As far as rivalries go, Iowa vs. Nebraska in football leaves much to be desired

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Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez looks for room to maneuver against Iowa last season at Kinnick Stadium. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa – It takes more than facing each other on Black Friday in the regular-season finale to make a rivalry legitimate.

It takes more than two opposing fan bases despising each other to make a rivalry legitimate.

And it takes more than being from bordering states and being in the same conference to make a rivalry legitimate.

Iowa and Nebraska have all of that in common in football, and yet, their annual showdown, which continues on Friday in Lincoln, Neb., still falls short of being a legitimate rivalry.

It falls short because there hasn’t been enough time for it to develop into a rivalry with Nebraska having only joined the Big Ten in 2011.

It also falls short because the series, which dates back to 1891, has mostly been one-sided with each team having the upper hand at different times throughout.

Iowa will try to make it five wins in a row against the Cornhuskers on Friday, which means no current Iowa player has ever lost to Nebraska.

That was news to Iowa senior quarterback Nate Stanley.

But how is that a rivalry?

Before Iowa’s current dominance in the series, Nebraska won eight of nine games against Iowa from 1903 to 1917, with the one exception being a 6-6 tie in 1909, and eight games in a row from 1931 to 1941.

Iowa then won four of five games in the series from 1942 to 1946, and then Nebraska won seven of eight games from 1979 to 2012.

The series has gone back and forth, but rarely has it been from year to year.

Nebraska linebacker Collin Miller apparently tried to fuel the rivalry on Monday when asked about Iowa’s current four-game winning streak in the series.

"I mean, it sucks, those guys not respecting us,” Miller told the Nebraska media. “They come into Lincoln and think they can win this with ease, that this isn't a real rivalry, you know?

"It definitely hurts. But we just use that as momentum. I think the guys are really focused in, dialed in, knowing this is a big week. We really want to show everybody we're here.”

Iowa senior linebacker Kristian Welch was told on Tuesday what a Nebraska player had said about a lack of respect, and Welch responded in predictable fashion.

“We can’t control what they think, what they say,” Welch said. “We’re just focused on ourselves, and how we can continue to play better. We need to improve.”

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz also dismissed any suggestion that Iowa doesn’t respect Nebraska.

“I have no idea where that comes from,” Ferentz said. “All I know is it took us a fourth-down conversion and a good field goal to win last year. It was hard. One thing we try to teach our players is to respect every opponent that we play and respect what it takes to win. I think that's one thing if you play college football long enough or coach it long enough, you realize just how difficult it is to win a game against anybody. So yeah, we respect everybody we play.

“That's week in and week out, and that's opponent after opponent after opponent, whether it's Middle Tennessee or last week it was Illinois, it really doesn't matter to us. They're all -- that's how upsets happen. We've been involved in a few of those through the years, too. You have to always respect what it takes to win.”

Ferentz can take satisfaction in knowing that his players have bought into the belief that every opponent deserves an equal amount of respect.

Welch even refused to say if he had a biggest rival, and he declined to answer when asked if there is one opponent that he would pick to beat over all others.

“No sir, I can’t,” Welch said. "I can't pick a team there, any of them."

The way Welch sees it is just how his head coach sees it in that every game matters, and every opponent deserves respect.

“Anytime you can go play and put the Tiger hawk on and put that helmet on and represent what Iowa football has been in the past and the present, and eventually the future, that’s going to be the main focus,” Welch said. “Whoever we’re playing, that’s just the opponent in a sense.

“If the opponent has to motivate you in order to play your best football, I think you’re in it for the wrong reasons. If you’re truly a competitor and you want to be a great teammate, you’re going to strap it on and you’re going to go 150 percent that you have every single game, every single play. Not only for yourself, but the teammates next to you.”

Nate Stanley sees a risk in ranking one opponent over another as a rival because the Big Ten is too deep and talented to stray from the one-game-at-a-time mentality.

“Overall from top to bottom, the Big Ten is extremely physical,” Stanley said. “You see it every year, and almost every week. There’s somebody that shouldn’t win, wins. Any given weekend somebody can beat another team.

“And I think that’s just the way it is, and for us to say that one game is more important than another does disrespect the other teams in the Big Ten because as a whole, the Big Ten is very competitive. Every team in the Big Ten can compete and can hold their own against pretty much anybody.”

If the Nebraska players truly believe that Iowa disrespects them, there is only way to fix that, and that would be winning for a change.

Nebraska hasn't defeated Iowa since its former athletic director, Shawn Eichorst, made his infamous comment about having to evaluate where Iowa was as a program just two days after having fired Bo Pelini as head coach in 2014.

Nebraska had just rallied from a 17-point deficit to defeat Iowa 37-34 in overtime at Kinnick Stadium, but that wasn't enough to save Pelini's job as Eichorst tried to explain.

Iowa fans resented what Eichorst said, and apparently, so did the Iowa players and coaches, because Iowa hasn't lost to Nebraska since then.

But just because an athletic director makes a a silly and condascending comment doesn't add to a rivalry. If anything, it's made it worse as Nebraska continues to struggle against Iowa, and against lots of opponents, in year two under Scott Frost.

Nebraska, at 5-6, has to beat Iowa to qualify for a bowl game, and it doesn't happen, that would be three years in a row without making a bowl game for what used to be one of the most storied programs in college football.

That is certainly incentive, but hardly the roots to a rivalry. 

The series won’t have the unique Black Friday stage, at least over the next two seasons, with Iowa set to play Wisconsin in the regular-season finale on the final Saturday in 2020 and 2021.

As for the lack of respect narrative, that’s not how the Iowa players and coaches feel about Nebraska. They have a lot of respect for Nebraska as they do for every opponent.

It could be that the Nebraska players are looking for some kind of mental edge on Friday, and are are almost creating bulletin board material.

But it takes more than imaginary bulletin board material to make a legitimate rivalry.

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