Revisiting 21st century Nebraska letdowns: Will Saturday be a frustrating flashback or a glimpse of the future?
Once upon a time in the 21st century, Nebraska was so respected nationally that it hosted College GameDay twice in the same season. Perhaps more amazing was the fact that the Huskers won both of those 2001 contests and played in the BCS National Championship.
A lifetime ago, that was.
In the time since that happened, Nebraska hosted College GameDay exactly once. The Huskers lost that hyped non-conference tilt against No. 1 USC in 2007 … and then waited another 12 years to host the ever-popular pregame show.
Saturday, that streak will come to an end when the college football world fixates on Lincoln for the showdown against No. 5 Ohio State. The Huskers aren’t entering ranked or undefeated like they were back for that 2007 showdown. Then again, that’s not the worst thing considering that game was the first loss of a 7-loss season that proved to be the last for Bill Callahan.
In many ways, this Saturday will serve as the first big showcase for the Huskers under Scott Frost. Pregame conversation will center around whether Nebraska is ready to turn the corner and pick up a huge statement win that’s been, well, unlike anything the program experienced in recent memory.
That is, a huge headliner matchup that actually went Nebraska’s way.
After that 2001 season, Nebraska took part in 3 College GameDay games and lost all of them. That included that infamous (at least in Nebraska) 2011 game in which the No. 8 Huskers’ first ever B1G game turned into a blowout loss at No. 7 Wisconsin.
In same ways, that game epitomized the 21st century letdowns that Nebraska fans experienced. It was a chance for a nice, “we’re back” sort of win to set the stage for a Rose Bowl run. Instead, it was a “we’re further away than we think from being back” type of humbling experience.
Believe it or not, Nebraska has only hosted a top-5 team in the B1G once. That was back in 2015 when No. 3 Iowa completed its undefeated regular season by handing the Huskers a Black Friday loss. It was considered a “nothing to lose” game for the Huskers against the relatively unproven Hawkeyes … until Iowa celebrated a B1G Championship berth at Memorial Stadium while a 5-win Nebraska team was left hoping its APR was going to boost it into a bowl game (it did).
Saturday will be unique in that it’ll be the first time since the 2008 Missouri game in which the Huskers host a top-5 team with division title aspirations still alive.
That game had some extra juice because a year earlier, Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel called Nebraska’s defense “high school tough.” He also later called out Nebraska for being “the dirtiest team he’d ever faced” after rolling past the Huskers with a 52-17 win in Lincoln in 2008.
Yikes. It’s probably too soon to bring that one up.
Including the aforementioned USC loss in 2007 and a loss to No. 5 Texas in 2006, Nebraska lost all 4 of its home games against top-5 teams after that 2001 season.
While Nebraska won’t be ranked this Saturday, here’s another telling stat. The Huskers record as a ranked team AGAINST ranked teams since joining the B1G is 2-11. Both of those wins were back in 2011. And in case that didn’t drive the point home, during the Playoff era Nebraska faced 18 teams who finished ranked in the final AP Top 25 of the season … and went 1-17 in those games.
That only win was against that 2015 Michigan State team, which actually played in the Playoff. Perhaps that was fitting because expectations were as low as ever with Nebraska coming off a horrendous loss to lowly Purdue to fall to 1-4 in conference play. Things were so bad before that Michigan State game that Nebraska fans went viral for including tickets to the MSU game instead of Halloween candy for trick-or-treaters.
Nobody is giving away their tickets to Saturday’s game against Ohio State. The tickets to this showdown are a hot commodity in Lincoln with the cheapest seats starting at 130 bucks a pop (via Stubhub).
And it’s not necessarily that Nebraska fans are banking on the upset. They’re an extremely intelligent fanbase that knows the odds of beating an emerging Ohio State team aren’t great. The Buckeyes are 17.5-point favorites for a reason. Justin Fields is playing at a Heisman Trophy level and the Buckeyes boast a top-5 defense that’s loaded with NFL talent (Chase Young vs. Adrian Martinez should be quite the battle). That’s a different story than when MSU was a 6-point favorite back in that 2015 game.
But at the same time, lopsided spread or not, Nebraska fans don’t want to miss a possible “we’re back” moment. That’s exactly what winning a game of this magnitude would be to Frost and a fanbase that’s as loyal as any in sports. For all the offseason chatter about a possible B1G West title, this is exactly the type of litmus test that Nebraska needs.
Can Nebraska actually play 60 minutes on both sides of the ball and beat a respected Power 5 team? Go ask 2017 Iowa or 2018 Purdue what kind of all-world effort it takes to beat a team of Ohio State’s caliber.
It’ll need to be better than the last 8 times Nebraska faced a ranked team. It’ll need to be better than the last time Nebraska took part in a College GameDay game (2011 at Wisconsin) or the last time Nebraska hosted a College GameDay game (2007 vs. USC).
The stage has been set for Nebraska to make its grand entrance for most of the 21st century. It can set the stage for years to come by finally performing under the bright lights, or it can experience an all-too-familiar flashback to primetime frustration.
The fork in the road has arrived.