In one specific way, nothing has changed since the last time Nebraska played Ohio State. The Huskers went to Columbus last season, at 2-6, as about a 17.5-point underdog. That’s where the line is hanging around for Saturday night’s game, but of course that’s not really the same thing at all.
Back in March, the oddsmakers installed Ohio State as a 7.5-point favorite. Nebraska’s near upset of the Buckeyes in 2018 still carried a lot of weight then. So did a returning freshman All-American at quarterback in a Year-2 scenario. Without any games to go on, the Huskers looked poised for a breakout.
Then they looked shaky against South Alabama, lost to Colorado and had to fight like hell to overcome four fumbles and beat Illinois. Ohio State, meanwhile, throttled four opponents, Justin Fields looked like the 5-star player he was coming out of high school and you can’t prove right now that Ryan Day isn’t the next Lincoln Riley, which is exactly how Buckeyes AD Gene Smith was hoping that might unfold.
So, 17.5 points it is. ESPN’s College GameDay is coming anyway, just as so many Husker fans had hoped all offseason.
“What that shows me is the brand is back, respect for us is here,” Nebraska AD Bill Moos said this week on his radio show.
I’m not so sure about that. That ESPN’s big Saturday circus is here this week indicates a bit of progress, yes. It says that people are at least willing to consider the idea that Nebraska might soon be ready to compete with Big Ten bully Ohio State. But it wasn’t a given. It feels a little like, “OK, we’ll give you a shot,” instead of a no-brainer like Notre Dame-Georgia was a week ago. That was a two-touchdown spread, too, but both teams were ranked in the top 10.
Nebraska’s not. Ohio State is, ranked No. 5 by the Associated Press voters. The Huskers haven’t beaten a top-five AP team since the 20-10 win over Oklahoma in 2001, the last great moment of Nebraska’s greatest football era.
Yet Lee and Kirk and Rece and the rest of ‘em are here and it underscores a key development of the Scott Frost era—Nebraska’s free roll is almost over.
It’s safe to say Frost prefers it that way. He talked all offseason about how expectations need to be the norm at Nebraska. That’s how it was when Frost played and if they’re here again, maybe things are getting back to the way they were.
“Sooner or later this program is going to be ready to take on that challenge and overcome the challenge,” Frost said. “These are the games you want because this lets us see we're on that road we want. I don't have any doubt we'll get there. We'll take our swing on Saturday and see how far we've come.”
Nebraska football, given its historical standard, does need this sort of thing to be routine again. It needs to win a game like Saturday night’s to make that happen.
But beating the Buckeyes is harder than it was a year ago. Nebraska’s better than it was last year. Ohio State is, too. “There’s no question in my mind,” Frost said. Neither fact, however, has anything to do with why this meeting with the Buckeyes is completely different.
There’s a freedom that comes with being mediocre. At 2-6, there were no expectations for the Huskers heading to Columbus in 2018. Swing from the heels, give ‘em hell and see what happens. It’s a freedom Frost and Nebraska football desperately don’t want to have, a freedom that isn’t quite there this week to the degree it was last year.
How do the Huskers handle that? Can you be good when people expect you to be good? Nebraska has an offense that should be capable of challenging any team in the country. This year’s defense is no longer the part of the game you have to endure to get the offense back on the field. The defensive line is “big, strong, powerful,” according to Day, and the Huskers’ have two corners playing at a high level right now. Any time a team has that, it has a chance.
Even writing it that way feels a little bit like something from the recent past at Nebraska, “a chance.” What the Huskers are really trying to get to is not “a chance” to beat Ohio State, but a more conventional GameDay-worthy matchup between two heavyweights.
Nebraska’s not there yet. The spread is what it is for a reason. You’ll hear references to the Buckeyes’ previous two losses as heavy favorites on the road in the Big Ten West this week. In response to a question about that, Day said “our mantra all along is when you’re a prize fighter, no matter what match you’re into or what fight you’re going into, someone is going to try to take you out, and you have to be ready for that. If you ever let your guard down, you’re going to get knocked out.”
Ohio State isn’t just a prize fighter in this analogy, it’s the Big Ten’s heavyweight champion. Nebraska is trying to climb back up the ranks as the challenger.
That’s not the way it should be when two of the five programs with 900 wins to their name tap gloves, but it’s the way it is now. ESPN is here to see if the upstart might be ready to start something.
It’s the only way to take a game like this—and Nebraska’s had a lot of them over the years—from tune-up to title-bout. Someday, if the Huskers’ recent past is to be swapped for the past all Nebraska fans hope to revisit, this program is going to have to trade punches with a champ.
“Winning a big game against a good team is a hurdle we're going to have to jump over at some point,” Frost said.
We’ll see if that point happens to be this Saturday.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.