Switched my pick to Iowa after evaluating where Nebraska is as a program

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Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent scores a touchdown against Nebraska last season at Kinnick Stadium. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Sooner or later, Nebraska will beat Iowa in football again.

In fact, Nebraska’s next win in the series would be its 30th overall against the Hawkeyes, who trail 29-17-3 in the series, which dates back to 1891.

So yes, the once mighty Cornhuskers still lead the series by a considerable margin, and in case you haven’t heard, which is very unlikely, they also used to have one of the greatest dynasties in the history of college football.

I say that half joking because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been reminded about those two things in preparation for Friday’s game in Lincoln, Neb.

Whether it a former Nebraska player doing a promotional tweet or a Nebraska fan poking fun of Iowa on social media, it’s always about the past, sometimes about the future, and never about the present with Nebraska.

Or so it seems.

The present still finds Nebraska 5-6 overall and one win short of qualifying for a bowl game, with just one game left to play.

That makes Friday’s game against Iowa a must-win for the Cornhuskers, but for reasons beyond just becoming bowl eligible.

A loss would be Nebraska’s fifth in a row against Iowa, and would be the final piece to a second consecutive losing season under Scott Frost, and a third consecutive losing season overall.

So while there is pressure on both teams to win on Friday, there is more pressure on Nebraska because you can only dwell on and celebrate your glorious past for so long.

At some point, you have to perform in the present, and a win on Friday would be more significant for Nebraska in year two under Frost than for Iowa in year 21 under Kirk Ferentz.

Iowa’s biggest motivation besides winning another Big Ten trophy game is the chance to win 10 games, and Nebraska stands in the way of that.

“It's nice to have those goals or visions and all that kind of stuff, but really what it gets down to is trying to get ready for this game, which means we need to utilize every minute,” Kirk Ferentz said when about the chance to win 10 games. “Those kind of fantasy goals, think about those during your off time, we've got plenty of time after this game to think about it.

“But it may be a moot point if we don't take care of what we do this week. So really what it gets down to is taking advantage of every day, and this week is a little bit unique. There is no day off day for our players. The off day is on Saturday.”

Hawkeye fans would have reason to be frustrated should Iowa lose on Friday, and in a bowl game to finish 8-5. Even 9-4 wouldn’t be cause for celebration because that was Iowa’s record last season.

But what would really change from a perception standpoint should Iowa finish 8-5 or 9-4 instead of 10-3?

Nothing would change.

Ticket sales might sag, but that trend already is happening almost everywhere except for at Nebraska where Friday’s game will be a 375th consecutive sellout at Memorial Stadium.

Iowa would certainly have more momentum, and probably more fans in the seats for the 2020 season opener if it finished 10-3 this season.

But even at 9-4 or 8-5, there still would be a sense of anticipation and acceptance because its Hawkeye football and fans always rally around the start of a new season, and because the 64-year old Ferentz is the all-time winningest coach in program history and is widely respected by most fans.

Ferentz already has earned a $500,000 bonus for winning eight games this season, so from an employee standpoint, his bosses already should be pleased.

Nebraska, on the other hand, is trying for that elusive breakthrough season under Frost, but a loss on Friday would end that chance because 5-7 hardly signifies a breakthrough season.

I picked Nebraska to beat Iowa in August and to finish 8-4 this season because I thought the defense would be better, because I thought dual-threat quareterback Adrian Martinez would be dominant and because maybe I bought into all the hype surrounding Frost’s much-celebrated return to his alma mater.

But instead, Nebraska is ranked 10th in the Big Ten in total defense and rushing defense, while Martinez has been hobbled by injuries that caused him to miss two games.

He also has just 10 touchdown passes and eight interceptions heading into Friday’s game.

But the biggest concern with Martinez is his ability to run and to scramble from the pocket. He essentially gives Nebraska another running back when the offense operates out of a single-back set.

“Their quarterback, he’s what makes their offense go,” said Iowa defensive end Chauncey Golston. “So stopping him will be like the main thing.”

Martinez had over 300 total yards against Iowa last season, and it took a last-second field goal by Miguel Recinos to quell Nebraska’s upset big as Iowa prevailed 31-28 at Kinnick Stadium.

Nebraska is coming off an impressive 54-7 victory at Maryland last Saturday in which the offense and defense both performed at a high level.

But it's hard to know for sure what that means because Maryland often folds faster than a blanket at the first sign of trouble or resistence.

Nebraska is trying to climb back to Iowa’s level, but a loss on Friday would be a step backwards for a program that has been in decline ever since former Nebraska Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst made his infamous statement about the Iowa program.

Nebraska had just defeated Iowa for the third time in a row in 2014 at Kinnick Stadium, and yet, Bo Pelini still was fired as head coach despite having a 9-3 record. Eichorst was asked if finishing 9-3 made it harder to fire Pelini and that’s when Eichorst referred to Iowa.

“Our kids showed great character and resiliency in a tough environment, so it did play a factor,” Eichorst "But in the final analysis, I had to evaluate where Iowa was.”

Iowa is where Nebraska hopes to be under Frost because you have to climb to Iowa’s level before having any thoughts of being a national power again.

“I think stability is huge,” Frost said in reference to Kirk Ferentz being the longest-tenured head coach in college football. “I think experience is huge. He’s got a lot of both of that. It's been a long time that he has been building that program and nurturing that program and recruiting the type of kids he wants in that system and developing them.

“We are a long way from being in a place that long, but obviously, he has done a good job there. You know what you are going to get with Iowa and they are a physical team. They are disciplined. They are not going to give you anything easy. Play hard on defense and have really good scheme on offense. They are going to make you earn it, and like I said I have a ton of respect for him and for the program he has built.” 

And for all of the reasons that Frost just mentioned, I’m switching my pick to Iowa because I had to evaluate where Nebraska is as a program.

Prediction: Iowa 30, Nebraska 24