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On Rivalries In the Big Ten West With Wisconsin and Iowa

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This supermarket trophy means more to the black and gold than the Big Red.
This supermarket trophy means more to the black and gold than the Big Red.
Eric Francis

With Wisconsin's move to the Big Ten's west division, the idea of making Nebraska's game against the Badgers into a rivalry trophy game has surfaced.

Which brings two competing realities into clear conflict:  the Big Ten loves rivalry trophies, and Nebraska hasn't really had a true rival in nearly 25 years. The Big Ten is full of classic, historical rivalries:  Minnesota and Iowa playing for a bronze pig, Minnesota and Wisconsin playing for an axe, plus Indiana and Purdue playing for an oak bucket. But when the Big Ten expands, the Big Ten tries to artificially inseminate rivalries.  The result?  Lame concepts like the "Heroes Game" and the "Land-Grant Trophy".

Nebraska fans are well aware of the notion of forced rivalries from their experiences with Colorado. Rivalries can't be created, no matter how hard Bill McCartney hates. They evolve over time, and evolve on the field. Nebraska's true rival in the Big Eight days was Oklahoma. Think "Game of the Century", Thomas Lott, Marcus Dupree, and Brian Bosworth. Think Barry Switzer and Sooner Magic.  The rivalry fizzled after Switzer was dismissed in the aftermath of yet another NCAA probation for improprieties in recruiting.  When the Big XII was formed, Oklahoma chose to side with Texas, the rival they could beat, instead of Nebraska, the rival they could no longer beat.  After a 69-7 Nebraska victory in 1997, the annual series came to an end with the two schools in separate divisions.

The Big XII tried to set Colorado as Nebraska's rival, moving the Buffaloes into the end-of-season spot on Nebraska's schedule.  The handful of Coloradoans who cared about the Buffs loved it; most Nebraskans winced at it. Some of it was resentment at the end of the Oklahoma rivalry, some of it was the result of anti-social behavior by hooligans in Boulder, while others simply rejected the notion that the Johnny-come-lately Buffaloes were now a rival.

That lackluster acceptance of Nebraska's Big XII rivalries were a key factor that led the Huskers towards the Big Ten. And being the new kids on the block, we know that Nebraska doesn't really have a rivalry with anybody.  Michigan and Ohio State are the name programs of the conference; everybody wants to play them.  Nebraska's played Minnesota more than any other Big Ten team over the years.  Penn State and Michigan dispute two of Nebraska's national championships from the 1990's.  And of course, Iowa is the closest Big Ten school and the only state that borders Nebraska.

In Sunday's Omaha World-Herald, columnist Tom Shatel talked to Mike Hlas of the Cedar Rapids (IA) Gazette about the Nebraska-Iowa rivalry, and how it seems to be acknowledged more by Iowans than Nebraskans.

"We understood Nebraska was joining 11 new friends, and Nebraska fans were licking their chops to get at Ohio State and Michigan and Penn State. But I think there was a feeling here of being undervalued. Look at the last 10 years: Iowa’s done everything Nebraska’s done in football. Where’s this attitude coming from?"

That's easy to explain.  Since 2002, Iowa is 97-55 while Nebraska is 101-56, as Hlas points out. The difference is that Iowa fan views that as a great era and gives their coach a $4 million contract.  Nebraska fires two coaches during that same era, and some fans want to fire a third. Iowa fans revel in being ranked #1 for five weeks in 1985; Husker fans revel in five national championships.

That's the difference in the two programs. Husker fans believe that Nebraska football should strive to be better than anything Iowa accomplishes, barring Iowa making the jump to the next level. Heck, Nebraska fans are much more ready to embrace the rivalry with Wisconsin.  Wisconsin's three consecutive Big Ten trophies are what Nebraska fans want.  (Truth be told, they really want the crystal football again, but they also know that the next step is to win something more substantial than a division title.)  Of course, erasing the "/Wisconsin scores again" punchline also feeds into that.

Those are the trophies that Nebraska covets.  Not a manufactured trophy sponsored by an overpriced supermarket chain.  That was the model for the Iowa/Nebraska "Black Friday" series, and I suspect something similar is in the works for Wisconsin/Nebraska.  Culvers/Cabelas Trophy, perhaps?

Hopefully not.  Perhaps model it after the Missouri/Nebraska "Victory Bell", which most fans only knew as that goofy halftime exchange by guys in robes. Much more subdued, and much more appropriate.