Remember when Nebraska played Maine to open the 2005 season? It wasn’t a particularly exciting match-up on paper. The intrigue came from the fact that Maine – a place best know for, in order, stunning beauty, lobsters, blueberries, Stephen King, and L.L. Bean – was coming to play football. Maine! That was interesting. The game itself was not, a 25-7 Nebraska win that was 9-0 at halftime.
That sort of season opener came to define the Huskers schedule in the middle-aughts, but things are starting to change ever so slightly with this week’s opener against Southern Miss. While there are plenty of question marks surrounding the Golden Eagles they are, at least, an FBS school. A pretty good one too, 12-2 last year and Conference-USA champs.
Bo Pelini has been clear on his desire to schedule up since he arrived and you’ll find a similar profile for the season openers in the years to come. Fresno State (2016) is sort of like Southern Miss West, a good smaller conference program that’s typically battle-tested against BCS opponents. Wyoming (2013) is Wyoming, but at least it’s a state school. It’s not out of the question that BYU (2015) could be the first ranked opponent Nebraska has opened against since Oklahoma State in 2003. For now, Florida Atlantic (2014) is the outlier but the Carl Pelini could make that one pretty interesting. All of those games are, of course, home games.
Call it the middle ground. Nebraska’s not opening with an FCS school – though those games are still on the schedule – but they’re not venturing into BCS territory either. The Huskers used to. Using the BCS conferences as a baseline (membership at the time of the game only, sorry TCU and Utah), here’s the percentage of big school openers Nebraska has had over the past four decades:
- 1970s: 9 of 10
- 1980s: 6 of 10
- 1990s: 5 of 10
- 2000s: 2 of 10
With two season openers still to schedule in this decade, the Huskers have yet to play a BCS team to start the year and don’t have any scheduled.
Part of that decline is emblematic of college football overall. More games need to be filled and more teams are available to fill them. But part of it is philosophy too. College football under the current bowl/BCS structure is essentially a survivor pool. Thanks to the voters’ inability to deviate from poll protocol, losing early, even against a good opponent, always means a drop in the rankings. Should Michigan fall in the polls if they lose to Alabama on Saturday? No. Will they? Yes.
Nebraska seems content in the “middle ground.” The Huskers should be favored in all of their future openers but those teams are good enough to push Nebraska. It’s the smart play. The Huskers get good competition, a minimized risk of losing, and avoid the stigma of the true cupcake game.
But what about starting with a bang? The big neutral site games like Alabama-Michigan or Auburn-Clemson? The old Kickoff Classic days against the likes of Penn State and West Virginia?
It’s an interesting gamble. Season openers, no matter the opponent, are always sort of a crapshoot. Nobody’s totally aware of what they have yet, no team is fully formed. You can get an inflated boost or a downgrade based on that one game. It makes for great television, a great fan experience, but do the rewards outweigh the risks?
I believe Nebraska is pretty well positioned in their current spot, but I could be persuaded. Feel free to offer your take in the comments below.