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Nebraska's messy marriage with Big Ten getting uglier every day

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
·6-min read

On a Thursday morning conference call, Big Ten presidents discussed an exemption request from Nebraska to allow the Cornhuskers to replace Saturday’s canceled football game against Wisconsin with a non-league opponent, the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

It got zero traction, league sources told Yahoo Sports. There was no need for even a show of hands, let alone an actual vote. No one was in favor of granting it. The league’s previously agreed-upon rules — conference games only — was reaffirmed.

Also reaffirmed was the belief around the Big Ten that Nebraska, even after nine years of membership, remains a difficult philosophical fit for the league. The Huskers’ request was met with knowing eye-rolls … of course it would be Nebraska that is already trying to rewrite the protocols everyone agreed to just last month in an effort to get a 2020 season played.

Even worse, rather than simply obeying the rules or even just asking for permission in the first place, Nebraska had gone out and negotiated a potential deal with Chattanooga. Then the Huskers took it to the league and basically made the presidents say, “No.”

There is some suspicion that it was done to purposely create headlines and signal how football is more important to Nebraska than the other schools. The Huskers say it was an honest argument.

“We believe the flexibility to play non-conference games could have been beneficial not only for Nebraska, but other Big Ten teams who may be in a similar position as the season progresses,” said Nebraska chancellor Ronnie Green and athletic director Bill Moos in a joint statement. “Ultimately, the Big Ten Conference did not approve our request, and we respect their decision.”

This is the state of affairs between the Big Ten and Nebraska, a partnership borne of equal-parts desperation and money that has turned into misreads and mistrust.

“It’s like an unhappy marriage,” one Big Ten source said. “It doesn’t work. It doesn’t fit. Yet no one can afford or figure out how to divorce. So nothing is going to change.”

Nebraska head coach Scott Frost listens to a question during the Big Ten Conference college football media days on July 18, 2019. (AP)
Nebraska head coach Scott Frost listens to a question during the Big Ten Conference college football media days on July 18, 2019. (AP)

There was nothing inherently wrong with Nebraska contemplating adding a new opponent, of course.

It wasn’t the Huskers’ fault that Saturday’s game was canceled — Wisconsin pulled the plug as its COVID testing approached (but did not exceed) the league’s mandated numbers. While that decision is allowed under the Big Ten’s rules, it hasn’t stopped speculation across the league that the Badgers were motivated to avoid playing without head coach Paul Chryst and some of their key players, all reportedly out with COVID.

If Wisconsin couldn’t play, then why shouldn’t Nebraska change gears on the fly and try to get a game in? After all, who knows if the Cornhuskers will be hit by COVID and have to cancel additional games. Might as well get as much of a season in as possible while you can.

Again, it’s not an argument without merit.

What it is, however, is an argument made to the wrong entity. There was simply no way the Big Ten was going to grant it. Even asking spoke to a complete lack of understanding about how the venerable league operates and what it values.

The Big Ten is about unity. It’s about following the rules everyone previously accepted. It’s about erring on the side of safety and precaution. It’s about not rocking the boat. Right, wrong or ridiculous, it is what has worked for well over a century.

It’s why despite the quarterback depth chart red flag, Wisconsin will get the benefit of the doubt for canceling the game earlier rather than later. And it’s why trying to play a non-conference opponent with unknown or unsupervised testing requirements won’t.

The Big Ten isn’t alone in this. The SEC has similar conference-only standards this season. And when, say, an outbreak at Florida caused its game against Missouri to be postponed, leaving Mizzou with an open date, the Tigers didn’t go out and try to schedule a fill-in. Missouri stayed in line and didn't play. So why did Nebraska think it was special?

“This might fly in the Big 12,” another Big Ten source said of Nebraska. “But they aren’t in the Big 12 anymore.”

Maybe they should go back.

To be clear, there is no movement to kick Nebraska out of the league and there is no known movement for Nebraska to leave. But as the COVID crisis has shown, there is a clear gap between the two entities' ways of doing and thinking about business.

It was June of 2010 when Nebraska accepted the Big Ten’s membership offer. The Huskers were eager to leave the Big 12, which they felt was overly influenced by the University of Texas and on the verge of collapse. Due to geography, there weren’t a lot of options. Joining a safe, stable and very wealthy conference to the east made a lot of sense.

The Big Ten, meanwhile, was seeking a then-12th member (it’s now at 14). A border state school with a huge football brand (it won three national titles in the 1990s) was appealing.

The belief that the Nebraska name would deliver strong television ratings, despite having such a small population, overrode the concerns that the university as a whole wasn’t as committed to academics as the rest of the league.

What seemed like a potential fit, however, hasn’t been.

Nebraska football has struggled in the Big Ten, failing to find new recruiting turf to make up for the pipeline of Texas talent the Big 12 offered. Since 2014, it’s under .500 in league play. It has shown no ability to contend for championships. Its national brand, meanwhile, continues to grow weaker with high school talent and television viewers alike. And its sparse population adds little to nothing for other schools to recruit (both in terms of football talent and potential students, the way Rutgers and Maryland do).

Meanwhile, in 2011, Nebraska lost its membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities, of which every other Big Ten school belongs.

In the meantime, Nebraska continues to operate in a way that is sometimes foreign to many in the conference. The mentality and experience that makes the school think it is doing the right thing just isn’t prevalent elsewhere in the conference.

It’s unlikely any other Big Ten school would have even considered adding a Chattanooga to the schedule.

Nebraska doesn’t have any (or many) options of course to change leagues. Its football team’s mediocrity only weakens its hand even if it wanted to leave. Meanwhile, the Big Ten is loath to do anything other than grumble privately. It’s way too even-keeled to boot some school out.

So this carries on, like a lot of nuptials. Neither side is happy, or even sure they know who exactly they married in the first place.

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