Black Friday dilemma: Wisconsin or Iowa?

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Nebraska football fans are among the only groups of people who seem excited about driving three more hours on a holiday weekend.

It's possible Wisconsin could replace Iowa as Nebraska's Black Friday BFF after the 2017 season. It's not as though the Iowa and Nebraska won't play one another regularly, which of course they will, but the majority of Nebraska fans that have contacted me about that prospect seem to believe Iowa is unworthy as the Huskers' Black Friday opponent.

For Nebraska, Black Friday is a rich tradition beginning in 1990 against longtime rival Oklahoma. That Friday series was switched to Nebraska-Colorado in 1996 when the Big Eight merged with four Southwest Conference schools to become the Big 12. Nebraska fans never considered Colorado an equal, which was confirmed by legendary Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne in 2011 saying, "Colorado jumped into the mix and said, ‘Well, we think Nebraska’s our rival.’ We didn’t necessarily feel that way. But they declared that as a rivalry, and so we started playing Colorado on the Friday after Thanksgiving."

In 2010, Nebraska was accepted as the Big Ten's 12th member. Divisions were set based on competitive balance using 17 years of data. Nebraska and Michigan were placed into one division, with Ohio State and Penn State put in the other. Iowa and Wisconsin, the next two squads, were divided with Iowa stapled to Nebraska.

The Big Ten's final weekend was set up for heavyweight clashes: Michigan-Ohio State (as always and forever), Wisconsin-Penn State and Iowa-Nebraska. When the 2011 schedule was announced, Iowa was coming off an 11-2 season while Nebraska was 10-4. It seemed natural, as did shifting the game to Friday. At the time Big Ten senior associate commissioner Mark Rudner called it "strategic."

“I think both of them were interested in trying to do something and make it big, and I think it worked out just fine,” Rudner said.

When the teams faced off on a gray Friday in 2011, Iowa was 7-4 and Nebraska was 8-3. Iowa had beaten Michigan 24-16 20 days earlier. Michigan pounded Nebraska 45-17 the previous week. Nebraska was a 9-point favorite.

What happened was the worst possible scenario. It was a dud. It was uncorked champagne without the fizz. Nebraska methodically stifled Iowa's offense and won the game in workmanlike fashion 20-7. Our company, which includes The Gazette and KCRG, sent 15 staffers to the game. Maybe we expected the Hatfields and McCoys from the opening kickoff. Instead we got indifference.

Entering last year's game, Iowa unquestionably was at its worst since at least 2000. Nebraska was a win from clinching the Legends Division outright. It was a mismatch on paper with Nebraska tabbed a 16-point favorite. With a horrific wind whipping in Kinnick Stadium, Iowa scored a touchdown early and secured a 7-3 halftime lead. Nebraska rallied, in part by inserting hobbled but tough running back Rex Burkhead, and pulled out a tough 13-7 victory.

Nobody pretends Iowa-Nebraska has emerged as a rivalry. Iowa still has century-long clashes with Minnesota and Wisconsin and a bitter in-state feud with Iowa State. Nebraska is still searching for its place in the Big Ten circle and with the divisions changing next year, there's no easy "hate game" for the Cornhusker faithful.

So when Rudner told me last week the league was considering shifting around season finales with Nebraska facing Wisconsin and Iowa returning to its traditional season-ender with Minnesota, Husker fans rejoiced. Wisconsin, which has won three consecutive league titles, is a program that garners respect in Nebraska circles. There's the Barry Alvarez roots (the Hall of Fame coach and current AD played for Bob Devaney), the color red, the big stadiums, capital city campuses and recent on-field success.

But when you closely examine the three programs, they're not all that dissimilar. Yes, Nebraska can throw trophies in the air and make it rain with pre-BCS crystal footballs. Three national titles in the 1990s (one was split with Michigan, and I'll say that 1994 Penn State was better) lends credibility to any program. In fact, there's a good argument that 1995 Nebraska squad might rank as the best ever.

To assess the programs today, you can't start with Nebraska's national bling, the most recent of which came 16 years ago. That skews the discussion from the start. And you can't cherry-pick the seasons to make a program look bad or good (like 2002 for Iowa). The only way is to fairly select a date and go forward. Since we live in the 21st century, the year 2000 makes the most sense.

Over those 13 seasons, Wisconsin has enjoyed 12 bowl campaigns, Nebraska 11 and Iowa 10. The Hawkeyes' 13-year run is bookmarked with 3-9 in 2000 and 4-8 in 2012. Nebraska had losing records in 2004 and 2007. Wisconsin was 5-7 in 2001. Iowa was bowl-eligible in 2007 but was not invited because then-NCAA rules demanded at-large bowls take teams with winning records over those at .500. South Carolina and Northwestern also sat at home that year.

From 2000 on, Iowa has played Nebraska three times (including a 42-13 shellacking in 2000) and lost all three by a combined score of 75-27. Wisconsin is 2-1 against Nebraska and the scoring margin is 145-75. Iowa holds a 6-5 edge against Wisconsin and a plus-68 point differential in those games.

The teams have similar bowl records since 2000. Iowa is 6-4, Nebraska is 6-5 and Wisconsin is 5-7. In BCS games, Iowa is 1-1, Nebraska is 0-1 and Wisconsin is 0-3.

The teams' records over 13 years is Wisconsin (116-54), Nebraska (113-56) and Iowa (99-64). Wisconsin has won three league titles, Iowa two and Nebraska none. Nebraska has won four divisional titles, Wisconsin two and Iowa none.

There's no doubt Iowa picked a bad couple of years to have a bad couple of years. Big Red's first impression of Iowa football is meh. But had Nebraska joined the Big Ten anytime before 2011, maybe the rivalry sizzles. Had that last second expired in the 2009 Big 12 title game and Nebraska upsets Texas, it's possible Iowa and Nebraska play in the Fiesta Bowl. Had the Big 12 not stepped in and advocated for Missouri in 2010, Iowa-Nebraska would have met in the Insight Bowl.

Contrary to popular opinion, Iowa has not had three straight 4-8 seasons. The Hawkeyes have competed in the last two years against Nebraska, although neither game will end up as a BTN Classic. Nebraska produced one of its greatest comebacks in a 30-27 thriller against Wisconsin, but was destroyed by a combined score of 118-48 in the other two games. It seems cyclical among these programs, and when they're in the West Division, that should be the case perpetually.

If the Big Ten makes a Black Friday switch, it won't happen until 2018. There's time for Iowa to get back on track and earn Nebraska's respect. But the only way to do that is to beat the Huskers when it matters. Otherwise Black Friday provides a black eye for Iowa.  

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