IOWA CITY, Iowa — This Friday, the Iowa and Nebraska football teams will meet with nothing but pride on the line.
Iowa (6-5, 3-5 Big Ten) has secured a bowl bid and the outcome won’t provide any upward or downward mobility. Nebraska (4-7, 3-5) won’t qualify for a bowl game this year. Fans on both sides are aggravated with their coaches, and social media self-pity spills over both sides of the Missouri River like gravy on a stack of mashed potatoes.
For the seventh straight year, the border foes will close regular-season play against one another. That will happen through 2019, but the Big Ten adjusted its future schedules and Nebraska will face Minnesota and Iowa will play Wisconsin in their finales starting in 2020. The Hawkeyes and Huskers still will meet as Big Ten West Division foes.
Before this Big Ten series started in 2011, the fan bases never liked the other team, but they were in different leagues for 100 years so it didn’t matter. Since the Cornhuskers joined the league, Iowa-Nebraska on Black Friday has built a ton of equity. It took time, but the fans have grown to dislike the other team to where they root against it even if a victory is in their own self-interests.
No matter how slow it was to build, it’s now a legitimate rivalry. Even Nebraska coach Mike Riley agrees.
“I love the idea. Don’t you guys feel that’s what it should be?” Riley said Monday. “It just feels right. It just seems like a lot of common ground there and it’s right over there. It feels like it should be embraced over there.”
At Big Ten media days last summer, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz encountered several questions about whether Iowa-Nebraska was a rivalry. He was noncommittal.
“We’ve got several of them [rivalries],” Ferentz said. “Wisconsin is a big rivalry game, trophy game for us. Minnesota is maybe the longest-standing one. So the thing that made sense about it is when they [Nebraska] became a Big Ten institution, the border part of things.
“I think it’s healthy, just like the Iowa State rivalry is healthy in our state. I think this one is something for both fans on the border enjoy. How can that be a bad thing when you’ve got people interested in college football?”
Had the series kicked off after the 2009 or 2010 seasons, it would have had all the pizzazz of fireworks on the Fourth of July. Nebraska should have qualified for the Fiesta Bowl in 2009 — the 1-second thing was garbage in a 13-12 “loss” to Texas. A Fiesta Bowl committee member told me they wanted to pick Iowa in the worst way. There’s no way the Fiesta Bowl could’ve turned down Iowa-Nebraska. Could you imagine Ndamukong Suh against Iowa’s offensive line that year? Sign me up.
In 2010, the Hawkeyes disappointingly fell to the Insight Bowl. That year, Nebraska had accepted a Big Ten invitation but played one final season in the Big 12. After losing the Big 12 title game, it seemed obvious the Cornhuskers would play in the Insight Bowl. But, allegedly, Big 12 officials demanded the Insight Bowl choose Missouri because it didn’t want a four-hour Big Ten infomercial. Had the Insight Bowl taken Iowa and Nebraska, it would have provided a nice launching point into the series.
Instead, Iowa-Nebraska in 2011 felt like a forced marriage for the season finale. Officials for both programs unveiled the Heroes Trophy before their first game as Big Ten opponents. That dreary day in Lincoln contained one of the flattest atmospheres I’ve witnessed for a Big Ten game. It was like popping a champagne bottle without any fizzle. Nebraska won 20-7 that afternoon and took the 2012 game 13-7.
Since then, the moments have built and rhetoric intensified. Iowa blasted Nebraska 38-17 in 2013, which caused then-Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini to lose his mind multiple times on the sidelines. The following year, Nebraska rallied from a 24-7 third-quarter deficit to beat Iowa 37-34 in overtime.
Immediately afterward, Ferentz said “that’s football” five different times to questions in his postgame news conference. It was met with scorn and rage by Iowa fans, who were agitated by his tone-deaf responses.
Two days later, Pelini was fired. When asked if the comeback win gave him pause, then-Nebraska athletics director Shawn Eichorst said, “In the final analysis, I had to evaluate where Iowa was.”
It became a turning point in the series. Nebraska’s athletics director didn’t think highly enough of Iowa that he canned his coach after a major comeback. Iowa’s athletics department seemed locked in the status quo where neither a victory nor a defeat could force changes to the football staff.
In 2015, Riley took over as Nebraska’s coach and the Cornhuskers fell to 5-7. Everything clicked for Iowa, which finished regular-season play 12-0. The Hawkeyes completed the road to perfection with a 28-20 win at Nebraska that season.
Last year, Iowa pounded the Cornhuskers 40-10. That victory emboldened Iowa fans to crack jokes — “If it’s 9:20 in Iowa City, what time is it in Lincoln? 40 to 10.” It also riled up Nebraska fans, and social media taunts and jibes flowed from both directions.
For Iowa fans, the only other rivalry game to generate that type of mutual sizzle is Iowa-Iowa State. That shows Iowa-Nebraska matters then, now and into the future.
“I think there’s a special quality to that with Iowa that will only grow,” Riley said.
Let’s stop with the silly semantics on both sides. Iowa cannot match Nebraska’s rich history, but it can knock the stuffing out of Cornhuskers in the present. The Hawkeyes have long-standing rivalries with Minnesota and Wisconsin, but those teams are building their own traditions with Nebraska, too.
So, swallow the self-righteousness and insecurity and let the disdain flow. This is a rivalry and it’s time to acknowledge it. In fact, it makes the game more fun when you do.