LINCOLN, Neb. -- Three hundred sixty days ago, on a cold and harsh afternoon, Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst stood before his constituency, less than 48 hours after the Cornhuskers rallied from 17 points down to beat Iowa in overtime, and explained his decision to fire Bo Pelini by taking a dig at the Hawkeyes.
Asked if Nebraska’s comeback effort two days prior influenced his decision to remove the seventh-year coach, Eichorst said he “had to evaluate where Iowa was.”
“I have great respect for Iowa,” he said. “It is a wonderful institution and a great football program. But in the final analysis, their record was where it was, and our record was where it was.”
Translation: Neither team was relevant nationally. Eichorst was right. The Huskers and Hawkeyes were eliminated from contention in the Big Ten West a week earlier with home losses, respectively, to Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Only some 10 months later, as Iowa caught fire en route to an 11-0 start, the best in school history, did Eichorst’s evaluation appear short-sighted.
This is far from the outcome for which he hoped, but Iowa-Nebraska has rocketed from irrelevance to a game of significance nationally as the fourth-ranked Hawkeyes visit Memorial Stadium on Friday.
At stake? A spot in the College Football Playoff, though not for the 5-6 Huskers, of course, who need a win to avoid the school’s third losing season since 1962. But if you’re a fan of Michigan State or Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma or Baylor, this game matters.
The East Division teams want Iowa to win and arrive next week at the Big Ten title game with a perfect record. Other contenders need the Hawkeyes ejected from the playoff conversation -- and the sooner, the better, especially if Iowa could then take care of a one-loss East champ in Indianapolis.
Beneath that national veneer, the seeds of a rivalry planted five years ago, as Nebraska announced its move to the Big Ten, are sprouting.
The events last year at Kinnick Stadium on Black Friday accelerated the process. As Eichorst made his move to hire Mike Riley, the Hawkeyes agonized over the regular-season-ending loss. After Iowa went up 24-7 midway through the third quarter, it gained two first downs on four drives and surrendered 21 points in less than five minutes, courtesy of a leaky secondary and 134 Nebraska punt-return yards.
“It just didn’t feel good,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That was hard to live with.”
The intensity of Iowa’s offseason training, cited by the Hawkeyes as a key starting point to their 2015 journey, was rooted in the inability to finish against the Huskers. Strength coach Chris Doyle designed workouts that increased in difficulty at the end to reinforce the importance of finishing.
This year, Iowa has won four games by eight points or fewer but never trailed in the fourth quarter.
“It fueled us so much,” Iowa safety Jordan Lomax said of the loss to Nebraska.
Iowa center Austin Blythe said the Hawkeyes talked openly, starting in January, about specific areas of desired improvement. They are more “hard-minded” this year, he said, because of the experience against Nebraska. Sandwiched amid a three-game losing streak to end the season, it provided focus for Iowa.
“We know we don’t want to feel the way we did last year,” Iowa tight end Henry Krieger Coble said. “That is not the way we want to go out and play, especially in our last regular-season game.”
Motivation for Nebraska is easy. Iowa brings the highest ranking to Lincoln since No. 4 Missouri in 2008 and is the first visitor ever with 11 wins. It’s an opportunity for the Huskers to beat an undefeated team in November for the second time in four weeks -- it topped Michigan State 39-38 on Nov. 7 -- and the fourth time in 80 years.
“It’s Iowa,” Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said. “That’s all the motivation we need.”
Just like last year in the aftermath of this game, it will be cold on Friday. Ramifications for the loser will be harsh.
But in a reversal that Eichorst could not forecast, the outcome will resonate nationally.
“It’s going to be huge,” said Lomax, the Iowa senior co-captain. “They’re coming in with a goal to knock us off, and we’re coming in with a goal to remain perfect.
“We’re planning on going undefeated.”