Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Another Tough Nebraska Loss Might Only Offer Additional Clarity Moving Forward

November 19, 2022

There was no hint of Wisconsin inevitability on Saturday, so maybe that’s something. For most of Nebraska’s time in the Big Ten, including now nine straight wins from the Badgers in the series, it has felt that way. Wisconsin developed offensive linemen. Wisconsin had good running backs. Wisconsin played good defense.

Wisconsin won, 15-14, by grinding Saturday’s game out, but it felt more coincidental than it normally does.

That’s the opposite of how most Husker-Badger matchups since 2011 have felt. For the majority of those, Nebraska was trying to figure things out, Wisconsin knew exactly what it was, and, not surprisingly, the team with a clear identity won.

This 2022 game didn’t feel that way. Do with that what you will. It probably says more about Wisconsin than it does Nebraska at this point.

For most of the Huskers’ time in this conference, Wisconsin has stood not just as a foil for the Huskers but an example. It’s won five division titles since Nebraska joined in 2011 and two conference titles, though none since 2012. Still, the Badgers were the heavyweight in the West Division, the example of how close you can get to college football’s elite by focusing on development and a fairly basic approach––play good defense, win the line of scrimmage offensively, run the ball.

The thing I’ll remember from Saturday’s game is the lack of that feeling. Wisconsin won a one-point game, on the road, and that felt pretty true. I don’t think, as both programs face coaching decisions in the weeks ahead, there’s a ton of difference between Nebraska and Wisconsin right now.

This isn’t a sign of progress from Nebraska, more just circumstance, but when’s the last time you could say that about the Huskers and Badgers?

The Big Ten is going to change with the arrival of USC and UCLA. Wisconsin and Nebraska are about to change based on the hires they make. Assuming divisions are null and void once the California teams arrive, the path of “be the best in the West” no longer exists for the Badgers or the Huskers. They both have to be among the league’s best. The success threshold is rising for both programs.

That, for me, is the big storyline from Saturday, not another close Nebraska loss nor Wisconsin reaching bowl eligibility, though the latter might have a trickle-down effect.

My read on Wisconsin’s coaching search, and it’s only a read, is that the Badgers are looking for reasons to hire interim head coach Jim Leonhard. Getting to six wins almost certainly helps. That could be important for Nebraska because it’s one less program competing for a handful of top candidates.

This most specifically applies to Kansas head coach Lance Leipold, Whether you think he’s a legitimate contender for the Nebraska job or not, he serves as a useful example. Leipold has history in the state of Nebraska. He’s also a Wisconsin native. If he had to choose, and wanted to choose, between Nebraska and Wisconsin, it’s hard to see that choice going the Huskers’ way if he has his pick.

But, Leipold is only an example, a stand-in for scores of future head coaches. It stands to reason that anyone Nebraska might be interested in would also be of interest to Wisconsin, a program that probably has to eke out a living in today’s college football much the same way the Huskers would. There is, probably, a lot of overlap in the coaching-search circles at Wisconsin and Nebraska.

None of which is to say that this makes another difficult Husker loss OK. Rather, it’s to say that this particular Nebraska loss––excruciating as it may be, yet again––doesn’t hurt the Huskers all that much in a big-picture sense. In fact, it might help them.

It’s not fun to arrive at a place where the games don’t matter all that much, but it’s where Nebraska’s at. For the seniors, for the players playing their last game at Memorial Stadium, you wish it could’ve gone the other way for that reason alone.

It didn’t. Instead, this latest loss to Wisconsin only offered uncomfortable clarity––near the end of November, the most important thing facing these two programs was what happens in the months ahead, not on Saturday.

Wisconson’s decision may have gotten more complicated by what happened Saturday in Lincoln. Nebraska’s did not.

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