I received a message from a reader on Saturday with a question I didn’t have an answer for. Now, there are plenty of questions I don’t know the answer to because I’m just an idiot who writes about sports for a living, but this question is directly related to one of those sports.
A few hours after Nebraska lost 41-23 at home to Illinois, and shortly after Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano threw a pick-six that helped finish off the Vols in a 30-17 loss at Auburn, the question from “Mike C” appeared.
“Which school wins a conference title first? Nebraska or Tennessee?”
Now, this isn’t the first time the comparison of Nebraska and Tennessee has been made. They’re both programs that won national titles as recently as the 1990s but have fallen into a cycle of mediocrity since.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been posed the question, either, but I had an answer or at least a theory when asked before. I’d always believed that Nebraska was the most likely. The reasoning for it was relatively simple.
While a lot of time has passed since each school last won a title — 23 years for Nebraska, 22 for Tennessee — the Cornhuskers haven’t been “down” as long. The Vols haven’t won 10 games in a season since Phillip Fulmer’s penultimate season in 2007. Nebraska had three 10-win seasons from 2009 to 2012 under Bo Pelini and have had five nine-win seasons since Fulmer left Knoxville. So they seemed closer.
Plus, as members of the Big Ten West, Nebraska had an easier path to victory. The gap between it and programs like Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern didn’t seem as wide as the one between Tennessee with Georgia and Florida (the gaps between both and the Ohio States and Alabamas they’d face in a conference title game were the same).
But it feels like Nebraska’s regressing right now. When Scott Frost took over the program, there was such a sense of optimism about the program. Frost was a native son who had played for the program during its glory days and had just led UCF to unprecedented heights. He was supposed to lift the program, but instead, he is going the wrong way. I mentioned that Nebraska has five nine-win seasons in the last 12 years, and, well, Mike Riley, the guy Frost replaced, had one of them. In fact, Riley went 19-19 in three seasons with the Cornhuskers, including 12-14 in the Big Ten. After Saturday’s loss to Illinois, Scott Frost is now 10-18 and 7-15 against the Big Ten since arriving in Nebraska.
Meanwhile, Tennessee came into 2020 with high hopes, or at least as high as could be reasonably expected, given the conditions this season is being played in. The Vols finished strong last year and began the season ranked in the AP Poll. They even managed to climb to No. 14 following a 2-0 start, which was somewhat optimistic by pollsters considering the two wins were over South Carolina and Missouri, but, hey, it’s been a weird year for everyone.
Tennessee has dropped five straight since. While losing games to Alabama, Georgia and Auburn can be understood and forgiven, losses to Arkansas and Kentucky can’t be overlooked considering where the program wants to be. Now there are once again rumblings about another possible coaching change, as Tennessee might want to start the cycle of disappointment over again.
I’m not writing this because I think either coach should or will be fired. Personally, given the circumstances of 2020, I’d have a tough time firing anybody for what happens on the field. I’d give both Frost and Pruitt — and any coach — another season, but I understand that’s not how this business works. I’m only writing this because I was so caught off guard by my ability to answer Mike C’s question that I figured I’d work it out this way. And guess what? I think it worked. I have an answer.
Which of these two programs is closer to winning a conference title? The correct answer is neither.Purest Reaction of the Week
This screenshot grabs Tennessee linebacker Quavaris Crouch having the same reaction every Tennessee fan had when they saw Auburn’s Anthony Schwartz just standing there waiting for the ball to drop in his arms with nobody near him.
OK, Tennessee fans, don’t worry; I promise I’m done with your team for the rest of the column. Nebraska fans, well, I’m sorry, but there’s more to come.Three-Card Monte Play Design of the Week
OK, so I had absolutely no idea where the ball was on this play when watching live. I even noticed when Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler stepped to his left and was no longer taking the snap. I also sensed that he took the handoff after the snap, but I one billion percent believed he’d tossed it to the receiver coming around on the reverse. And Rattler didn’t even fake a toss or handoff there! It was all the receiver’s perfectly-timed arm motion that fooled me. So, yes, I watched the receiver when Rattler continued to roll out and find a wide-open Jeremiah Hall for the touchdown.
