LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska was handed a rather public backhanded compliment on Sunday afternoon.
With the Huskers’ invitation to the Music City Bowl — and more specifically a lack of invitation to the Outback Bowl — bowl committees around the country essentially told 9-3 Nebraska it’s still a step behind 8-4 Iowa.
Iowa does own the bragging rights and the better optics with a 40-10 defeat of the Huskers on Nov. 25. But what Sunday showed was that committees compared the entire bodies of work of both schools in the 2016 season, and pointed at the team who lost to North Dakota State and Northwestern, and only beat Rutgers by 7, and said, “You’ll do.”
Iowa is no doubt deserving of its bid to the Outback Bowl. Wins over then-No. 3 Michigan and then-No. 16 Nebraska in November proved the Hawkeyes figured out their kinks late in the season and were the second-best team in the Big Ten West.
But for Nebraska, the Outback Bowl picking a team with a worse record proves the Huskers’ national perception is no better than it was last year, when the Huskers were 6-7. And the only way to begin changing that would be to beat No. 21 Tennessee in its own back yard on Dec. 30.
A win would give Nebraska its 10th victory of the season, and its first impressive win of 2016. Tennessee fell off the wagon in the second half of the season with losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt, but if Nebraska could topple Rocky Top the day before New Year’s Eve, the Huskers might be able to salvage some of the way the nation views Nebraska as a program.
The 62-3 loss at Ohio State and 40-10 Black Friday Nightmare in Iowa City are why Nebraska isn’t playing against Florida in Tampa Bay. Not that Nebraska lost, but the catastrophic nature of both losses. Again, optics. Nebraska still is not expected to win big games, and clearly is still considered a middle-tier program.
The win over Tennessee would not necessarily allow Nebraska to beat its chest and reclaim the Big Ten West throne (that’s clearly Wisconsin’s) but it would allow Nebraska to at least point the finger back at the Outback Bowl and say, “you made a mistake.”
Both Mike Riley and athletic director Shawn Eichorst said in statements on Sunday the program is honored to be going to Nashville.
“The Music City Bowl is an exceptional Big Ten bowl partner, Nashville is a world-class city and this will be a great destination for our student-athletes, staff and the best fans in college football,” Eichorst’s statement read.
And no doubt going to a new bowl against an old foe in Tennessee is exciting for the program, considering last year Nebraska was lucky to just get in a bowl. But there are serious implications on the line for Nebraska on December 30.