First, and least significantly, is the very real possibility that Nebraska will get beaten (and yes, potentially clobbered) by the powder blue-clothed Bruins (that is, unless UCLA embarrasses itself by wearing those hideous Blackout unis). If Nebraska loses, they will finish with 8 losses, making this the worst season since 1961 (by percentage) and since 1957 (in total losses). Right now, at 5-7, the 2015 Huskers are tied with the 2007 Huskers, who gave up a million yards and points to everybody, so at least it isn’t as bad as that. But put a big, old 8 in the loss column, and well . . .
Second is having the season dredged up again. I want to forget this year ever happened. Instead, for the next month, I have to hear about “four losses on the last play of the game” and how Nebraska’s one big win (Michigan State) was controversial and explanations as to why a 5-7 team is in a bowl game to begin with. (It also hinders my efforts to suppress all memories of the hideous black stain that is the Purdue game.) Participant ribbons and trophies generate fuzzy feelings, but to serious competitors (which Nebraska football alleges to be), they’re humiliating. It’s kind of like falling out of the bobsled and sliding to the bottom of the track on your backside, then being awarded a bronze medal because 17 other countries tied for second place. Pass.
Third, imagine (I mean, really let your mind go) that Nebraska beats UCLA. Now, forever when we look back at the history of Nebraska football and see all those Orange, Fiesta, Alamo, and Gator Bowl wins, we’ll also see the 2015 Foster Farms Bowl. Record: 6-7. #Asterisk. Even if we don’t win, whenever bowl pairings are announced, we’ll see stats like how many bowl games Nebraska has been to historically (currently, I believe we’re third all-time) or how many consecutive years they’ve gone to a bowl, and we’ll be reminded that, technically, 2015 shouldn’t have counted because Nebraska didn’t earn the bowl, by even the most rudimentary of standards. (Back to the bobsled analogy, imagine if you just had to somehow stay in the sled, even if you came down the tube backwards and it took you six minutes to do so, to get a medal of some metal. Nope, couldn’t even do that. But hey, here’s an award anyhow.) I’d rather just wipe the slate blank and start building a new bowl streak next year (hopefully).
Fourth and foremost is the embarrassment of having such low standards to accept the invitation. I get all the reasons to accept, but there is one main reason why the Huskers shouldn’t have, and it is emblazoned on the patches attached to every Husker jersey. There we see the words “A Winning Tradition.” Nebraska football is one of the winningest programs in college football. But lately, they’ve regressed. One might say they’ve gravitated toward mediocrity and failed to win the games that matter most. Mike Riley was hired to turn that around, and if he is to do so, he’ll need to instill a mindset of excellence at Nebraska again.
That mindset has two components. The first is the simple, bottom line of final score. Nebraska isn’t a win-at-all-costs program, and I think Mike Riley (like his predecessor) will stress the student part of student-athlete. But college football is a huge part of a university’s identity, especially at Nebraska. And while I’m all in on the “not the victory, but the action” aspect of things, there’s also a reason we have a scoreboard at Memorial Stadium. To quote former Jets coach Herm Edwards, “you play to win the game.” Seven times out of twelve this year, Nebraska was, by the most elementary measure of judgment, not excellent.
The second component is all about aspiring to greatness. About holding oneself and one’s teammates accountable. About recognizing that, for all the effort, intentions, and attitude (each vitally important), sometimes the results still don’t measure up. And that is also the case in the real world. Sometimes, you’re going to fail. I’m not saying that these Husker players will be “soft” in life because they’re accepting the equivalent of a participation trophy. But I would be so much more proud of “my team” if instead of enthusiastically going to play UCLA in Santa Clara, they had said, “Thanks, but no thanks. We didn’t get the job done. And we can’t in good conscience accept a reward we didn’t earn and don’t deserve. We demand better of ourselves. We demand better of each other.” Frankly, I think such a mindset would do just as much good as fifteen bowl practices. I think such a mindset would be more of a motivator to returning players as squaring off against a mid-level Pac-12 team. I think such a mindset would be a better life lesson to the seniors than any they might possibly gain by playing in the Foster Farms Bowl. And I think such a mindset would help endear a coach—who, let’s be honest, still has warm britches—to a fan base craving a championship team again while still priding itself on “in the deed, the glory.”