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Nebraska-Missouri Rivalry More Than a Century in the Making

Oct 7, 2009 – 10:05 PM
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Terrance Harris

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COLUMBIA, Mo. -- In terms of rivalries, Missouri-Nebraska still doesn't quite measure up to Ohio State-Michigan, Texas-Oklahoma or USC-Notre Dame.

That isn't to suggest this rivalry hasn't had its moments during the 102 previous meetings that date back to 1892.

But in recent years, especially since the Gary Pinkel-era began at Missouri nine years ago, this Big 12 North matchup has produced quite a few fireworks. There was last year's 52-17 spanking the Cornhuskers took from Missouri in their own Memorial Stadium, marking the first time since 1978 that Mizzou had won in Lincoln. In 1997, an unranked Missouri team came within a miracle catch of upsetting the No.1 Cornhuskers in a co-national championship year.

Since the beginning of the decade, Nebraska holds a narrow 5-4 edge in the series, while the winner of this game has been the North's representative in the Big 12 championship game the last three seasons.

All the trappings of a rich rivalry seem to exist: longevity, annual heated showdowns with tangible and intangible rewards, where records and rankings mean little and fan support is intense on both sides as each game seems to produce capacity crowds.

But....

"I really don't think of it as a big rivalry," Missouri senior linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. "It's been a fun game. When we go up there it's a nice atmosphere and when they come down here it's a crazy atmosphere like I've never seen at our stadium. It's more like a fun game to me than a rivalry."

For the Cornhuskers, Oklahoma is the team they mark the calendar for in the Big 12. Kansas is the program that does it for Missouri and its fans.

Truth be told, the Tigers would have killed to be considered rivals of Nebraska during the 1980s and 1990s when the Cornhuskers were one of the dominant college football programs in the country under Tom Osborne. Missouri always seemed to be looking up from the bottom.

But the fortunes of both programs changed as parity in college football has set in, paving the way for Missouri to attract talent away from Nebraska, such as quarterback Blaine Gabbert who switched his commitment from Nebraska to the Tigers. There is certainly a direct connection with the fall of the Cornhuskers and the rise of one-time North bottom-feeders Kansas and Missouri.

Missouri, the two-time Big 12 North champion, has won two straight against Nebraska, four of the last six meetings and three straight at Faurot Field. It's hard to believe this is the same series the Cornhuskers had a 24-game winning streak in from 1979 through 2002.

The Cornhuskers, who up to 1978 only held a five-game edge in the series, now hold a 63-35-3 advantage in the series that will see its 103rd installment Thursday night at Faurot Field.

"We've always had, and will always have, great respect for Nebraska," said Pinkel, whose team is trying to make it three straight in the series for the first time since 1967-69. "Nebraska, obviously, a lot goes with that name historically and traditionally. We've always had great respect for them; we still do.

"As far as a rivalry goes, from their standpoint, you'd have to ask them. I think we've played some good games against Nebraska. If you look at the win-loss record, they've beat us a lot more than we've beat them. They've certainly got a huge edge on us. But I think they're one of the best teams in our league, and one of the best teams in the country. So that's incentive right there. To know that we are going to play one of the best and you try to play your best game and try to win the best you can."

Second-year Nebraska coach Bo Pelini has yet to experience success against Missouri, having lost to the Tigers when he was the Cornhuskers' defensive coordinator under Frank Solich in 2003. Then there was last season's blasting.

"I don't know how much it's changed," Pelini said when asked how different has the Missouri-Nebraska game become in past years. "I haven't been here for many years. I think you create rivalries when you divide it North and South. It becomes a rivalry when you play somebody every year. It's a division game.

"The next game on your schedule better be a rivalry for you or you'd better approach it that way."

It's interesting because in this next game, the programs were supposed to be heading in very different directions. The Cornhuskers are the preseason favorites to win the North with Kansas close behind, while Missouri was thought to be in a rebuilding year because a good portion of the players from its most successful season are gone, including quarterback Chase Daniel.

But the Tigers are a surprising 4-0 coming out of non-conference play with Gabbert leading the way with his arm. Gabbert leads the Big 12 in passing efficiency after completing 66.4 percent of his passes while throwing 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in four games. Missouri, which is coming off bye, moved into the Top 25 this week for the first time this season after impressive wins against Illinois and at Nevada in September.

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Also, much of the credit to Missouri's early run has to be a testament to Pinkel's ability to coach and to stock the program with talent.

The Cornhuskers, meanwhile, have done little to dispel the notion they are on the way back with just one lucky play at Virginia Tech being all that separates them from a 4-0 non-conference record. One thing is for sure, they would dominate the Sun Belt Conference this season after beating up on three of its teams this season. Nebraska leads the nation in scoring defense, having allowed a very Blackshirt-like 7.0 points per game so far this season.

So could it be that Nebraska is really back and Missouri is here to stay?

"I'd like to think, 'Yes,' to both questions, but we still have a ways to go," Pelini said. "We'll see what happens Thursday. But every year I think both programs are good. We'll find out what happens this year. All I'm concerned about is this year.

"One game or a four-game season or one or two years doesn't do much for you. You have to do things over time, over a period of time and have consistency not only to be a good football team in a season, but over a long period of time. That's what both programs are working to do.

"As consistent as Missouri has been over the last few years, it's pretty easy to say they are here to stay."
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