Nebraska facing tough road, high expectations for first football season as Big Ten member
CHICAGO — Why is there so much anticipation for the start of the Big Ten football season?
Here’s looking at you, Nebraska.
The league announced last year it would expand to 12 teams by adding the Cornhuskers. To accommodate the move, the Big Ten split into two divisions of Leaders and Legends for football and created a title game, which will be played Dec. 3 in Indianapolis.
Last week, the conference announced it would add a ninth game to the league schedule beginning in 2017. It has played an eight-game schedule since 1985.
That’s a lot of change for the typically staid Big Ten — and now it's upon us, with the media days held last week in Chicago and fall camps opening this week.
“You’re talking about a storied program with a great history,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said last week. “I think the excitement of the tradition that Nebraska brings into the Big Ten, then us having a championship game, I think it just brings more fanaticism for the Big Ten Conference.”
The Cornhuskers figure to make a splash right away, as they kick off their first Big Ten season with a primetime road game against Leaders Division favorite Wisconsin on national TV.
“It’s games like that that make us so excited to join the Big Ten,” said star Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick, whom the media chose as its preseason Big Ten defensive player of the year. “My team loves to play in atmospheres like that, we thrive in atmospheres like that. We love night games, it’s kind of our thing.
“I’d rather play in Camp Randall every single game than a game that wasn’t so crazy. And we got kind of a rivalry already going against Wisconsin.”
Nebraska enters the Big Ten featuring one of the league’s most formidable defenses, led by Crick and linebacker Lavonte David. The unit was ninth last year in scoring defense while playing in the high-scoring Big 12.
High expectations — but some real obstacles — await the Cornhuskers this year.
Coaches review lots of film in the offseason, and spend extra time prepping for any new opponents they will face. But most coaches don’t have to face 11 new opponents, like Nebraska will this year. Only Washington is a repeat game from last season.
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said he began watching film in February to get ready for the challenge
“We’ve had a great off-season,” he said, “and we’ve needed it.”
How will Pelini adjust his game plan to the Big Ten brand of football he’s seen on tape?
“We’re going to do what we do and we’re going to do it well,” he said. “We’re not really going to adapt what we do to the conference. We’re going to hopefully make he conference adapt to what we do.”
Further complicating things for Nebraska is its Big Ten draw. In addition to the opener at Wisconsin, the Cornhuskers will play at Minnesota, Penn State and Michigan, and host Ohio State, Michigan State, Northwestern and Iowa.
“The schedule-makers didn’t do us any favors our first year,” Pelini lamented.
Still, most media outlets are picking Nebraska as the overwhelming favorite to win the Legends Division this fall. The Cornhuskers will make things tough on their new Big Ten brethren — but they also have made things easier.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said he already has noticed — and benefited from — the addition of Nebraska.
“I’ve noticed it in recruiting,” Bielema said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had parents or recruits sitting in my office talking about the Big Ten Network and the exposure that it brings, to bring Nebraska in, and for us to be part of the Leaders Division.”
Former Wisconsin coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez likes Nebraska’s fit in the Big Ten, and thinks the championship game should help the league remain competitive late in the season.
“It makes us relevant after the (regular) season,” Alvarez said during an interview last month. “It really has hurt us (not playing later in the season), a few years in particular where we finished the season and name a champion, everyone else is playing in championship games and we’re watching.
“Our guys are sitting an extra 10 days. We’re going into bowl games sometimes with 50-some days off. It’s hard. This makes things better for everyone, other than the fact you actually have to play them.”