When Nebraska left the Big 12 for the B1G, one question to be asked is who Nebraska’s rival in the conference would be. Nebraska’s traditional day-after-Thanksgiving game needed an opponent, and NU’s neighbor to the east was the natural choice. Soon after the series started, it got the moniker of the “Heroes Game” and an anodyne trophy to play for.
The Nebraska-Iowa series has been competitive since its inception in 2011, with the trophy changing hands each season since 2012. But even with the close games (including an overtime thriller in Iowa City last year), a rivalry between the teams has really failed to launch.
The relative struggles of the two teams may have something to do with the lack of juice in the contest. Only once, in 2012, was a trip to the B1G Championship on the line. Nebraska won the game, but Iowa came into the contest at 4-7 and eliminated from bowl contention beforehand.
Nebraska’s had other fish to fry coming into the league, as well. At the start, Nebraska’s “crossover” rival was Penn State, trying to recapture the history of that series. But the Jerry Sandusky scandal put Penn State on the shelf.
Nebraska has also had quite a history with Wisconsin, most of it not particularly good for the scarlet and cream. Plus, Wisconsin’s success in recent years made the Badgers a much more palatable rival for most Nebraska fans.
But this year has the potential to change all of that. Assuming Iowa can hold serve at home against Purdue, the Hawkeyes will come to Lincoln at 11-0 and with their College Football Playoff destiny in their own hands.
Nebraska, on the other hand, will be sitting at 5-6, needing a win just to guarantee bowl eligibility (and the extra practices that even an appearance in the Pinstripe or Foster Farms Bowl would provide). Dismissive sniffs from Husker fan about Iowa not being good enough to consider a rival will go out the window in 2015.
Iowa fans have, in general, never needed much of a reason to dislike Nebraska. Even when Nebraska was in the Big 12, many Iowa fans have held a special disdain for their Big Red neighbors to the west. The chance to sew up a perfect regular season and guarantee Nebraska a losing season would be an amazing early Christmas present for the black and gold faithful.
Nebraska fans, on the other hand, see this year’s Heroes Game as a chance to maintain some of what they see is order in the football universe. Iowa is enjoying a season for the ages, and (assuming a win over Purdue) would be two wins from the greatest accomplishment in the history of the program.
So one of two things can happen on the day after Thanksgiving. Iowa can knock of the Big Red, sending it to a losing season as it is on its way to compete for a College Football Playoff berth – and having that to hold over the heads of their scarlet-and-cream neighbors for the rest of time. Or, Nebraska can spoil Iowa’s historic chance at glory, and in the process redeem a disastrous first year for head coach Mike Riley.
Yes, the Heroes Game is a manufactured event with an anodyne trophy. But – finally – there’s something important on the line for both teams. A game like this, and the emotions that will be generated on either side of the Missouri River as a result, is the stuff that real rivalries are made of.