks in college football over the last 25 years. So strange that old timers barely recognize the conference landscape anymore. In the early days conferences were created with regional ties being a great consideration. Bound together, teams in particular regions created a larger voice, and therefore more recognition on a national scale. Teams in the Midwest banded together to create the Big 10 in 1896 (then formally known as the Western Conference) and stole the show away from the Ivy League which had dominated the sport since it’s inception in 1869. To win the Big 10 was virtually an assurance of being considered as a mythical national championship throughout the early 1900’s. Other regions followed suit, the Missouri Valley in 1907 (the forerunner of the old Big 8), the Rocky Mountain in 1910 (the forerunner of the now defunct WAC and current Mountain West), the Southwest Conference in 1915, and the original Southern Conference in 1922, (the forerunner of the ACC and SEC). Winning a conference title brings relevance to a program,not just regionally, but on a more national scale.
There was a time Nebraska was one of the most feared, nationally prominent football programs in America. The Cornhuskers, along with Oklahoma, dominated the Big 8 for almost 70 years. From it’s creation in 1928 until it’s disbanding after the 1995 season (68 titles), either Nebraska or Oklahoma won or shared the conference title an amazing 58 times (Oklahoma 30, Nebraska 25, with 3 shared between the two). During those years the Cornhuskers won 5 national championships in the Billingsley Report and staged one of the nation’s premier dynasties winning 3 national championships in four years (1994,1995,1997).
When the Big 12 was formed in 1996 it was hailed as America’s strongest conference, boasting Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas, 3 of the nations premier teams who had won a combined 15 National Championships. The ultimate downfall may have been disagreements between Texas and Nebraska (which were widely reported), but there was never harmony in the conference from the beginning. The loss of the Nebraska/Oklahoma rivalry was a loss not only to the conference, but college football as a whole. The Huskers and Sooners were a Thanksgiving weekend tradition. Of all the lost rivalries due to realignment, Oklahoma/Nebraska is the greatest (although Texas/Texas A&M runs a close second).
What created Nebraska’s decline is certainly up for debate, but things were never the same after Tom Osborne retired in 1997. Frank Solich did an admirable job, but slipping to 7-7 in 2002, which included a 3 game season ending skid, was hard for Husker faithful to stomach. After Solich things got even worse. Under Bill Callahan Nebraska sank to an unthinkable 5-6 season in 2004, the worst since 1961 (3-6-1). The fact is, Nebraska has lost it’s luster. That’s tough to say coming from someone like myself that grew up worshiping Bob Devaney and cherishing Big Red football, but it’s the truth. At least it’s my truth. Moving to the Big 10 was supposed to turn things around. A new day, a new era, but the same old story has played itself out. Bo Pelini took over in 2008 and led the Cornhuskers through the transition into the Big 10 in 2011, but 7 consecutive 4 loss seasons have tarnished the reputation of this once dominant force in college football. Pelini coached his last game in 2014 and in a shocking twist, Nebraska hired Mike Riley away from Oregon State. Is this the coach Nebraska faithful have been longing for? Off season reports are very favorable about Riley’s attitude and his relationship with the players. Nebraska has not been able to establish the same intensity with a Big 10 rival like the ones they held with Oklahoma, Colorado, and Missouri, but rivalries take decades to build. Last week Kansas State’s Bill Snyder commented that if the Big 12 expands they need look no further than Nebraska. There is certainly some validity to that train of thought from the Big 12’s perspective, but all Nebraska needs to right the ship is a Big 10 conference championship. Is that something the Huskers can accomplish with a first year coach? It’s not likely with Big 10 heavyweights Ohio State and Michigan State waiting to battle from the conference’s Eastern Division, but Nebraska’s chances for winning the Big 10 Western Division crown are good, and getting to the Big 10 Championship game would be a huge boost for the program. The Huskers host Wisconsin in Lincoln on October 10th, a game that is crucial in the race for the Western Division Crown.
Not only are Ohio State and Michigan State battling for the Big 10’s Eastern Division, but for National honors as well. Given that the game will be played in Columbus, I’m giving the slightest edge to Ohio State, projecting the Buckeyes to go undefeated and land as the #1 seed in the college football playoff. But don’t count Michigan State out. As a one loss team, with the only loss coming on the road to the #1 seed, I’m projecting Michigan State to be a solid choice for the playoff as well.
One of the more interesting story lines to watch this season will be who finishes 3rd in the Big 10 West race, Michigan, rejuvenated by Jim Harbaugh, or Penn State, rebounding under James Franklin. The Nittany Lions host the Wolverines on November 21 so Penn State has a slight edge. I’m projecting a 10-2 season for Penn State and 8-4 for Michigan.