This week, the Big Ten Conference released conference football schedules for 2020 and 2021, and conspicuously absent was the day-after-Thanksgiving matchup between Nebraska and Iowa. Instead, it looks like Nebraska will be in a four-team rotation with Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa to finish out the regular season.
So now, not only will Nebraska not have Iowa as a regular end-of-season rival, but will also be giving up its perch on the day after Thanksgiving, instead blending in with the rest of college football on that final Saturday of the regular season. Things can change between now and 2020, of course. But just looking at the schedule as it sits now, Nebraska-Minnesota will likely be third on the B1G pecking order for that day, behind Michigan-Ohio State (duh) and Iowa-Wisconsin.
There’s really two things that are happening here. The first is losing Iowa as a regular year-end rival, and the second is losing Nebraska’s place on Black Friday. The latter is receiving some significant blowback, including here and here. The arguments against giving up Black Friday are pretty clear.
From a traditionalist standpoint, Nebraska played on Black Friday since 1990. Plus, the Black Friday games are the last links Nebraska has to its Big Eight matchups against Oklahoma, and it would feel very strange for the day after Thanksgiving to arrive and not have Nebraska playing a game.
And for those of you that aren’t moved by clinging to tradition, here’s a very realpolitik reason why it’s good for Nebraska to retain its Black Friday game – it’s good for exposure.
If there’s one overarching lament of Nebraska fans since the halcyon days of the nineties, it is how Nebraska’s national relevance has crumbled. That crumbling, of course, has been well deserved given Nebraska’s performance on the field. But the fact remains that Nebraska now is nowhere near the presence on the national college football stage that it once was.
(That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be again, of course, but that’s a conversation for another day.)
So if you are a program struggling for national relevance, then why on earth would you walk away from a national television spotlight on a holiday weekend – where college football fans already know and expect you to be on their tee-vees as they eat their leftover turkey sandwiches – to be a third-tier game in your own conference?
Well, Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst said the following in response to the new schedule (according to Erin Sorensen from Land of 10):
Since moving to a nine-game conference schedule, it makes sense from a student-athlete health, safety and welfare perspective to play on Saturday at the end of the regular season.
This, of course, from the guy who agreed for Nebraska to play Purdue on a Friday night this season, but never mind about all of that. Head coach Mike Riley also wasn’t shedding any tears about losing the Black Friday game (according to Sean Keeler from Land of 10):
I do not like to get out of the routine of what we do week to week to get ready for a game … So changing that is no fun for me, because you always have a mystery of where your team is physically in what you need to do, and what you need to do in the actual preparation part of it.
Look, it’s bad enough that Nebraska pressured FOX to can this incredibly-cool promotional commercial.
But now Nebraska’s decision-makers are tone-deaf enough to make the “player safety” argument and the “we need our routine argument.” I’m not going to dignify the player safety nonsense with a response (apparently the players will be safer against Purdue than Minnesota), but it’s a colorable argument from a football coach who is judged on wins and losses to do everything in his power to maintain routine.
I can live with that argument, but I think it’s horribly short-sighted in terms of the program’s overall development. And, apparently, so does Eichorst – or at least he’s gotten enough heat from the decision to risk an ankle injury backing away from his position.
So, “no final decisions” have been made on when the games will be played, eh, Mr. Eichorst? Then why, just forty-eight hours ago, did you tell us that “it makes sense from a student-athlete health, safety and welfare perspective to play on Saturday at the end of the regular season?”
Well, if nothing else, it’s reassuring that public pressure can influence decisions like this. So let’s move on to the second half of this issue, namely going from Iowa to the four-team rotation.
I think I’ve made my position fairly well known that I think Iowa-Nebraska could be a real rivalry. Is it yet? Of course not. Nebraska’s only six years into its B1G life.
But the green shoots are there already. Iowa fans started out really, really disliking Nebraska. And with Iowa’s recent success against Nebraska, combined with the proximity of the fanbases, there’s no reason to think that the Heroes Game could become A Thing for both teams and fanbases (even with the hopelessly anodyne corporate name and trophy). Much like pearls inside of an oyster, rivalries are born in the repetition of irritation. The proximity and passion of these two fanbases contain the perfect dynamic for such a rivalry to be born.
Yes, yes, I know, Nebraska and Iowa don’t have the history at this point to be rivals. No less a source authority than Tom Osborne has told us so (according to the Omaha World-Herald). But how in the world would you expect that history to be developed if you’re going to rip the marquee nature of the game out of the ground just as the roots are starting to take hold?
And please, don’t tell me that Iowa already has rivals. Of course it does. The Hawkeyes have been playing (and hating) Wisconsin and Minnesota for decades – never mind the rivalry-that-shall-not-be-named against Iowa State.
But guess what, Husker Fan? You remember Oklahoma, the rival-to-end-all-rivals for Nebraska, the ex that you couldn’t ever get over even as you invited over Colorado, Kansas State, and Iowa for Black Friday? The standard to which you’ve found all other potential rivals to be lacking?
Well, Oklahoma kind of has another rival. And for whatever Sooner Fan thinks of you and their games against the scarlet and cream, I can guarantee you the Oklahoma fanbase would throw Nebraska out of the boat in a heartbeat to protect the Red River Shootout Showdown against the Longhorns.
Oklahoma ain’t coming back, Husker Fan (at least as an annual rival). So if you can develop such a love for the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry even with Nebraska being the side piece for Oklahoma, then there’s a place in your heart to make the Hawkeyes a real rival.
Why don’t you want to, Husker Fan? I have a theory. Iowa, like Colorado and Kansas State before them, doesn’t carry the gravitas of Oklahoma. By deigning to allow a team at Iowa’s level on the national pecking order to be a rival, the thought process goes, Nebraska lowers itself to a level at which it does not belong. It was the same argument that led Husker Fan to look down its collective nose at Colorado and Kansas State as rivals.
Look, I’m all for high standards. In many ways, Nebraska fans’ refusal to accept NU’s current predicament is the most powerful engine driving a chance at a return to greatness.
But these high standards (which every other B1G West fan would define as “stubborn and undeserved arrogance”) are also a large factor holding Nebraska back. The fact is, Nebraska as a football program right now is right in the mixer with Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Northwestern, its divisional rivals. (And don’t look now, but Purdue under Jeff Brohm might be coming …)
The whole point of Nebraska leaving the Big XII was to find stability, which it now has. Now, with that stability, Nebraska should embrace where it is and learn to love the grind of the B1G West against its midwestern brethren. And there would be no better embrace of that then to lean into what would be Nebraska’s most natural B1G West rival.