5 Things: Iowa football vs. Nebraska

Huskers and Hawkeyes have a couple fanbases feeling awful angsty

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The national cachet of having Iowa vs. Nebraska on Black Friday was kind of predicated on both teams being nationally relevant at the time of the game. When the 2020 and 2021 Big Ten schedules came out this year and it was revealed the game was going away, more than a few were upset. Given where both teams are now, the decision makes a little more sense.

If the Heroes Game IS nationally relevant on Friday, it’s because Mike Riley probably is coaching the Huskers for the final time. So, with all that positivity in mind, here’s 5 Things: Iowa vs. Nebraska. And since this week has been so angsty, let’s go with a mid-2000s emo-pop-punk theme.

1. “I Miss You”

Former Nebraska athletics director Shawn Eichorst famously or infamously fired former Huskers head coach Bo Pelini after a victory against Iowa in the 2014 Black Friday affair, which was puzzling on a number of fronts – not the least of which was the estimation that Iowa wasn’t good enough to beat and save your job.

In his seven seasons as head coach in Lincoln, Neb., Pelini went 66-27. His Huskers teams never won fewer than nine games and won 10 games three times.

At the time, there was a lot of support for Eichorst letting Pelini go. People wrote about good not being good enough, especially at Nebraska. But consider the following:

During Bill Callahan’s tenure, Nebraska won nine games once, and was 27-22 over four seasons. Since Pelini was fired, Nebraska is 19-18 in three seasons under Mike Riley. The Huskers finished ranked in the top 25 four of the seven Pelini years, reached the top 10 twice and at least No. 18 in six of his seven years. Dating back to 1962, Nebraska has been ranked at some point during all but four seasons – two of which have come in three years of Riley. The Huskers have not lost eight or more games since 1957 – a Hawkeyes win would be the eighth loss this year – and have only lost seven games five times in that time frame. Riley went 6-7 in his first year, 9-4 last year and is 4-7 so far this year.

Oh, and Eichorst is gone now, too.

The grass is always greener on the other side, right? There are a lot of factors into whether or not a coach is doing enough at a given job, but it shouldn’t really be an argument whether the Huskers were better off with Pelini than Riley.

Maybe the folks husking corn don’t miss Pelini, but they probably should.

2. “Move Along”

Operating under the assumption that Riley is coaching in his last game at Nebraska, it’s probably worth looking ahead to who might take over.

Wait. That started weeks ago. Wait. It started before this year did.

It’s an unfortunate thing for Riley, who seems amenable and affable, if not a downright nice guy. But nice doesn’t have much staying power, especially when a fanbase has a set of expectations – rational or irrational. And he’d probably be one to tell you it’s part of the job at this level.

We won’t get into a trove of candidates here. Instead, let’s look at two: the most likely and the most fun.

Most likely: current Central Florida head coach Scott Frost. Frost was the quarterback for the 1997 co-national champions at Nebraska and currently has taken the Knights from 6-7 in his first year – which followed 0-12 under Danny Barrett and George O’Leary – to 10-0 and No. 15 in the College Football Playoff rankings. The desire to have the favorite son return was building before this year, but it’s reached a fever pitch – to the point where you can spot some UCF gear in Lincoln. His return would fall in line with a recent trend in college sports.

Most fun: current Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema. Bielema has not had a fun go of it leading the Razorbacks. Competing head to head with Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State in the same division of the SEC would make life difficult for anyone. Bielema’s return to the Big Ten would be fun on a few fronts. It would put him at odds with his alma mater for a second time. It would be polarizing in Lincoln, Neb., Iowa City and Madison, Wis. It would also probably mean Nebraska would get good again, which would make this rivalry relevant nationally.

Maybe it’ll be one of them. Maybe it’ll be neither. But one can hope.

3. “Welcome to the Black Parade”

As mentioned above, Mike Riley seems like a nice guy. In the face of turbulent times the last three years on and off the field, he’s kept his composure and answered all the questions he’s been asked. Usually, those answers have been pretty measured.

But then his news conference a week ago happened and all of a sudden he was internet fodder. In speaking about the state of the team, he said the following:

“This place has maintained their passion for their teams and Huskers football for a long time, and I’m certain that they will continue to do that, and they should,” Riley said. “I love this team, I love their approach every week. We have had very few issues, except for the games, and I appreciate that, the work that they try to do and get ready, and same with the coaches. And I’m positive that the fans will forever love their team.”

It was the “except for the games” part that made people react like that surprised guy in the GIF everyone uses. It’s like, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

His overall meaning makes sense. Despite everything against them, the team has kept its resolve and they haven’t quit on him. But man, that line. If only they didn’t have to play those pesky games, things might be a lot easier.

4. “Sugar We’re Going Down”

There’s been a lot for Iowa fans to be angry about over the last two weeks. Some of it’s been definitely fair, others more than a little irrational. But one thing everyone should have free reign to scratch their heads over is Josey Jewell not being a finalist for the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker.

Apparently, in that award committee’s estimation, Michigan’s Devin Bush, Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds, Wisconsin’s T.J. Edwards, Clemson’s Dorian O’Daniel and Georgia’s Roquan Smith were all more worthy than Jewell. Jewell has 113 tackles – fourth overall in the nation and third in tackles per game – 12.5 tackles for loss, eight pass breakups, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. His tackles for loss are 34th nationally and ninth among linebackers.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario where he’s not a finalist, but they didn’t ask the advice of most of us wondering about it.

If there’s something to be happy about, though, it’s that Josh Jackson went from not being a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award to being a finalist and likely one of the favorites to become the second Iowa cornerback in three years (Desmond King) to win it – after never having one before that. Five interceptions in two weeks – including two pick-sixes – and one of the best individual interceptions of the year will do that.

The Hawkeyes are going to go out swinging with both of those guys, and both are deserving of awards.

5. “All Downhill From Here”

Anyone who’s bet either of these teams this year probably has bypassed gray hairs and gone straight to white.

Iowa now is 4-6 against the spread this season and is 0-4 on the road, with a couple brutal beats. Nebraska is 4-7 against the spread this season and is 0-6 at home. Something’s got to give, right?

The line opened at Nebraska plus-2.5 and has since moved to Nebraska plus-3. The over-under is 54. How either of these teams gets to 27 points is a mystifying question, but maybe that’ll be different when two less-than-stellar teams face off.

There’s almost nothing to indicate which version of Iowa will show up on Friday. So, the lesson as always: never bet, kids.

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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