NOTE: We'll open thread tonight's Iowa-Wichita State game, and then we're going silent for Thanksgiving. We'll be back Friday for football.
I really hate Nebraska. I get that some of them don't hate Iowa, and I can appreciate that. There are Iowa rivals that I don't hate at all, like Wisconsin. But I grew up with Nebraska fans, and I'm still at times surrounded by them, and that's usually enough to send me over the edge.
That doesn't mean they are wrong, and on one thing they are absolutely correct: This thing between us isn't a rivalry until Iowa wins, and wins repeatedly. It's the same phenomenon that marked Nebraska's rivalry with Colorado in the 80s. Buffaloes coach Bill McCarney targeted Nebraska, even though his team was a Big 8 doormat in the early 80s and had lost to Nebraska 59-0 in the season prior to his arrival. The Buffaloes lost McCarney's first four games against Nebraska, but still he pushed the significance of their one-sided rivalry. When the breakthrough came -- a 20-10 win in 1986 over the Huskers, who were ranked third at the time -- it signaled the return of the program in general. Despite losing its first four games that season, Colorado finished second in the Big 8. The Buffs went 14-10 in the next 2+ seasons, losing to Nebraska in both, before taking yet another step: An undefeated regular season and pseudo-Game of the Century win over Nebraska in 1989, a win over #2 Nebraska in Lincoln in 1990, and a tie in 1991. By that point, the television broadcast had created a contrived name for the rivalry (The Rocky Road Showdown) and Colorado had become one of the nation's top programs, with three Big 8 titles and a National Championship to its name. Colorado had pursued the rivalry with Nebraska, and in doing so, had raised itself to Nebraska's level.
McCarney assistant Gary Barnett went to Northwestern and did the same thing to Iowa. He identified a root cause for a "rivalry". In McCarney's case, it had been the 59-point blowout in 1981. For Barnett, it was "Hope we didn't hurt your boys too bad" that became the rallying cry. Northwestern beat Iowa in 1995 and blew them out in 1996, with Pat Fitzgerald stoking the fire on defense. The Wildcats' 1997 win cemented their status with the Hawkeyes, a status they still largely hold today (and make no mistake about it; Northwestern is a much better football team in 2012 than Iowa).
Nebraska is no longer the Nebraska of the 80s; in fact, their profile is much more like Colorado, with six-win floors and 11-win bubbles. And Nebraska and Iowa are virtual equals over the last 10 years. But that doesn't change the fact that they had to drop to get there, or that Iowa had to put together the greatest three-year stretch in program history to equal that. There might not be a statistical discrepancy, but there certainly is one of perception (Kaczenski's "name brand" comment rings only half-hollow, in that Nebraska hasn't been relevant to the national title race in more than a decade, and Iowa has been close to the crystal football in November twice since then). This series is important for the fans, to be sure, but it's essential for perception in a conference with fewer and fewer athletes. And, in pursuing Nebraska, Iowa can raise its own bar just as Colorado did 25 years ago (or Northwestern did against Iowa 20 years past).
Tomorrow does not look particularly promising. Iowa is a 15-point home underdog, Nebraska needs one win to lock up the division and, presumably, head toward Pasadena, and the Hawkeyes haven't been able to stop anyone for over a month. There's still a game to be played, though, on a Senior Day for a group of players who have struggled beyond comprehension this season. This rivalry won't be built or destroyed in a day, but tomorrow is an important game because it is supposed to be a rivalry game, and, if that's to become a reality, Iowa's got to win some.