And so it finally begins, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is at long last ready to play tackle football. This Saturday the Cornhuskers face the Wisconsin Badgers in Madison in their first ever football game as a member of the Big Ten Conference. The day will be historic, ESPN's College GameDay show will be on hand to mark the games importance nationally, a cavalcade of Nebraska dignitaries will be on hand, Wisconsin season ticket holders will be holding on to ticket stubs so they can gouge Nebraska fans on Ebay afterward, and the nation will watch the ceremonial coin toss in prime time, a moment that will mark both the beginning and the end of an era for Nebraska football.
In 1890 the University of Nebraska Bugeaters, as they were appropriately called at the time, played their first so-called football game on a Thanksgiving Day against a team made up of boys from a local organization established to provide rural youth low-cost housing in a safe Christian environment - the Omaha YMCA. Nebraska won of course, 10-0, it was after all men against boys, but they won much more than a game, because it was on that day a relentless dependency was born. In beating up a group of rural homeless boys the Cornhuskers stumbled upon a formula for which the foundation of an entire football program identity would be built. Over the next 120 years Nebraska would unremittingly feed on a steady diet of cupcake opponents to fatten up their football program. While many other successful college football teams could have gone down that same path, they instead, most of them, chose to avert such an approach. But, there is no denying the strategy worked, and in the end beautifully so, because Nebraska was invited to the Big Ten.
After Penn State joined the Big Ten Conference many believed the team that would inevitably be recruited to balance out the conference, make for even numbers and put a period at the end of the Big Ten sentence would be Notre Dame, but the Fighting Irish waived off their opportunity believing that independence provided them more leverage, greater earning potential and a unique platform. It was instead the long shot Cornhuskers who received the coveted invite. The basis for their invitation was not immediately clear to many, it could not be academics because after all Nebraska is not a member of the AAU, and is now the only Big Ten team who does not have membership, nor could it be a function of location or demographics because Nebraska is largely outside the Big Ten footprint and is a state with a population no larger than the Columbus, Ohio metropolitan area. No, Nebraska was invited to the Big Ten for one reason and one reason alone, because of the perception they're a top-flight college football program.
The road to riches for Nebraska is in their win column. In the history of college football only three programs can boast more victories than the Cornhuskers - Michigan, Notre Dame and Texas. Michigan and Notre Dame have leveraged their national appeal to recruit and build their brand, and in the case of Texas, they've simply tended to arguably the most fertile recruiting grounds in America. Nebraska seemingly lacking in every traditional advantage one associates with college football success has figured another way to build themselves up, and it begins and ends with scheduling. Thirty percent of all of Nebraska's victories, all time, have come against just three historically awful teams: Kansas, Kansas State, and Iowa State. Three programs with even fewer natural resources than the Cornhuskers (remember too that Nebraska does not compete with another state university). These were not out of conference match-ups to limber up for the conference season either; of course Nebraska scheduled those cupcakes too. No, these were teams that made up a sizeable block of the various versions of the Big Eight Conference to which Nebraska was a member for all of two years since 1913. At some points along the way, as Nebraska was adding to their victory tally, Iowa State, Kansas State and Kansas made up nearly 40% of Nebraska's conference schedule. The Kansas-Nebraska game was the longest uninterrupted rivalry in college football until this year. Kansas and Nebraska met for the first time in 1892, and faced off annually since 1906. Over the past 110 years Nebraska has faced off against Iowa State 101 times and against Kansas State 95 times. That is a lot of good eatin.
It wan't just these weak three nourishing the Nebraska record though, the Cornhuskers have feasted on numerous over-matched out of conference opponents as well, teams that have overtly played football as an afterthought. And while that tactic is a well worn, nearly universally shared approach to out-of-conference scheduling, no FBS program has more unashamedly avoided real tackle football to the degree that Nebraska has. In examining a list of the all-time leading NCAA Division I FBS college football single-opponent winning streaks (ranked by the number of consecutive wins posted by one team against a specific opponent), the Cornhuskers own two of the top five (Kansas and Kansas State) and five of the top 20. Only Penn State is as excessive as the Cornhuskers in this regard, as they're listed three times as well (and they too leveraged it to gain access to the Big Ten). One would think if your conference tests are largely a joke you would add some gristle to the out-of-conference schedule.
