Okay, it’s been about a week, so we’ve had time to digest the addition of Nebraska to the Big Ten. It’s kind of been mentioned in passing, but we haven’t really focused on something that is near and dear to every Big Ten fan: Rivalry games and their associated trophies. One thing Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne lamented in the ‘Welcome to the Big Ten’ Press Conference was that Nebraska had started playing some of the teams it was leaving behind over 100 years ago. That’s has to be a tough thing to get used to, but Nebraska went through that before with what was arguably the biggest rival in college football for over 25 years. So, who will be their new rivals? There are three components I looked at: historical background, geographic proximity, and conference championship implications. I'll take a look at what I think are Nebraska's top five or six rivalries as they enter Big Ten play in 2011.
Oklahoma: I think out of conference rivalries are important for college football, and from the early 1960s until the late 1990s there was arguably no rivalry more important in all of college football than Nebraska-Oklahoma. From 1962 through 1997, either Nebraska, Oklahoma, or both teams were ranked in the top 10 over 30 times. The rivalry game almost always decided who represented the Big 8 in the Orange Bowl, and as was mentioned in an earlier post, this rivalry produced what many call the Game of the Century. It's one the most storied rivalries in college football, and it needs to be renewed on a yearly basis. It's sad that Nebraska has to leave the same conference that Oklahoma is in for an opportunity at a yearly game again, but I think this needs to happen. This rates as high as it can get on historical background, high on proximity to another school, but zero for conference championship implications, obviously.
Iowa: One great thing about the Big Ten are our border/territorial rivalries that are as intense as and older than any in college football. OSU-UM, Indiana-Purdue, Minnesota-Wisconsin, Michigan-Michigan State, Purdue-Indiana, and the list goes on. Regardless of how division alignment shakes out, Iowa stands out as a natural territorial rival for Nebraska, seeing as how Iowa is the only Big Ten state that borders Nebraska. Nebraska has little historical background with most Big Ten schools, but has played Iowa more times than any other (41) with the exception of Minnesota (51). So there is a history there, although they haven't played since 2000, there is a close proximity, and if aligned in the same division, implications for an appearance in the Conference Championship are high, giving this game significant national 'buzz'. Iowa and Nebraska would be considered almost annual favorites for their division, and Iowa has to be considered the No. 1 in-conference rivalry for Nebraska right now. If there's not an annual battle for the Sweet Corn Stalk, the Big Ten is making a big mistake.
Minnesota: Yes, you read that right. Minnesota has played Nebraska more than any other Big Ten school. Minnesota actually leads the series, too, 29-20-2. Granted, Nebraska has won the last 14 meetings, including the infamous 84-13 drubbing during the
Jim Whacker Joe Salem era. And for what it's worth, Minnesota thinks they have a rivalry with Nebraska, and they handed Nebraska their worst loss ever (at least until the Bill Callahan era), 61-7, back in 1945. Minnesota is the second closest school geographically to Nebraska, and Ski-U-Mah can put some decent football teams on the field from time to time, but I don't see this game as an annual game that decides who might be the Big Ten championship. So, good history, good on proximity, but a notch below on championship implications.
Wisconsin: Wisconsin and Iowa, along with Nebraska, figure to be the top annual contenders for a division title, depending on how that all works out. There is almost no history between the two teams, playing only five times and none since 1974, but that will quickly change. Camp Randall is one of the most intimidating places to play, and a yearly tilt with Nebraska will quickly become must see TV. After Minnesota and Iowa, geography really doesn't come in to play for Nebraska anymore, so that's not a factor here. So what might be lacking in history and geography will be made up for in championship implications. Let's just hope the visiting team remembers to bring their road whites, or we won't be able to tell anyone apart.
Ohio State: Nebraska-Ohio State. Two storied programs with a chance to become a very storied rivalry. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is a son of Youngstown and a former OSU co-captain, giving this game an intersting storyline right away. The history between the schools is practically non-existent, playing twice in their history, and the last meeting was 1956. But so what? Whether or not they play every year, meet occasionally in a conference championship, or play as cross-division rivals, this game will go a long way in determining who the conference champion will be. If preseason predictions are to be believed, OSU-Nebraska has an outside chance at being your BCS National Championship game for the 2010 season. Wouldn't that be something? Zero for geography and history, close to off the charts for championship implications. Add that in to the respective histories of the two programs, and you've got a marquee matchup with national interest.
Michigan: Once Michigan rebounds, this can be as significant as any rivalry Michigan has, save OSU. Two storied programs with not much history (six games), but they did play in the 2005 Alamo Bowl. But again, as far as geography and history go, who cares? Michigan and Nebraska will always be in the conference championship discussion, and a Nebraska-Michigan game will either decide who the conference champion is, or decide who's in the conference championship game.
Penn State: As the two Big Ten schools the farthest away in terms of geography, I think a "Vasco De Gama" RIvalry Game is appropriate, since they need to travel so far to play each other, but if Commissioner Jim Delany is sincere about competitive balance trumping geography, they could in fact be in the same division. If they are, I think it's probably safe to say a division title goes through this game. If not, this game, like all the others will go a long way in shaping the conference championship.
So, there you go. If you give them two trophy games, Iowa has to be the main trophy game, and the secondary trophy or rivalry game is pretty even--any choice would be a good one. Each team has a legitimate claim, in either geography, history, or on field talent, to claim a rivalry with Nebraska, but Iowa is the one that stands above the rest.