Also, the touchdown gave me hope that the over was going to hit. How a game between these two teams features 40 points in the first half and only 14 in the second half is the biggest mystery of all.Bad Timing of the Week
On Saturday, BYU posted this photo of QB Zach Wilson wearing a headband that says “Any team, any time, any place.” It was a message that said BYU is willing to play anybody that wants to play it, which was difficult to question at the time, considering the Cougars were about to play North Alabama. If that doesn’t prove you’re willing to play anybody, what will?
Anyway, a little over 24 hours later, that proclamation came into question. The Pac-12 announced Sunday that The Apple Cup between Washington and Washington State had been canceled. A little while later, The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman reported that Washington was trying to schedule a game with BYU, but it turns out BYU wasn’t willing!
Later, Yahoo’s Pete Thamel reported that BYU is willing to play the game, but they want it locked in. They don’t want to risk losing the game because the Pac-12 decides Washington should play another Pac-12 school if another game is canceled.
Of course, none of this stopped people from dunking on BYU repeatedly, and I get it. It’s a pretty easy joke to make, and easy jokes are often the best. Still, if I’m BYU, my motto would be “Any team, any time, any place, depending on where we are in the College Football Playoff Rankings on Tuesday night.”
I know it’s fun to pretend that BYU has a playoff case, but as I wrote last week, it’s unrealistic. At best, BYU is playing for a New Year’s Six at-large. And, depending on where it’s ranked come Tuesday night, it might have a lot more to lose than to gain by playing Washington. Because, let’s be real, BYU beating Washington wouldn’t be enough to get it to the top four anyway. But losing to Washington would be enough to knock it out of the NY6 conversation. So, if I’m BYU, I’m waiting until Tuesday night before I make any decisions about scheduling additional games.Big Man Touchdown of the Week
Rumble, big fella! Rumble! Daviyon Nixon showing once again how the big guys in the trenches are often the most impressive athletes on the field. Not only did he have the quick reflexes to bat the pass down and then catch it, but look at that cut back to the inside to secure the 70-yard pick-six. Fake Punt of the Week
This was an excellent call by the Illini in their win over Nebraska. You see after the snap how the offensive line immediately commits to getting downfield. By doing so, the Nebraska defense has to commit too. It either goes after the punt, or it gets back to try and block for a return. They choose Option B, which leaves Illinois punter Blake Hayes with a lot of room to run.
Or maybe there wasn’t as much room as it looks like. There appear to be some ghosts on the field that Hayes felt the need to juke.Deleted Tweet of the Week
Shortly after Illinois beat Nebraska, it continued the newest college football tradition of burying its opponent on social media. The Illinois Athletics account tweeted, “Good game Nebraska. Thanks for bringing back B1G football.” A nod to Nebraska being so openly angry about the Big Ten’s initial decision to delay the season until the spring and then complaining loudly enough that Nebraska was given credit for causing it to happen when the conference reconsidered.
It was a great tweet. One that somebody in the Illinois athletic department did not appreciate because it was deleted once it started getting attention.
But the internet never forgets.Rankings Complaints of the Week
If they were to play on a neutral field right now, or hell, have a rematch in Ames, I would pick Oklahoma to beat Iowa State nine out of 10 times. I think the Sooners have found their groove as Spencer Rattler has settled into the quarterback spot, and the defense has had a couple of key players enter the fold. Still, on-field results have to mean something, or else there’s literally no reason to be playing the games.
So as long as both Iowa State and Oklahoma are 6-2 on the season, and one of those two losses on Oklahoma’s resume came courtesy of the Cyclones, there is no logical reason to have Iowa State ahead of Oklahoma in the poll. Granted, I expect the College Football Playoff committee to take a similar approach on Tuesday night. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Sooners in the top 10 there simply because the committee wants to leave the door open to a possible playoff berth for them.
But AP voters have no reason to concern themselves with such things. Nobody should have Iowa State ahead of Oklahoma on their ballots. Yet.
While I’m here, a 5-0 Northwestern with a win over Wisconsin is ranked No. 11, but a 3-0 Oregon with wins over Stanford, Washington State and UCLA (a combined 2-5) is at No. 9. So Northwestern has more wins and better wins, but it’s two spots behind the Ducks because the Ducks started higher than it did in the polls. That’s some thought process.College Football Playoff Projection of the Week
This time it counts!AlabamaNotre DameOhio StateClemson
Until the next Monday After!