Good morning, Vegas. What do you know that we don’t?
It’s Saturday. Finally. Mercifully. If Nebraskans ever needed a game, it’s this Saturday.
Maybe not this game.
The road to the College Football Playoff goes through Lincoln (as Husker fans stand on the side of the road, watching the parade go by). Michigan State is on that road. Sixth-ranked Sparty is on a mission to compile victories and style points, in that order.
Playoff committee member Tom Osborne will likely be in the house, watching coach Mark Dantonio’s machine in person.
And you wonder if Osborne will recall that day 20 years ago, when his Big Red Machine chewed up MSU in East Lansing, and Osborne pulled Spartan coach Nick Saban aside afterward and said, “You’re not that bad.”
Translation: 1995 Nebraska was just that good.
Will Dantonio say that to first-year Husker coach Mike Riley tonight?
Will a healthy Michigan State maul a down-on-its-luck Nebraska team that has listened to its fan base argue all week about the program’s talent level?
Vegas says not so fast.
I usually hesitate to read too much into Las Vegas sports lines. These things are done by smart people, who want money to flow in one direction or the other. This intelligence has built monuments in neon lights on the Vegas strip.
But Vegas is very rarely wrong when it comes to these things.
And Vegas has Sparty favored by six in a game that looks like the perfect storm of blowout.
How? Won’t Michigan State’s physical lines wear down Nebraska’s beat-up bunch? Won’t savvy senior quarterback Connor Cook have his way with the NU secondary?
What do they see?
Maybe a Nebraska team inspired by the news that its athletic director is having his contract extended.
Maybe a Michigan State team that hasn’t been dominant against Purdue, Rutgers and Indiana.
Maybe a rested Tommy Armstrong going against a Sparty pass defense that has its own leaks.
Maybe the last two Nebraska-Michigan State games: a close game in 2013 until MSU pulled away late, and NU’s near stunning comeback in East Lansing last year.
Maybe, just maybe, a Nebraska team that responds with a great game because everyone says this program has hit rock bottom. Just ... because.
And maybe because this is what Riley did at Oregon State, occasionally playing David to the Goliaths of the Pac-12.
So help me out here: Nebraska is going to play a complete game and finish against the best team it has seen all season? A team getting healthy, coming off a bye week with every reason to play well?
In a season that makes no sense, this would fit right in.
Nothing makes much sense around Lincoln Land these days. The proud program is officially dysfunctional.
Fans argue vehemently about the former head coach and the talent and culture he left behind.
Is this a rebuilding project? The athletic director says yes. Some fans agree. Others disagree. Back and forth we go.
The former NU volleyball coach, who retired in 1999, came out and accused Bo Pelini of leaving behind a poisoned culture. Some folks agree. Nobody can point out specifics.
Back and forth we go.
Meanwhile, the chancellor who retires next June offered votes of confidence this week, took his shots at Pelini and said he’s going to give the athletic director an extension on a contract with two years left.
Somewhere beneath it all, there is a 62-year-old football coach trying to figure out how to coach a team he didn’t recruit, manage the climate and put on happy faces for a strong collection of recruits in town for the game.
Look, there’s an opening. Jordan Stevenson, a four-star running back, just left the team. Oh, the timing. You can’t make this stuff up.
Wasn’t it just 2011?
Four years ago, Nebraska was new in Jim Delany’s hood, having played in back-to-back Big 12 title games. Ninth-ranked Michigan State, coming off a last-second win over Russell Wilson’s Wisconsin team, was once-beaten and playing for big stuff.
One methodical 24-3 win later, Husker types rolled their eyes at Michigan State’s effort and the way the Spartans shrugged at the loss. Typical Big Ten?
And wasn’t it just 2012?
Nebraska and Taylor Martinez stormed back to win at East Lansing on the way to six straight Ws and a division title. And MSU lost another close game on the road to a 7-6 season.
These two looked like ships passing in the night.
They were, but we weren’t paying attention to the course.
Here in 2015, Dantonio has built a model program: tough, physical and full of good, smart football players. In the last two years the Spartans have won the Big Ten championship, the Rose Bowl and the Cotton Bowl. They now recruit nationally.
Is there a better trio in the Big Ten than MSU’s Dantonio, basketball coach Tom Izzo and Athletic Director Mark Hollis? Nope. And this in a state that leans toward maize, blue and Harbaugh.
Michigan State football once wanted to model itself after Nebraska. But now the mirror has two sides. The Spartans are old-school Nebraska, not flashy but coldly efficient. And wouldn’t you love that résumé?
Husker fans are afraid of going the other way, of becoming Oregon State. It’s not fair to Riley to say the old coach can’t adjust, can’t grow into a new setting with new expectations that have hit him squarely in the face.
But Riley needs to do his part, and this season has not inspired confidence from Riley or this staff. They need to change the narrative. They need some luck. The unexpected.
Could that come tonight?
Ask Vegas. That’s their department.
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