Certainly most successful programs have a recurring patsy on the schedule, Notre Dame has Navy, Texas has Rice, and Syracuse (who is the other Top 5 teams from the list mentioned above) had Hobart, but these were and continue to be games played almost as exhibitions. Nebraska though has had their out-of-conference weakling PLUS their three annual patsies and then their one remotely challenging annual contest, Oklahoma.
Of course Nebraska did not ONLY play the weak three and the Sooners, but a deep analysis of Nebraska's all-time record reveals this, when playing teams that play tackle football the Cornhuskers were not so Husker. Nebraska's lifetime record against the entire current Big Ten reveals their worst record against any other conference, 68-59. And many of those Big Ten wins were over Big Ten teams in down years - for example, the Cornhuskers have beaten Iowa 22 times but only 1/3 of those victories came against an Iowa team with anything resembling a winning record.
Nebraska's All-Time Big Ten Opponent Record (listed by most victories):
Iowa 22-8-1Minnesota 20-29-2
Penn State 6-7
Michigan State 5-5
Ohio State 0-2
It's also true that Nebraska struggled against staunch opposition within conference as well; against the elite of the Big 12 for example, Texas and Oklahoma, they're all of 42 - 55. While Nebraska successfully built their so-called football powerhouse on the backs of weak Big Eight opposition the same could also be said of Oklahoma, but there is one glaring complication there---Oklahoma has played Texas, one the nation's top football powers and the second winningest program all-time, almost annually. Oklahoma has played Texas 95 times over the last 110 years. But more than that, Oklahoma has the second best record all-time against teams ranked in the Top 10, with only USC having a better record. And Nebraska? They're ranked 16th barely ahead of Michigan State and behind Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. In fact, Nebraska only owns 7 more victories over Top 10 teams than does Purdue and only 8 more than Iowa.
But that's all in the past now. A new day dawns this Saturday. Nebraska is now on the verge of becoming one of us. They are joining America's elite college football club, the conference with more National Championships, more AAU members, more mullah and stability than any other conference, BCS or otherwise. If the Big Ten is to be a responsible conference it must ensure Nebraska truly understands just what an exclusive opportunity sits before them. It would be an enormous mistake for Big Ten members to allow the Cornhuskers to believe league membership is complete and it was merely a matter of signing a few documents; we all know membership must be more involved than that. True belonging is earned and this Saturday must mark the beginning of the Nebraska Cornhuskers' eight-week initiation.
Anthropologists have shown time and time again that those who go through a rigorous initiation tend to think more highly of their membership. Thus, it is incumbent upon brother Wisconsin to set the tone of respect this weekend. I am not calling for a ritual hazing here. Well, actually, I am. I see hazing the Cornhuskers to the tune of a weekly ass whipping as necessary because it is based on the psychological understanding that a person's truest nature reveals itself under the greatest pressure. Do these Cornhuskers even deserve to be here? Let's find out.
The reason college fraternities used hazing for many years is because the structure of Rush Week provided little time for members to get to know a potential pledge who, in the future, would profit from all the benefits of brotherhood. But even more importantly, the essential purpose of hazing was to create an environment where the individual fails while the group succeeds. This strengthens the group as a whole; the elders are reified while the pledge is taught in an immediate and profound way to appreciate the value of the group, and thus covet inclusion. Hazing, when done correctly, also serves to separate the pledge from his former standing outside the group. Granted, over the years fraternities may have lost an understanding of the true nature of hazing, reducing it to arbitrary and excessive exercises. But when correctly utilized, hazing creates a bond, builds respect, and provides for greater interdependence.
The technique of hazing is not exclusive to fraternities by the way, military boot camps make extensive use of hazing techniques and as a result they effectively reorient egos, convincing recruits the world does not revolve around them but that they are and should be dependent upon others. The armed forces believe the experience builds character, eliminates a sense of entitlement, and is the most effective way to build a cohesive fighting force.
In the age of constant conference realignment battles, this is exactly what Nebraska's membership is all about: building an elite conference force. If the last year have taught us anything it has taught us this, eliminate the rogue member. If Nebraska is to become a true brother, deeply committed to the conference under any and all circumstance, and forever, they must suffer this Saturday and beyond. It must be humiliating, it must be unbearable, and it must only be the beginning.
On brother Wisconsin.