Be careful, college conference jumpers
For everyone scrambling for that greener grass just across the way in the next conference, it might be time to pause and reflect on the benefits of tradition.
There’s the comfort and joy of longstanding rivalries. There’s a sense of being connected to a history as deep as fans’ passion. There’s the familiarity of knowing the styles, tendencies and strategies of common opponents and coaches.
There’s no comfort in kicking off a new era in a new conference — like, say, the Big Ten — and getting crushed 48-17.
Yep, I’m talking to you, Nebraska. Hope you enjoyed your soft landing out of the now shaky and potentially crumbling Big 12. Hope just as much that you enjoyed your warm welcome to the Big Ten at the hands of the Badgers, their dynamic quarterback and a brand of football you may not yet be ready for.
On Saturday night in Lincoln, Big Ten moment No. 2 will get underway against Ohio State, and once that’s over we’ll know a lot more. The Buckeyes might already have losses to Miami and Michigan State, but they remain a storied program in a conference Nebraska is not familiar with. Anything can happen — which is exactly what fans of wandering-eye universities should keep in mind.
On Tuesday, Missouri’s board of curators gave its chancellor permission to look into conference realignment. The smart money is on the Tigers joining Texas A&M and bolting for the SEC.
Who knows? Maybe it’ll all work out. Maybe Nebraska, despite being at a scouting and preparation disadvantage in having to play unfamiliar teams all season long, will get its mojo back and clean up moving forward in the Big Ten.
Maybe A&M will be successful in the SEC. Maybe Mizzou’s move south will mean a safer landing pad and a football team that continues to hold its own.
Maybe, if the Big East comes apart or gets raided, or schools like BYU make a change, the schools that find new homes will end up enjoying living in them.
Thing is, come what may in the long run, there’s a short run that may be less pleasant than fans grasp. Just because a school like Nebraska or Mizzou or anyone else finds a fit they like elsewhere doesn’t guarantee all their hopes and dreams will suddenly spring to life.
Just look around the sport. Colorado and Utah are a combined 0-3 in their first year as members of the Pac-12. Texas A&M, though not officially in the SEC yet, lost to SEC member Arkansas last week and has lost six straight games against teams from the conference. And then there’s TCU, reportedly headed to the Big 12 next year but not inspiring much confidence after a 3-2 start out of the gate this season.
I’d bet Missouri (if they go) and A&M (too late) get crushed in the SEC next year, and probably for a long time going forward. I imagine Nebraska is going to find the Big Ten tougher territory than they thought, even during a supposed down year like this one.
For the Cornhuskers, there’s some added importance to making their Big Ten transition a quick and easy one.
Despite being teed up in the Big 12 North where, presumably, they should have been the team to beat, Nebraska had instead just finished a lost decade. They have not been in the Top 5 since 2001. They have not won a conference championship since 1999. That’s a long time since the program Tom Osborne built was remotely relevant.
So, it’s even more troubling that in their opening Big Ten game they were beat the way they used to beat everyone else — by simply getting manhandled. Wisconsin was bigger, tougher, meaner. They rolled over a Nebraska team that once rolled over them in the same way.
Wisconsin aside, it’s a down year for Nebraska’s new conference. Michigan is rising, but not ready, Iowa is off this year (but given it’s a Kirk Ferentz team, they won’t be for very long) and Penn State is not what they once were.
So, as Nebraska cedes some edge in its adjustment to playing all these unfamiliar teams, the conference they once knew inside out is also down — Kansas a joke, Texas beatable, Missouri solid but not insurmountable, a place where a very good team like Nebraska might have been able to finally break through.
The time, then, is now. If Nebraska can’t get it done in its first few years in the Big Ten, they might be staring at another lost decade blossoming before them.
So take care, everyone, and be careful what you ask for. Sometimes getting what you want — like the chance to trade tradition for something new and shiny — can end up feeling like the last thing you need.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.