College football’s “Week Zero” action is always a bizarre affair. While addicts of the game line up every year to eagerly ingest whatever gridiron action the scheduling gods see fit to grant them, more casual fans can be forgiven for not getting too worked up over a headliner matchup between two teams with a combined 6-18 record last season being played on an entirely different continent. Still, there were a few interesting observations to be gleaned from college football’s kickoff to the 2022 season, particularly for viewers who follow the Big Ten.
Nebraska Still Sucks
As dedicated Iowa fans, it is tough not to experience some level of schadenfreude watching Nebraska sink further still into its never-ending death spiral. The Huskers reached a new depth of misery during Saturday’s 31-28 loss to Northwestern in Ireland. Despite being a trendy pick to win the Big Ten West this year, all signs indicate that the 2022 Cornhusker team possesses the same pathological inability to win close games as last year’s iteration.
Since their ascension to national prominence in the early 60s under Bob Devaney, the Huskers spent several decades as a constant source of program envy for Hawkeye fans. Nebraska seemingly filled the regional power vacuum left by Iowa’s descent into irrelevance following the retirement of Forest Evashevski, and the Huskers regularly succeeded in poaching prized recruits from the Hawkeyes in the years that followed. Even after Iowa regained its footing under Hayden Fry, the Hawkeyes were never able to match the sustained levels of national success achieved by the school located just one state to the West.
Nebraska’s decline from the glory days under Devaney and Tom Osbourne is frankly stunning. The Huskers are riding a streak of five consecutive losing seasons and have gone 3-10 since the start of 2021, despite holding a +60 point differential during those thirteen games. Scott Frost, a favorite son of the program who arrived in Lincoln on the heels of a 13-0 season at Central Florida, has gone a mere 15-30 in his five seasons as the team’s head coach. Nebraska’s last win was 56-7 drubbing of Northwestern, the very team that just rallied from an 11-point deficit to crush the Huskers’ spirits in the opening game of 2022.
Nebraska’s commitment to Scott Frost amidst one of the worst losing streaks in program history is as unexplainable as Frost’s decision to try an ill-fated onside kick while leading by double digits. Hawkeye fans have not yet forgotten when Nebraska fired Bo Pelini, a coach who averaged 9.4 wins per season and took Nebraska to the Big Ten title game, in the wake of the Huskers’ 2014 comeback win over Iowa, nor have they forgiven the slight directed at their beloved program by Nebraska’s AD following Pelini’s termination. Many fans will also remember when the Huskers axed Frank Solich a decade prior for only winning 10 games per season, winning both a Fiesta Bowl and a conference title, winning two Big 12 Coach of the Year awards in addition to national award in 1999, coaching the 2001 Heisman winner, and regularly keeping Nebraska in the national title hunt late into the season. To watch that same school continually stick by a coach who has won only a third of his games and whose team just became the first in the history of the FBS to lose seven consecutive games by single digits is enough to give any serious college football watchers whiplash. After years of living in denial about their place in the college football hierarchy, Nebraska may finally be coming to terms with their diminished relevance. Maybe winning only nine games a year wasn’t such a bad thing after all?
Northwestern May Have Finally Found a Quarterback
The early signs are far more favorable for the team that vanquished the Huskers in their opening game. Northwestern has been the college football equivalent of a yo-yo over the past few seasons; excellent one year, abysmal the next. The Wildcats are consistently stellar on defense, but their fortunes in recent years have seemingly been tied to the strength of their quarterback play; Northwestern managed to win the West when they were able to coax even average play out of that position in 2018 and 2020, yet scrapped the bottom of the barrel in 2019 and 2021 after failing to find consistent production at the position. If quarterback Ryan Hilinski’s performance against Nebraska (27-38 for 314 yards and two touchdowns) is any indication of things to come, the Wildcats could be in store for yet another bounce back season this year.
Illinois Isn’t “Wisconsin South” Just Yet, And That’s OK
Finally, Illinois’ impressive 38-6 win over Wyoming showed signs of a team that is growing more secure in its identity under second-year coach Brett Bielema. Like many of Bielema’s best Wisconsin teams, Illinois imposed its will on the ground to the tune of 260 rushing yards and suffocated the Cowboy offense, holding Wyoming to only 30 yards in the air and 1-12 efficiency on third down. While a Big Ten team cruising past a Mountain West opponent at home should hardly be newsworthy, the Cowboys have been a solid program under Craig Bohl, and Illinois has not been immune to early season hiccups against lesser competition in recent years (see Eastern Michigan in 2019 and UTSA in 2021). The Illini still have a long road to go before they can be considered contenders in the West, but their Week Zero performance at least gave some indication that they are moving towards a return to respectability.
These observations, as well as the preseason narratives surrounding the Big Ten’s remaining teams, will be put to the test when college football kicks off in earnest this week. Here’s hoping this season brings more excitement (and more futility from Nebraska) in the months to come!