Welcome USC and UCLA, Nebraska Is Happy to See You

Conference Realignment and NCAA Rules Changes Are Working to NU’s Favor

Opinion • By Thad Livingston

The Huskers take the field in 2012 at UCLA’s home field at Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California. The Bruins beat Nebraska in both 2012 and 2013.

Have you come down from the high yet?

No, I’m not talking about the Husker softball team’s Big Ten championship. Which, these days – I admit – does rank among the biggest news in Husker Athletics.

And folks, Nebraska will take all the championships it can get, softball or otherwise. Congratulations. But the big news I’m talking about is USC and UCLA joining the family in 2024.

It’s been almost two months since the announcement, and I’m still somewhat staggered, often finding myself pondering the long-term effects of this wonderfully unexpected happenstance.

The Huskers, in a fly-over state with little recent athletic success – enter the requisite volleyball exception here – are right in the middle of the coolest club in college athletics, also known as the Big Ten, and the jealousy is palpable. There’s SEC resentment. We’re still the best football conference! Some bring up logistics. Good luck with the travel! And the cultural differences. Tinseltown vs. states with small towns.

Then there’s the irony of feeling sorry for a school like Kansas just months after the Jayhawks won a national basketball title. We are among the best basketball programs in basketball-loving America. Can we come too?

Sorry boys. We told you the toxic Texas thing would blow up eventually. But we’ll put in a good word for you with our friends Michigan, Ohio State, USC and UCLA at the next pool party over in the gated community.

I know, snobbishness doesn’t wear well in Nebraska, but then again, it’s not Nebraska’s fault the college sports Pangaea is separating in such a way as to position Nebraska in an ideal climate in which to thrive, while other perfectly fine universities are sliding to the cold, harsh poles where survival is difficult and few venture.

One glance at a sepia photograph of a polar explorer – beard frozen, face awkwardly windblown, coat made of four dead goats and hugging a penguin – is proof enough you don’t want to be out there.

The cover of the game program from USC's visit to Memorial Stadium in 1969. The Trojans won, 31-21. The next year, the Huskers and Trojans played to a 21-21 tie, but Nebraska would go on to win a share of the national title.
The cover of the game program from USC’s visit to Memorial Stadium in 1969. The Trojans won, 31-21. The next year, the Huskers and Trojans played to a 21-21 tie, but Nebraska would go on to win a share of the national title.

It’s perfectly understandable why Kansas, which is actually good at something, would be pulling out its feathers in frustration.
Kansas fan is looking at Nebraska and saying, “Herbie, you’re only in the cool club because of events more than two decades in the past.” Herbie can counter by saying, “I have a fan base that continues to fill a huge football stadium and there are Nebraska expats and football connoisseurs spread across the nation who know the Husker brand and who will watch me play on their televisions out of nothing more perhaps than morbid curiosity.”

OK, maybe Herbie doesn’t say the morbid curiosity part, but he wouldn’t be wrong.

To most of the country, Herbie was born on third base. They don’t remember – or care – about the mid-1990s. They view the great Husker teams of the early ’70s much like Herbie views the great Minnesota teams of the mid-’30s and early ’40s. Wait, Minnesota was good at football? Yep. I Googled it. True.

The lens most people see Nebraska through is this: Since 2011, when Nebraska joined the Big Ten, its records in football are 9-4, 10-4, 9-4, 9-4, 6-7, 9-4, 4-8, 4-8, 5-7, 3-5, 3-9. Those last four are Scott Frost’s.

It’s almost not worth mentioning, but the second-most watched sport, men’s basketball, has this to show for its 11 years in the league: 12-18, 15-18, 19-13, 13-18, 16-18, 12-19, 22-11, 19-17, 7-25, 7-20, 10-22. Those last three are Fred Hoiberg’s.

Instead of the Big Ten, Nebraska has somehow performed as if it joined the NFC North and the Central Division of the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

When it comes to football, I have the feeling Nebraska’s all-to-often miserable play – at least in the beginning – somehow boosted the confidence of others in the league. It shouldn’t have. Nebraska hasn’t been Nebraska since joining the league. It’s not them, it’s, well, us! Nebraska has not been what the league thought it was getting, and that’s a bit scary with tectonic shifts rumbling through college sports every other year.

But for now, with USC and UCLA, two of the shiniest brands in the land, shaking the landscape, along with several NCAA rules changes, Nebraska football is in position to take major steps back toward relevance.

Here are some reasons why:

Money, of Course

The Big Ten media rights windfall will put Nebraska on a level few will be able to approach. Remember, Nebraska sells out a 90,000-seat stadium seven times a year. Men’s basketball and volleyball are also revenue producers. There is also Big Ten Network revenue and other revenue we won’t go into here. As of this writing, the league’s massive new media rights agreement is reportedly anywhere from seven years for $7 billion to nearly $8 billion starting in 2023. According to a Los Angeles Times report on this magazine’s deadline, there are “financial escalators” that could push it to almost $10 billion. That puts each Big Ten school’s annual payout at an estimated $62.5 million on the low side, and depending on the escalators, it could be much, much more. The LA Times also reported the deal is backloaded and increases significantly in Years 3 through 7.

For comparison, one projection for 2022 many media types point to has each vested Big Ten school receiving around $57.2 million under the old deal, which would already be the highest in the country. It’s true the Big Ten was doing just fine without USC and UCLA, and was already in line for a mega media rights deal. With the two newcomers, it will be even larger.

