Big Ten already buzzing about Cornhuskers

Published 2:05 am Thursday, August 5, 2010

CHICAGO — Not too long after Nebraska joined the Big Ten, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema approached the league with a request: How about a Badgers-Huskers game to finish the season?

“It was something I felt strongly about,” Bielema said. “And I thought it would be neat. So that’s all there is to it.”

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said fans around his state would constantly ask about playing their Big Red neighbors.

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“I think that will probably take care of itself now,” he said.

Nebraska won’t play football in the Big Ten until next season, but the Huskers already have the full attention of the Big Ten, from its coaches to its fans. By adding one of the most storied programs, the Big Ten will have 12 teams and enticing possibilities that go with it.

A championship game in football? Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany expects there to be one next season at a site to be determined.

What about those six-team divisions? Delany hopes to hash that out in the next 30-45 days. Competitive balance and rivalries will be considered along with geography, with a nine-game league schedule possibly coming in a few years.

Further expansion remains a possibility even though that’s on the back burner for now, and Delany reiterated he doesn’t see Notre Dame joining if the Big Ten decides to grow again. He also said again that the league’s name will remain the same, even with 12 teams.

But the big theme around the conference this week was change. Specifically, expansion. And to a large degree, Nebraska.

“I think it will be a real good addition, really good people, they run a good program and obviously it’s going to be a very competitive team,” said Penn State coach Joe Paterno, whose history against Nebraska dates back to when he was a Nittany Lions assistant coach.

Nebraska brings five national titles in football, three Heisman trophies and a loyal fan base to a conference that was looking for more exposure for its TV network.

The Huskers are leaving behind conference affiliations with Iowa State, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Kansas State that date to the 1920s, and it has football rivalries with the Tigers and Jayhawks that are more than a century old.

There are long-standing traditions, rivalries, that might be wiped out, yet there are also tantalizing possibilities in the new conference.

How does Nebraska-Ohio State sound? What about Penn State? Or Michigan?

The Huskers have long histories with Minnesota and Iowa even though they last played the Gophers in 1990 and Hawkeyes in 2000.

No matter who they’re playing, it’s safe to say the Big Ten Network wouldn’t mind having that game.

“I think adding a program of the scale and quality of a Nebraska does more to us than I think anyone can really put into a specific, size of a specific market,” network president Mark Silverman said. “I mean, Nebraska is as big ticket a football market nationally as there is. And being able to show Nebraska football games on our network is going to greatly increase the relevance of the network and the distribution of the network nationally over time, like few other schools would, in my opinion.”

On the field, Nebraska looks like a good fit, too.

Wisconsin running back John Clay sees the Huskers as “another twin of ourselves” in work ethic and attention to details.

“We can start up a rivalry,” he said. “It’ll be good experience for us to play each year, the last game of the year.”

That’s something his coach would love to see.

Wisconsin has played Nebraska only five times and not since 1974 even though Badgers athletic director and longtime coach Barry Alvarez played there. Bielema said they tried to schedule a home-and-home a few years ago but it never panned out.

“Coach Alvarez, because of his history and tradition of playing at Nebraska, thought it would be a neat crossover game for us,” Bielema said.

In Iowa, Ferentz won’t have to answer that question anymore. The Hawkeyes and Nebraska have played 41 times but only six times since 1946 even though they’re in neighboring states.

“People in Iowa are certainly excited about it,” Ferentz said. “I think, more importantly, for the entire conference it’s very positive.”