Photo Credit: Eric Francis

The Beauty of Being in ‘Fake First Place’

October 07, 2022

Let’s call it the plausible deniability game.

If you watched Nebraska beat Rutgers, 14-13 Friday night in New Jersey, it was hard to feel like these weren’t two of the worst teams in the Big Ten. The pair combined for 652 yards, which is just a slightly above average day for Ohio State. They scored 27 points, all told, about what Michigan is averaging in the first half of games so far this season.

The difference between the Scarlet Knights (0-3 in Big Ten play) and Huskers (2-1) really looked like about one point. In past seasons, that would be a five-alarm fire.

In this season, under interim coach Mickey Joseph, it just is what it is. There’s no bigger picture right now. You don’t have to worry about what struggling against Rutgers on the road on a short week says about Nebraska, about what it means for beating Iowa the day after Thanksgiving.

That’s for later, and the luxury of what’s left in 2022 is that it’s only about now.

This feels weird, I know. When Nebraska was down 13-0 to the Scarlet Knights at halftime—its biggest strength (the offense) a weakness, its biggest weakness (the other side of the ball) playing pretty well given the circumstances—I wondered how to even approach a “that was bad and surprising” column. Written enough of them over the years, but it was always easy then because the past 20 or so years of Nebraska football have always been about the big picture. Few wins could just be wins, and every loss had the capacity to be a catastrophe depending upon the context.

But none of that applies to the rest of this season. Is that a sign of how bad things got? Sure, but that’s in the past.

In the present, it presents something you don’t often get at a program like Nebraska even if the passionate fan base that keeps it among the game’s bluebloods despite the recent results—i.e. the last decade—would appreciate the status fretting about everything confers.

Indiana and Rutgers might be two of the only three Big Ten teams ranked below Nebraska in most of the power rankings right now—Northwestern being the other—but so what? The Huskers hadn’t won back-to-back conference games since 2018.

Now they have, and the unique context of 2022 is it’s a season where you, too, can actually enjoy the fairly standard coachspeak.

“We take one game at a time with ‘em,” interim coach Mickey Joseph said after the Huskers rallied to beat Rutgers by one. “Our goal was to be 1-0 this weekend and we’re 1-0, so we done won two straight. But I’ll tell you this, they’re starting to believe and they’re starting to see it. They hadn’t done this. This is kind of strange for them.”

The past: “Yeah, that’s what every coach says.”

The present: “Holy crap, he’s right.”

And Joseph is. Nebraska hadn’t won a one-score game since the end of the 2020 season. That one was also against Rutgers, in New Jersey, and it was also fairly ugly. The Huskers were awful for a half, the quarterback maddeningly turned it over and then was great in the second half as Nebraska turned it around.

That was the end of a weird season. Rallying to beat Rutgers then, rationally or not, had something to say about the future even if that future was 200-some days away.

This win over Rutgers this year gets to exist simply as something that happened on a Friday night. It offers plausible deniability because, no matter what else happens this weekend, Nebraska will still be tied for first place in the West come Sunday morning.

The game itself may have said Nebraska isn’t first-place material––as fun as that was for everyone to mention after beating Indiana––but nobody can deny that’s where the Huskers will be come Sunday morning.

Do you have to do some mental backflips to put any stock in it even though it will be technically true? Sure, but it’s better than the reality of potentially being in last place.

“First place is when we end the season, not now,” Joseph said. “It’s fake first place.”

Joseph is being completely honest there. There should be no doubt that’s his actual approach.

It’s fake first place to Joseph because he played in Lincoln. He knows what it should be, or at least can be. It’s fake first place, I think, to most Nebraska fans because they’ve seen what it can be and believe as ardently as anyone that’s what it can be again.

That’s the permanent pressure Nebraska football will almost always feel.

Except for right now. “Fake first place” may indeed be fake, but, over the last two games at least, it’s as good as it gets.

How long has it been since the Huskers were as good as they could be?

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