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CBSSports.com Senior College Football Columnist

As Huskers make debut, Big Ten football has lost uniqueness


At some point in recent years during this national mish-mosh of market share, realignment, boards of regents and conference rejects, actual Big Ten football became homogenized.

The style -- the thing that made it a conference for all those decades -- is now mixed in with the rest of the sport's gene pool. Three of the most iconic words in college football are no longer Big Ten football, they are Big Ten Network. Cable-system carriage seems more important than total carries. Foot speed has been replaced by footprint.

Woody and Bo are now Luke and Danny. Legends like Red Grange and leaders like Eddie George used to be labels for people, not six-team divisions.

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Ohio Stateand Michigan have new coaches. Sadly, neither one of them has yet destroyed a yard marker. The one-time Big Two are now part of an even dozen which calls itself Ten. It seems like at one time or another, half the league is running the spread option. Just. Like. Everyone. Else.

When we weren't looking, the Big Ten became Made in China. It used to be a forearm upside the head. Now its major NCAA violations in Columbus and Ann Arbor. It's no surprise that the nation's leading rusher is from Michigan, but this one's a crazy-legged, dreadlocked dervish who plays with untied shoes. And he's a ... quarterback.

Did Brady Hoke ever think he would see the day?

"Probably not," Michigan's coach said, "but he's fun to watch."

And if this particular Michigan Man, a Bo protégé, is going to make his mark this season, Denard Robinson's fantastic, impulsive, elusive runs are going to be the key.

That's why Nebraska and Wisconsin don't have to wear throwbacks Saturday, they are throwbacks. Someone had more than ratings in mind when they decided that Nebraska's first Big Ten game would be in Madison. They were thinking of history and tradition. They had old-time Big Ten football in mind. Imagine that.

The matchup comes just in time. The Big Ten hasn't seen a top-10 game between conference rivals in three years. Back then, Terrelle Pryor was a mere freshman fumbling away a game. His career and legacy would soon follow.

While the rest of the league looks for its football identity, Nebraska and Wisconsin can look in the mirror. The Huskers were running the option and bashing fullbacks between the tackles before Lou Holtz didn't know he didn't know what he was talking about. Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez played at Nebraska, adopted Bob Devaney's philosophy and brought it to Madison two decades ago.

If there is any question, then, whether there will always be a Big Ten style of football, bet your bratwurst it resides in Camp Randall Stadium.

"I'm an old-school guy so I hope there is," Bret Bielema said. "What we do here at Wisconsin is more of what the Big Ten has been the last 10, 20, 30 years."

If the sun started setting in the east; if Snoop Dogg started singing opera; if Texas started sharing revenue equally, the Badgers would still beef up in both lines and beat your brains out.

"They play the right way," Nebraska's Bo Pelini said.

Michigan State shared the Big Ten title last season playing The Right Way. Ohio State won six consecutive titles under Jim Tressel playing The Right Way. But Tressel is gone. The Spartans still haven't been to a Rose Bowl since 1988.

If anything, Wisconsin has strengthened its grip on The Right Way. Its once-monster backs have lost weight. That's cumulatively, as a group, in recruiting, over a period of years. Considering this era's quicker defenses, could Ron Dayne be as effective today? That's why 5-foot-11, 210-pound Montee Ball and 5-10, 195 James White are just about perfect. They can both turn the corner and stick up into the middle.

Meanwhile, Nebraska's offense hasn't quite decided what it wants to be. Taylor Martinez now slides. Nebraska coaches have told their brittle quarterback to get down so he can continue to stay upright when it counts.

The oddsmakers (Badgers giving 9 1/2 points) seem to sense that the Huskers might be overrated at No. 9 -- not quite ready for their Big Ten debut.

"Are we ready for them?" one half of Nebraska's Flying Pelini Bros. asked reporters, "Are they ready for us?"

That would be Carl, the Huskers' defensive coordinator, who can be just as combative as bro Bo.

There has been a bit of a wrestling match this week over the game's implications. Wisconsin has beaten nondescripts by a combined 194-34. Those Nebraska Blackshirts on defense have been savaged at times. Any thought of this being the dawn of a new era has been doused by the dour Bo Pelini.

"Football," said the former Ohio State defensive back, "is football."

By comparison, Wisconsin's coach has become a top-hatted carnival barker. This is the first game at the school between two top-10 schools since 1962.

"The reason you're a season-ticket holder at the University of Wisconsin would be to see a game like this," Beilema said.

That's the issue. Some of those season-ticket holders aren't holding onto their season tickets. Is their love of Wisconsin, bigger than Big Red wallets? Alvarez estimated that 30,000 Nebraska fans will get into Camp Randall. If that occurs, it will harken back to Nebraska's stunning invasion of Notre Dame Stadium in 2000.

It wouldn't be the first time Nebraskans have won the tailgate.

Question: Does Herbie Husker Jump Around?

"We're going to encourage our fans to come out," Bielema said. "I know Nebraska has their little 'Blackshirt' mojo going. I'm sure a few will get in the stands, but hopefully Wisconsin fans will stand strong."

Nebraska fans have filled up Big Eight/12 weaklings' stadiums for years. But walking into a Big Ten venue and taking over? Another sign, perhaps, that Nebraska in the Big Ten seemed like it was destined. As far back as the late 1940s, according to former commissioner Wayne Duke, Big Ten publicist Walter Byers was advocating the addition of Pittsburgh and Nebraska and a split into two six-team divisions. (Michigan State joined the league as No. 10 in 1949).

Big Ten football went on to pound the world. Byers went on to rule it as NCAA executive director.

"There's a physicalness to this conference ...," Hoke said, "teams that are physically physical."

Yeah, we've heard. But there are too many labels that don't apply anymore. Everywhere. The Pac-12 came this close to expanding to Norman, Okla. -- twice. ADs from that conference and the Big Ten recently discussed implementing a four-team playoff to determine a national champion. The usually conservative Big Ten is halfway there, staging its first championship game in December.

It's hard to tell a legend from a leader anymore, except on Saturday in Madison. Just follow the long line of fans into Camp Randall. They'll be united -- all in red and all in for the Big Ten.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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