Sunday, October 21, 2012

Nebraska preview: Going to a one-horse town

"One is the loneliest number you can ever do;
Two can be as bad as one;
It’s the loneliest number since the number one.”
- Harry Nilsson
Come this Saturday, the Michigan football program will do something it has not done in almost 20 years – make a maiden voyage to a collegiate institution for a critical conference game.
The Wolverines, having completed the first of a three-contest gauntlet in order to earn a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game (Dec. 1 in Indianapolis), will go where no Michigan man has gone before in the modern college football era – to Lincoln, Nebraska.
Not since U-M journeyed to Happy Valley for its first encounter with the 11th member of the Big Ten (Penn State), on Oct. 16, 1993, has Michigan gone to a facility it has never seen, playing before a crowd it has never heard and having no idea what conditions will be in Lincoln.
It makes for a fascinating experience.
This will be the eighth game between the two schools with U-M leading 4-2-1. The first contest goes back to 1905 when Michigan won 31-0. Six years later, Michigan made its only trip to Lincoln for a 6-6 tie. In 1917, Michigan won 20-0 and that was that for 45 years.
In 1962, Nebraska returned to Ann Arbor to whip Michigan 25-13 and neither school played each other in the regular campaign until last season.
They met in two different bowl games – the 1986 Fiesta Bowl (a 27-23 U-M win) and 2005 Alamo Bowl (a 32-28 NU victory).
Long has the legend of Big Red Country been known throughout the Central Plains of the U.S. Game Day Saturdays at Memorial Stadium involve long tailgating parties, fans dressed from head to toe in bright red and all of them (well in excess of 82,000) screaming at the top of their lungs. It used to be said that the crowd in Memorial Stadium exceeded the population of every Nebraska city, except for Omaha.
Well, that’s not quite true … in fact, Lincoln (named for President Abraham Lincoln after originally tabbed as Lancaster, Nebraska, and serves as the state capital) is the third largest city housing Big Ten institutions.
For the record, only Columbus (797,434) and Minneapolis (382,578) are bigger than Lincoln (258,379). And to take it further, West Lafayette (Purdue) is the smallest (29,596), followed by State College (Penn State at 42,034) and East Lansing (MSU at 48,579). Ann Arbor is actually the fifth-largest Big Ten city at 113,934 (a far, FAR cry from the sleepy City of Trees when I was a U-M student).
But on Saturdays, in the autumn, all eyes in that state turn to Lincoln; there is NO other major football (or sports) program in the entire state. It is truly a one-horse town when it comes to sports.
Once upon a time, it split ownership of the old Cincinnati Royals of the NBA (with Kansas City) from 1972-85, before relocating to its current home in Sacramento. Even back then, most of the games were played in Kansas City, Mo., which took sole location possession in the 1976 season.
And while Creighton basketball has had its moments, as has NU hoops and baseball, it’s ALL about Husker football in every café, barber shop, diner, playground and corn field. There are other states with dominating athletic programs, but those with no professional teams and single state schools aren’t big enough to challenge the likes of NU. I’d argue this situation (where one single sport plays such a role from border to border) is unique to Nebraska.
Nebraska football sports a proud history and heritage. The 2012 season will continue a string of 50 YEARS of consecutive sellouts at Memorial Stadium. That field has seen some of the best players in college football history sport the red, such as Johnny Rodgers, Erick Crouch, Mike Rozier (all Heisman winners), Tommie Frazier, John Dutton, Ndamukong Suh, Irving Fryer, Roger Craig, Mick Tinglehoff, Broderick Thomas, Neil Smith, Pat Fischer, Dean Steinkuhler, Dave Rimington, Ahman Green, Vince Ferragamo, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Prince Amukamara.
While there are no such things as ghosts, there is a tradition of excellence in Lincoln. It WILL be spoken about in hush tones among the fans, and in louder words when action kicks off.
So on Saturday, Michigan will step into the shoes the Huskers had to fill 12 months earlier – playing in a venue unique to that program. A year ago, Michigan dominated NU 45-17 before more than 113,000 fans, and the Huskers will have more than an adequate sense of revenge on their mind.
The importance of this game cannot be minimized by anyone. If Michigan can score a win on the salt plains, the momentum garnered should propel the Wolverines past Minnesota (on the road), Northwestern (at home) and Iowa (the home finale) before that fateful trip down south to Columbus.
I propose, because of the large unknowns involved (crowd, conditions, scheduling, it is THE game of the year for Michigan – not Alabama, not Notre Dame and not Ohio State. Nebraska is THE challenge and the biggest hurdle to the coveted Big Ten title every U-M player craves so much.
Even one-horse towns can be traps.

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