Nebraska's successful entrance into Big Ten sets up marquee matchup with Michigan football team
It's been 49 years since the Michigan football team played Nebraska in the regular season. Now, it'll do it every season -- starting with a game that has a possible BCS berth on the line.
My, how the times have changed.
The Cornhuskers have two games left in their first tour through the Big Ten after making their much-anticipated leap from the Big 12 this year. And, although they have not been the defensive force many expected, they still have impacted the league in a significant way.
No. 17 Nebraska currently sits in a second-place tie in the Legends Division with No. 20 Michigan. Both teams are 8-2 overall and 4-2 in league play heading into their matchup at Michigan Stadium on noon Saturday on ESPN.
"Nebraska presents a challenge unlike any other team in the Big Ten," senior defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen said. "The only other team that presents a challenge like them would be us, I think, as far as they line up in the shot gun, pistol and they run the ball.
"We have to focus and buckle down and think about what kind of statement we want to make."Nebraska's already made its statement, and left its footprint on the typically staid Big Ten.
The Cornhuskers are the first addition to the Big Ten since Penn State was added in 1993, but their entrance has had far-reaching effects. Most notably, it's precipitated a divisional split and the addition of a championship game for the first time in the league's 115-year history.
In turn, that realignment has intensified the conference race, as more teams now have a stake in playing for the Big Ten championship with two weeks remaining in the season.
"I think we’re all adjusting to that, with the championship game," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said this week. "That always is going to be something that’s out there."
Those teams include both Michigan and Nebraska, which trail Michigan State (8-2, 5-1) by a game in the Legends Division, although the Wolverines would be a long-shot to make it to Indianapolis. Michigan needs to sweep its final two games and have Michigan State lose its last two to qualify for the game.
Even if neither wins the Legends Division, though, the winner of this game still would be the favorite to secure the Big Ten's second-best bowl draw -- including a possible BCS bowl, should the league receive an at-large bid -- if it wins its finale.
Each Big Ten team already has at least two losses, so the loser of the Big Ten title game will have at least three. That means Michigan or Nebraska, should it win out and finish 10-2, would be a game better than the title game loser.
Nothing like making a strong first impression for Nebraska -- particularly considering the challenges inherent to facing an entire slate of unfamiliar teams.
Penn State faced a similar test in 1993. Once ranked in the top five and unbeaten in non-conference play, the Nittany Lions finished 6-2 in the Big Ten.
Now, Nebraska is 4-2 in the league, despite the challenge of facing an unfamiliar team each week. The film study required to keep pace, in addition to the game planning, has been burdensome for Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini.
"It has been a challenge for us," Pelini said. "We've seen a variety of different offenses, and like I said, offenses we're not real familiar with. We're not familiar with a lot of the personnel we're playing against, but that just comes over time and you make changes over time.
"It's been an interesting year, to say the least, but I think it'll all settle down over time."
Pelini has a little more familiarity with the league than his players, because he grew up in Ohio and played for Ohio State. He's also coached three times against Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges when he was the defensive coordinator at LSU and Borges was at Auburn.
And Borges knows what to expect from Pelini, particularly a Pelini defense.
"They take your guys away," Borges said. "They cover you. They’re one of those defenses, like a couple we’ve played this year, that really want to take it all away.
"There’s no bend but don’t break in their style. They just know what they’re doing."