Fox, NBC and CBS are all on board, and Big Ten games will be televised in three different time slots each Saturday, and still other games will be on BTN and there’s talk of a streaming package. Good heavens, if it seems like the Big Ten will be taking over college football, that’s because it is.

Much has been made of the Big Ten’s pending split with ESPN, which will be all-in on the SEC, and will now have money to spend on the Big 12 and Pac-12, which is good for those two leagues. Having a predictably smaller presence on “College GameDay” will hurt, and having ESPN pumping the SEC 24/7 will push the Big Ten into the shadows, at least in some homes.

That said, in the era of cord-cutting, the Big Ten suddenly is on three national over-the-air networks in three different time slots. So, if you have a television, you can watch Big Ten football for nine hours each Saturday. You don’t need cable.

Regardless, until the next shake-up at least, schools in the Big Ten and SEC stand head and shoulders above those in other conferences. Over time, it’s not a stretch to say those are the two conferences where the best players and best coaches will want to be. They are where the nation’s eyeballs will be fixated. That means most of the rest of the schools in the country are potential feeder schools. Current coach not getting it done? Open the vault, pay him off and grab the guy who’s proved he’s ready for the big time after cutting his teeth at one of those suddenly “less elite” schools with comparative paltry athletic budgets – like Florida State, Baylor or Arizona.

If that’s too much of a stretch for you, look at it in the most practical terms: As any administrator will tell you, it’s a luxury to have profits to pour back into your product and spend time working with your staff to find ways to make your product even better. And it’s drudgery being forced to cut spending and talent to meet budget, which in the end, hurts the product and just makes everyone miserable.

Nebraska will be the former group. For as far as the eye can see.

Athletes I

A reason often cited for Nebraska’s rough go in the Big Ten is that it lost its recruiting pipeline to Texas when it left the Big 12. If so, that same theory now should work to Nebraska’s benefit in California. Texas has about 30 million people. California has 40 million. Nebraska is the closest school in the Big Ten to California. Nebraska has always recruited California, but the competition is tough. It just got easier now that the two premier California football schools are moving Nebraska’s way.

Athletes II

It bears repeating: If you are truly a top athlete coming out of high school, it will be hard not to be attracted to one of the two conferences that provides the best coaches, the best training, the best competition, the best facilities and the most national media coverage.

The Shake-Up

USC and UCLA will take the monkey off Nebraska’s back. As Nebraska did, USC and UCLA will shoulder the burden of losing their identities and having to reshape them in a league with a different mentality. The Trojans and Bruins will poo-poo this notion, and then after a decent win, will realize they have to play the next game with two third-string offensive linemen because three in the two-deep got hurt in their “big win” and a fourth had to move to bolster the defensive line because the starting defensive tackle got put in concussion protocol.

Husker receiver Jamal Turner evades UCLA defenders in a 2012 matchup at Rose Bowl Stadium, a game won by UCLA 36-30.
Husker receiver Jamal Turner evades UCLA defenders in a 2012 matchup at Rose Bowl Stadium, a game won by UCLA 36-30.

Also, the original Big Ten teams have been playing each other since the ball was stuffed. Nebraska gave them a new toy to smash – something to get excited about. Now it will be USC and UCLA who will get to be the league’s new tackling dummy. They will get everyone’s best shot. And won’t it be compelling television when Southern Cal plays a November game in Ann Arbor when it’s windy and 15 degrees?

Where’s the Beef?

At Nebraska, which has adjusted to the league in the most important way – finally. Here, I give kudos to the nutrition and strength staffs. Last season, while not a success, finally proved there is enough beef up front on both sides of the ball to be competitive. The Big Ten is all about lineman attrition. You can’t have too many big bodies. Build from the inside out.

The flashy stuff comes second. The few real good teams have both. Nebraska has stacked the bodies, now it needs to execute and let the flash, well, flash.

New Rules

NIL, the transfer portal and football’s one-time transfer exception all present timely opportunities for Nebraska. The league’s monetary windfall will help make Nebraska, already a good landing spot for “free agents,” an even better one.

Nebraska wisely took the portal plunge and used the summer as a second recruiting cycle, attracting 16 transfers. NIL money undoubtedly helped and will continue to help. As the years roll on, Nebraska’s facilities and fan base should continue to attract highly thought-of transfers. And the new football facility, new coaches and a decent season this year could ignite prep recruiting for the 2023 and 2024 classes.

There are schools that pride themselves on not turning to the transfer portal – Clemson for one. Iowa, too. They like to send the message that “we’ve done our homework and we already have the players we want and they like us, too.” Good for them. We’ll see how long that lasts.

Nebraska has always used anything it could to its advantage. Proposition 48 helped build the powerhouse teams of the ’90s and then the NCAA changed the rules. Nebraska pioneered strength and conditioning and then everybody else caught up. The list goes on.
It’s hard to say that conference realignment, NIL and athletes switching schools like they change their daily underwear are good things for college athletics. But are they good for Nebraska?

Nebraska has a history with UCLA, playing the Bruins 11 times since 1972. Nebraska won seven of those games, and also won the last matchup, 37-29 in the 2015 Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, California. Pictured here is the 2012 Nebraska-UCLA game in Pasadena.

They sure are.

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