How Nebraska Became the College Football Playoff's Ultimate Dark Horse

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterNovember 11, 2014

Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., center, prepares to throw in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Purdue in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. Nebraska won 45-14. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Nati Harnik/Associated Press

In hindsight, "Don't You (Forget About Me)" by Simple Minds was probably about Nebraska football—even if it was recorded was almost 20 years ago.

That's what the Huskers are saying: Don't you, the College Football Playoff selection committee, forget about them.

The playoff picture is slightly clearer after Week 11, with Auburn, Kansas State, Michigan State and Notre Dame all but officially leaving the conversation. That picture will continue to get clearer as a pivotal month of November rolls on.

But with the committee set to release its latest Top 25 on Tuesday evening, where do the Huskers fit in? Nebraska was on a bye last Saturday yet sits at No. 11 in the latest Associated Press and Amway Coaches polls.

In both instances, the Huskers are one spot ahead of Michigan State, a team they lost to in October.

Not that those polls matter in the playoff conversation, but it gives you an idea that voters around the country think Nebraska is at least on the perimeter of the postseason chatter.

Nati Harnik/Associated Press
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The fact is that Florida State and Mississippi State interchangeably occupy the top two spots as long as they keep winning. It's spots Nos. 3 and 4 that are up for grabs. Oregon, TCU and Alabama are likely the three teams jockeying for those slots. Big wins by Arizona State, Baylor and Ohio State should put those three teams in the discussion as well.

Again, though, what about Nebraska? It seems unconventional for a playoff dark horse to come from a power-five school—you would think that label would belong to a mid-major—but that would be the best way to describe Nebraska at the moment.

The Huskers (8-1) have one loss—a "good" one, if you will—on the road at Michigan State. They also have a solid nonconference win over Miami. That's more than Mississippi State and Ohio State can say.

As Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com told Tom Dienhart of BTN.com, Nebraska could actually be the Big Ten's best chance at a playoff spot:

"I would say their resume would be slightly better than Ohio State’s,” Palm told me this morning. “Because their loss is to Michigan State. They played Miami (Fla.) outside the league. That’s a decent team. If Nebraska has no chance (at the playoffs), then Ohio State has less than no chance. I think 12-1 Nebraska is a better candidate than 12-1 Ohio State—but only slightly."

What has hurt Nebraska, in both perception and reality, is Big Ten conference play. Bo Pelini's team hasn't proved much outside of the Miami win. Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue and Rutgers are a combined 15-22, and the Scarlet Knights are the only one of those four with a winning record.

Then there's the reputation of the Big Ten and Big Ten West, both of which have taken considerable hits this year.

Following a disastrous Week 2 for the Big Ten, Tom Fornelli of CBSSports.com declared that the Big Ten West was the worst power-five division in college football. Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer suggested that the Big Ten felt dead on arrival following that week.

Both were accurate assessments at the time. The Big Ten went 8-5 that week but did not beat another team from a power-five conference.

Many of the wins against lesser opponents were closer than they should have been, including Nebraska's escape over McNeese State.

So Nebraska, like the rest of the Big Ten, fell off the map. After all, rankings should be based on what you've done so far, and Nebraska has what amounts to one quality win. 

However, this season has shown that few things are truly off of the table in September or even October. Nebraska can close out the season as strongly as any team in college football.

The Huskers, currently atop the Big Ten West, play at No. 22 Wisconsin this Saturday. Whether do-it-all running back Ameer Abdullah is ready to play after suffering an MCL sprain against Purdue remains to be seen, according to ESPN.com's Mitch Sherman.

Nebraska's Remaining Regular-Season Games
OpponentRecordDate
at Wisconsin7-2Nov. 15
Minnesota7-2Nov. 22
at Iowa6-3Nov. 28
ESPN.com

The game will feature the top two rushing offenses in the Big Ten, per cfbstats.com. However, Nebraska's offense was sluggish without Abdullah against the Boilermakers, recording a season-low 297 total yards. His return is crucial, to put it lightly.

The Huskers then get Minnesota before closing out the season at Iowa and would presumably meet Ohio Stateor possibly Michigan Statein the Big Ten title game. Winning out wouldn't guarantee Nebraska a playoff spot per se, but it would absolutely put the Huskers in the conversation.

At the very least, it feels like a necessity.

It will be interesting to see where the committee puts Nebraska in the latest Top 25. As Fox Sports' Stewart Mandel points out, rankings aren't solely supposed to reflect the win-loss column. It's possible a two-loss Ole Miss, for example, could still be ahead of Nebraska:

That would add more ammo to the dark-horse label for Nebraska. The Huskers aren't the center of the playoff conversation or even in the next group of it.

As Ohio State showed throughout the course of the season, though, staying on the down low isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the outlook can change at a moment's notice.

That moment for Nebraska, the team everyone forgot about, could come with a win over the Badgers.

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All rankings reflect the latest Associated Press standings unless noted otherwise. 

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