LINCOLN, Neb. — The stakes? The stakes are real. And they’re spectacular.
The loser of the Nebraska-Minnesota game walks away from Memorial Stadium late Saturday night with three league losses. To give that “three” part some context, we’ll start with this:
Since the Big Ten championship game debuted in 2011, only one participant has ever come in with more than two conference defeats under its belt — Wisconsin (4-4) in 2012, and that was a fluky deal, a result of the Leaders Division’s top two programs, Ohio State and Penn State, both being banned from postseason play.
The Badgers turned up at Indianapolis and beat the Cornhuskers like they were one of Alex Van Halen’s drums, and, well … the less said about that one, the better.
But the point stands, and the point is simple arithmetic. And the more you look at Big Red (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) vs. Goldy (7-2, 4-2), the more it starts to look like an honest-to-goodness Big Ten West elimination tilt.
And other than that, hey, no pressure.
“Every game is a big game,” Nebraska safety Kieron Williams said. “If we lose to Northwestern or we lose to Purdue, those are big games, too. So I feel like this week is just as big a game as Ohio State was.”
Bigger, actually, given the current three-way tie atop the division. If Minnesota wins, the Huskers would be saddled with three league setbacks. Now that number alone might not automatically eliminate one from a shot at Indy — but the fact two of those defeats would be at the hands of Wisconsin and the Gophers most certainly would.
And if you don’t believe us, let’s hand the mic over to the representative from the Big Ten office:
The following procedure will determine the representative from each division in the event of a tie:
(a) If two teams are tied, the winner of the game between the two tied teams shall be the representative.
(b) If three or more teams are tied, steps 1 through 6 will be followed until a determination is made. If only two teams remain tied after any step, the winner of the game between the two tied teams shall be the representative.
1. The records of the three tied teams will be compared against each other.
2. The records of the three tied teams will be compared within their division.
3. The records of the three teams will be compared against the next highest placed teams in their division in order of finish (4, 5, 6, and 7).
4. The records of the three teams will be compared against all common conference opponents.
5. The team with the best overall winning percentage [excluding exempted games] shall be the representative.
6. The representative will be chosen by random draw.
So if a deadlock at the top of the West at 7-2 or 6-3 in league games becomes reality, basically, head-to-head wins out first.
After that, it’s divisional record.
And after that, it gets … weird.
Head-to-head so far:
Nebraska: 0-1, lost at Wisconsin, hosting Minnesota this weekend
Wisconsin: 1-0, beat Nebraska, hosting Minnesota on Nov. 26
Minnesota: 0-0, at Nebraska this weekend, at Wisconsin on Nov. 26
And in divisional games so far:
Nebraska: 3-1 with two division games remaining
Wisconsin: 3-0 with three division games remaining
Minnesota: 2-1 with three division games remaining
So the Gophers have a pretty fair investment in this one, too, given that all three of their remaining contests are, by Massey Ratings projections, a statistical coin flip, at best. And a bloody slog, at worst:
Of all the dance cards, Minnesota’s blessed with the most uphill battles yet to come — its upcoming opponents have a combined record of 18-9 (.667), compared to Nebraska’s 17-10 (.630) and Wisconsin’s 13-14 (.481).
The Badgers have the opposite problem — which is, to say, no problem at all. Minnesota is the only squad left on Wisconsin’s slate that’s expected to get a postseason bid and the only one ranked within the Sagarin top 50, where it rests at No. 44.
Goldy’s got three top 50 tests, in Nebraska (29), Northwestern (41) and Wisconsin (9). Nebraska has two in Minnesota (44) and Iowa (39).
And yes, upsets can still happen. Anything can still happen. There’s bound to be more cuckoo to come before Thanksgiving; that’s the beauty of the Football Bowl Subdivision’s annual roller-coaster bonanza.
The trick for the Huskers, and coach Mike Riley, is getting everybody’s hands on the lap bar again, especially after that very public de-pantsing at the hands of Ohio State. It’s why the fate of quarterback Tommy Armstrong means so dang much, why that positive mojo is so precious. The Huskers haven’t won since Oct. 22 and haven’t beaten a team with a winning record in almost a month (Oct. 15, at Indiana).
“It’s a big one for us to get a win,” tight end Trey Foster said. “We haven’t won in (more than two) weeks, so that’ll be big for us. It’ll be good for us to come back home and play the football we know how to play. It’ll be big for us to just get back into the groove of things.”
And bigger still to keep the divisional race in your hands. Because stakes are stakes, and hoping like hell for Illinois to do the dirty work for you is no way to spend a November.