When Nebraska arrived to the Big Ten in 2011, the Cornhuskers were looking for a new rival. There were a few solid choices in the group. Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska all have a joint, three-way rivalry going, though the Huskers' hatred for either of those fan bases pales in comparison to Iowa and Wisconsin's hate for each other. Penn State seemed like a formidable foe due to some shared history, but geography and more conference realignment ended that one before it could even get started.
But one team that people never expected Nebraska to embrace as a rival was Northwestern. After all, the Huskers are big on their history, and NU football didn't really exist before 1995. Moreover, Northwestern never really wanted to consider Nebraska a rival the way Iowa and Wisconsin did. The only Northwestern-Nebraska rivalry that's been ignited so far is the one over the use of "NU."
The thing is, in the three years that Nebraska has been in the Big Ten, its games against Wisconsin and Iowa have been relative snoozers. The Huskers handily defeated Iowa in 2011, won a truly awful game in 2012 and got blown out in 2013. Wisconsin blew out Nebraska in 2011, and while Nebraska did win a close one in 2012, that was overshadowed by the Huskers' 70-31 loss to the Badgers in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Enter Northwestern. Despite this admittedly not being much of a rivalry on either side — somehow, both fan bases seem to like each other — this has inarguably been the most exciting Big Ten football series of the past three years. In fact, you could make the case that it's been the best one in the nation over that time period.
Last 3 gms b/tw Nebraska & Northwestern decided by combined 7 pts - smallest combined margin nationally for any 3 gm series over last 3 yrs— Dave Revsine (@BTNDaveRevsine) October 14, 2014
Every mini-era in the Big Ten has a series like this. Off the top of my head, I can name a two-year stretch of Michigan State-Wisconsin and a few years of Iowa-Penn State. I'm sure there are more, but this series really has everything. In fact, it's probably the most underrated budding matchup (or rivalry or whatever you want to call it) in college football. Here's a sample of what we've had so far.
A major upset
The first Northwestern-Nebraska meeting really set the tone in this series. In danger of not making a bowl game, the Wildcats needed to upset Nebraska in Lincoln to feel comfortable about their chances of making the postseason. Dan Persa went down early with injury, but Kain Colter (more on him later) played a tremendous game to stun the ninth-ranked Huskers.
The game certainly didn't spark any hate between the fan bases, and Nebraska fans seemed to be more in awe than anything else, but it was a spectacular performance, and it is still probably the Wildcats' best win since they beat No. 4 Iowa in 2009. More than anything else, it made it clear that this was a series to watch.
First, let's talk about Kain Colter always seemed to be at his best against Nebraska. This GIF from 2013 really encapsulates that.
Like ... what!?!?
That might not have even been Colter's best play, either. He did everything from throwing to running to passing against the Huskers in 2011, and his dive to the pylon for a touchdown in that game was absolutely stunning. Colter made these games far more exciting than they otherwise would have been, and without him, we probably wouldn't be writing this today.
The same goes for Taylor Martinez, who was particularly impressive in 2012. He had 400 yards of total offense in that game and marched his team back for a win.
A game that lives up to the hype
After the 2011 matchup, the 2012 game was the biggest on Northwestern's home schedule. The Wildcats looked like they could make a run in the Legends Division, and the saltiness of the last matchup hadn't worn off in Nebraska. From the new black uniforms to the droves of Nebraska fans to the storylines from the previous season, the lead-up to this game was more than anyone could have anticipated for a Northwestern-Nebraska game.
And the game itself didn't disappoint. The Wildcats were up by 12 midway through the fourth quarter, but they lost the lead thanks to Martinez's heroics. A rare missed field goal from Jeff Budzien in a drama-filled attempt spoiled the Wildcats' chances, but it was an outstanding game, nonetheless.
The Hail Mary
So ... what do we make of this series?
No, this isn't a rivalry. Neither team thinks so. But it feels so wrong to not call this series a rivalry because of how good it's been over a three-year stretch. I won't go there, mostly because Nebraska fans would flip out.
But whatever this is, it sure has been a hell of a lot of fun. Let's keep that up on Saturday.