On the eve of Saturday’s game versus Texas, fans in Nebraska couldn’t have aligned the stars any more perfectly.
Feeling a bit of a swagger after a mauling of Kansas State the previous Thursday, receiving an extra two days rest in preparation and climbing to fifth in the AP Poll, Husker nation was riding high, especially considering they had eagerly awaited this game for a year.
To improve matters, things hadn’t gone in Austin, as they say in Texas, “The way you’da drawn it up.” Losing two straight and falling out of the Top 25, the Horns appeared, well, vulnerable.
Decked out in red shirts that read “redemption” and “0:01,” references to last year’s Big 12 Championship Game were rampant throughout the stadium. A game in which a review gave Texas one second to kick a game-winning field goal, which Nebraska coach Bo Pelini still expresses some doubt about.
The meeting had only been intensified by a tumultuous summer that saw Nebraska part ways for the Big Ten, and a late decision by Texas to hold a slimmed-down Big 12 conference together.
Already touting their Big Ten horn, the Huskers hoped, with their departure, to take a win over Texas and the Big 12 title as parting gifts, and maybe the national championship as well.
But beyond losing last year’s conference championship and beyond losing eight of the previous nine to Texas, the game could be defined as Nebraska versus a conference. It was no secret, that despite saying all the right things publicly through the years, it was a conference they had been at odds with since its formation in 1996.
Three notable times Nebraska had been on the odd end of 11-1 votes in conference decisions. The last one came after last year’s championship game, when Big 12 conference commissioner Dan Beebe proposed a vote to put the championship game in Dallas on a more permanent basis.
But Nebraska’s biggest problem with the Big 12 was that it seemed to be steadily slanting more and more towards appointed king Texas. Although all their conference brethren had grumbled about it, perhaps no institution was more offended and openly expressed their disdain for the conference as Nebraska had.
Shedding no tears, Nebraska aimed to depart after one season once the Big Ten invite came, and fought a conference bylaw that they owed a penalty for leaving.
Believe it, the Cornhuskers wanted nothing more than to beat the Big 12’s favorite son and run through the conference unblemished.
Already maligned as an unhealthy conference, nearly being pillaged to the brink of extinction, Nebraska could have delivered the ultimate punch in the gut: watching its undefeated conference champion thumb their noses at you as they head for what they perceive as greener pastures.
It’s not as if the Big 12 would’ve lost its automatic BCS bid, but it surely would’ve made them look second-tier in the eyes of college football establishment: "This is the best you have to offer, and they’re leaving?"
Take into account Nebraska’s press conference when they left. Nebraska chancellor Harvey Pearlman’s words can still be heard: “Early on, after the Big Ten announced that it intended to consider expansion, we saw reports that officials of Missouri had made clear that they would want to go to the Big Ten, including statements by their governor.”
Some took it as a middle finger, notably Missouri.
Yet, somehow Texas gathered themselves. A young quarterback and a team with many question marks were able to hold the Nebraska offense out of the end zone, and to 202 total yards.
Nebraska’s touted young star quarterback Taylor Martinez was benched in favor of last year’s starter Zac Lee. A 20-13 score never brought more sighs across remaining Big 12 country. Texas coach Mack Brown believed Nebraska and Taylor Martinez hadn’t faced a team the caliber of Texas.
“We knew he was really good, and we knew they were really good, but we felt like they hadn’t played players, except for maybe Kansas State, that had the foot speed, that could chase him like we have,” Brown said.
The conference still has viability, I suppose.
It’s unclear what subtraction will do to the Big 12 in terms of conference traction. There is the other argument that now that the divisions are gone, the conference is stronger, with spread-out scheduling instead of a schedule heavily weighted toward the South, but that’s another issue.
The conference may also still be biting its nails, as Nebraska's shot at the conference championship still exists. Not to mention, the animosity towards Nebraska may be unjustified. Perhaps Nebraska is right that the remaining Big 12 North schools would surely jump if they had the chance rather than stay a Texas stepbrother. After all, Colorado did as well.
Still, as the Texas players congregated and stood as the band played, they weren’t just playing for Texas. They were playing for a conference that, over the past year, had little to celebrate and, for now at least, the conference still retains its flag.