A few things right up front:
1. No, this is not just a wild devil’s-advocate post to help pass the time until football returns for real next month. (But, to be fair, we’ve got to do that somehow.)
2. Let’s face it, there simply hasn’t been nearly enough Husker Hate going on. We don’t want them thinking they’re joining some soft, sissy league, do we?
3. And finally, these numbers are all based on the past three years in anticipation of someone using Pelini as a counterargument. I am confident that the basic conclusions would hold up (and improve in some cases) had I gone back further. But out of fairness, I limited it to Bo’s tenure only.
So, let’s get into it. Nebraska is a storied program that has enjoyed a lot of success over the years. It wasn’t that long ago that they were the dominant team in the nation. But a conference expansion/division and later terrible coaching hire took a toll on the Huskers and they fell out of the spotlight. Under Coach Pelini, the ship seems to have been righted and Nebraska has been knocking on the door of greatness again.
Or have they? Great teams beat great teams. Or they don’t play them at all. In the BCS era, those are your two choices for winning a title. Nebraska has become quite good at exploiting one of those things, and not so good at the other. And that’s where they’ll face a bigger challenge than most assume entering into the expanded Big Ten.
In the Big 12, Nebraska sat in the cushiony soft North division where they amassed a 13-2 record over the past three years. In that same span, only one other North team (Missouri) has managed to register a winning record overall. Together, Nebraska’s North opponents are just one game above .500 since 2008 and I dare you to try to tell me that this is a case of “beating up on each other.”
No, it’s no great revelation that the power in the Big 12 sat in the South division in more ways than one. On that side of the fence, four teams check in with winning records since ’08, and A&M sits at an even 19-19. It’s also worth noting that all four of those teams’ records are better than Missouri’s, Nebraska’s only semi-legitimate competition in the division. So it should now come as no surprise that Nebraska has a 3-year record of 4-7 against South teams. Some of those losses (notably the past two Big 12 title games) have been close, but so have some of the wins.
So, how does this translate into the new Big Ten? The conference brass went to great pains to create balanced divisions, and they seem to have succeeded in that. In Nebraska’s new Legends division, they’ll find three other teams who posted a winning record over the past three years. And that doesn’t include Michigan, who we have to figure will be good again eventually.
Can Nebraska beat every other team in their division? Yes. I’d even say they’re talented enough to beat every team in the conference. But they won’t. At least not right away, like many otherwise respectable folks expect. Under Pelini, Nebraska has just one win against the Big 12’s Big 2 Oklahoma and Texas. While the statistical counterparts to those two teams in the Big Ten (Ohio State and Penn State) are still separated, they are both on the Huskers’ schedule for their first two years in the conference, after which they drop OSU for a while (although the impending 9th conference game could change that.)
In fact, the teams Nebraska will face this fall and next just happen to be the 8 most successful teams in the Big Ten over the past three years. It is undoubtedly the most difficult conference schedule that Bo Pelini has faced since taking over in Lincoln. There is also a complete lack of familiarity with any of these teams or coaches. (The last Big Ten team Nebraska played was Michigan in the ’05 Alamo Bowl, a game in which Bill Callahan beat Lloyd Carr.)
Even if Nebraska maintains its high level of success, they simply can’t count on the Legends division settling into the pool of cupcakes they floated in during their Big 12 years. Each of the teams on the Legends side is either currently enjoying success or has in the past decade (yes, even Minnesota) and could return to that level at any time. And their record against competitive teams in the Big 12 suggests that they will not be able to navigate the division unscathed.
All told, there are simply too many obstacles between Nebraska and a conference title. Way more than they’re used to.
Welcome to the Big Ten.