Published Friday, November 8, 2013 at 8:52 pm / Updated at 5:52 pm
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Shatel: NU-Michigan is a rivalry that never got started

This is no sport for old romantics. Like me and Jeremiah Sirles.

Nebraska plays at Michigan today, in a place they call the “Big House,” and there's a good chance I won't write that nickname for another five years. Unless Rutgers has a Big House.

It's the last time the two historic Nebraska and Michigan programs will meet until 2018. After three years, the series will take a break. That's not even enough time to call anyone arrogant.

This was not the reason Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2010, but the Michigan game certainly didn't hurt. It made the move north and east a whole lot more exciting.

But what college realignment giveth, it also taketh away. The unwieldy monster has swallowed up bigger games than this. Texas vs. Texas A&M comes to mind.

Call this the rivalry that never was. And never will be.

“I know there's nothing we can do about it,” said Sirles, the senior Nebraska offensive tackle. “But (Nebraska vs. Michigan) was going to be, in my opinion, the Nebraska-Oklahoma or the Nebraska-Texas. It was going to be Nebraska-Michigan, every year, great programs, solid coaching staffs, great tradition.

“The fact that this is going to be the last one that's going to happen for, what, four years? That's something that's sad.”

Well, he's right. But it's not Oklahoma sad. Miss Michigan? I don't even know Michigan.

Oh, it had potential. The 1997 national championship debate provided a backdrop and easy conversation. A couple of sparks to start the fire.

Anytime you put those helmets together in those two classic stadiums, it's a sight to see. Admit it: Michigan visiting Memorial Stadium last year was a keepsake.

It's what we older generations like to call tradition. Now, tradition is often defined by whatever the TV Expansion committee says, or whatever Halloween costume Nike lays out in the Oregon locker room this week.

For the record, Nebraska-Michigan was always going to feel like something secondary. Michigan has Ohio (State) and then Michigan State on its priority list. This was never going to be the game for Michigan. Ever. And that's one reason it was expendable.

Maybe you're like me, and you wonder why the Big Ten wouldn't want to set up this dance every year, just because millions might happen to tune in. Isn't that why you invite a Nebraska into the fraternity?

But the Big Ten wasn't finished yet. Now there are 14 mouths to feed, and everyone wants Michigan (and Nebraska) to come fill their stadium. It's not hard to figure out: When you invite East Coast markets in Washington, D.C., and New York, you put those members into the same division as Michigan and Ohio State every year, so those people will have a reason to watch Big Ten football.

No, it's not the winged helmets we'll miss. It's the idea of Nebraska playing one of these kinds of games.

Back in the Big 12, there was an Oklahoma or Texas on the schedule poster every year. Even if OU or Nebraska was down, or Texas was annoying, it was still that game you couldn't miss. Got the blood pumping. In June.

Looking at the Huskers' schedule the next two years, it's hard to find that game. Unless it's Miami.

But then in 2016, Oregon and Ohio State come onto the schedule. I suppose then I'll be complaining there's too much of a good thing.

That's going to be life in the Big Ten. It's hard to know what the Big Ten West holds, or even what life might be like with a 16-team Big Ten one day.

But it's quite likely that there may never be another Oklahoma-type rivalry on the Nebraska schedule. It will have to come from Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota or Northwestern. Hard to imagine a “Game of the Century” out of that bunch. Oh, well. Nebraska doesn't return many punts these days anyway.

Without the regularity of those kinds of games, it makes the games a little less fun for us romantics, in the press box or the bleachers.

That's why I'll certainly enjoy this last trip — for now — walking up the hill on the Michigan campus to that giant bowl of a stadium. Gray skies and a little rain are expected. Wouldn't have it any other way.

Today's matchup is a fitting storyline of this series. Before the season, this looked like Nebraska's biggest game, the one to decide the Legends Division. Now, it's a little anticlimactic. Michigan and Nebraska are playing to see who wants to chase Michigan State.

Both teams have their youth, their veterans, their injuries and their disappointments.

Both coaches have been under fire. The critics have found Brady Hoke, and this week the third-year Michigan coach had to defend his program from being called soft. Most think the Wolverines will burst through the “Go Blue” sign with chips attached to their shoulder pads.

Which band of Huskers will show up? A beat-up version, to be sure, led by a redshirt freshman quarterback and a young defense with new-found swagger. But they'll bring the momentum of the Hail Mary, aka the “Mustache Miracle.” That was the moment of the year, unless they can dig in and provide an encore this afternoon.

It's there, if Tommy Armstrong can handle the immensity of the stadium. And if a battered and bruised Devin Gardner isn't as mobile, that might play into the Blackshirts' hands.

Meanwhile, the poets and dreamers can pretend that's Bo Schembechler and Tom Osborne down there, directing Brian Griese and Scott Frost with a bouquet of roses waiting for the winner. Better yet: the 1997 national championship trophy.

Some people won't have to pretend.

“That's a huge game,” Sirles said. “That's why you come to these schools. Each one of us is saying the same thing: Let's go out being the winners of this last game of the series.”

Do it for old times' sake.

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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