Smile Politely

F this team: Nebraska

It’s hard to imagine a more college football-crazy place than Nebraska. To wit, our esteemed guest this week, Brandon Vogel, is the managing editor of Hail Varsity — an entire magazine (that’s still printed!) devoted to Nebraska football. Though it’s hard for us in C-U — to imagine a football team that would even be worth spilling ink over, Mr. Vogel shared some insight on his team ahead of their game in Champaign this weekend. We thank him for his time.

Smile Politely: Nebraska consistently ranks in the top 10 in attendance for herding fans in like Black Angus and forcing them to bump shoulders for three hours. Explain how this is preferable to Illinois, where the three seats on either side of you are empty, giving you a luxurious seating option at every price point.

Brandon Vogel: It’s preferable because Husker fans choose to be crowded on eight Saturdays a year but get to enjoy almost total isolation the rest of the time. Nebraska ranks 43rd in population density with just 24 people per square mile. Do you understand how empty that is? Memorial Stadium becomes the “third-largest city in Nebraska” on game days. In the most-remote parts of the state, Nebraskans can go weeks without seeing anyone outside of their own family. A little weekly human contact with strangers at an event everyone claims to enjoy can be good for the soul. In Illinois, a state with 10 times the population density, though Chicago surely skews that number, attending an Illini football game could be viewed as misanthropic. This desire to get away from everyone by going to the game indicates a real lack of concern for the human condition.

SP: Bo Pelini won at least nine games every season and was deemed a failure at Nebraska. Does the university have a different dictionary than the one we use here?

Vogel: Let me pull out the dictionary the University of Nebraska gave me as a high school senior. It’s got the university seal and everything. (This is a real thing that I own.) Success is defined therein as “winning enough games to keep people from talking about how good Nebraska football used to be.” I’ll add that achieving that without calling your athletic director and fan base words I can’t repeat is preferable but probably not mandatory.

SP: Is starting the year 2-2 a failure? On a related note, do you think you’ll uncontrollably wet yourself in any future games that are close in the final seconds?

Vogel: No. Despite the quirky definition of success in Nebraska, every coach gets at least a year where people will secretly fret but publicly preach patience. Even Bill Callahan got that. As for close games, I’ll be shocked if every remaining game isn’t close, so regularly-scheduled bathroom breaks will be critical for Husker fans.

SP: Nebraska hasn’t won a Big Ten championship since joining in 2011; ever miss the Big 12?

Vogel: It goes much deeper than that. Nebraska hasn’t won any conference championship since 1999. The Big 12 was four years old at that point. That conference will celebrate its 20th anniversary next season. Like most Nebraskans old enough to have bought a Nintendo 64 at full retail, I’m not nostalgic for the Big 12, I’m nostalgic for the Big Eight. Things used to be so simple then. Beat Oklahoma, go to the Orange Bowl; lose to Oklahoma, go to the Sugar or Fiesta Bowls. That is undeniably better than covering bowl games sponsored by and Capital One, though I hear that the media spread at the Outback Bowl is a casual-dining cornucopia.

SP: Nebraska has two new made-up trophies for Big Ten rivalries, the Heroes Trophy (vs. Iowa) and Freedom Trophy (vs. Wisconsin). On a scale of how awful names of those trophies are to Eric Crouch’s NFL career, how little do you care about those games?

Vogel: The Wisconsin rivalry feels real at this point, at least from a Nebraska perspective given how the Badgers have stomped the Huskers in three of the four games the two programs have played as joint members of the conference. Iowa? That game occupies Nebraska’s traditional post-Thanksgiving rivalry slot, but has all the spark of an arranged marriage. To adjust the scale, Crouch’s NFL career was 10 times better than workshopped, politically correct rivalry trophies. My excitement for the Wisconsin game is closer to Crouch. My excitement for the Iowa game matches my excitement for the Freedom Trophy.

SP: Which is grittier: Jordan Westerkamp or his mustache?

Vogel: I’m tempted to say Westerkamp the Man. He’s on pace this season to become Nebraska’s first ever 1,000-yard receiver. But having seen Westerkamp the Mustache during his weekly press conference appearance, it has become clear that he’s taking the fallow-fields approach to mustache upkeep. The mustache is grittier.

SP: With the way Nebraska’s secondary has struggled (1,518 yards allowed), are you taking over or under 500 yards passing for Wes Lunt on Saturday?

Vogel: Under, but barely. On the one hand, if Nick Mullens of Southern Miss can throw for 447 yards, 500 for Lunt seems like no problem. But somehow Miami’s Brad Kaaya and the BYU combo of Trevor Mangum/Taysom Hill only managed 379 yards each. Even with the numbers Nebraska has put up this season, a guy needs a little luck to hit 500.

SP: Similarly, given how talented Illinois’s running backs are at not moving the ball and how strong Nebraska’s run defense is (294 yards allowed), over or under 50 net rushing yards for Illinois this week?

Vogel: Over. The Huskers’ rush defense numbers might be a little misleading. With plenty of yards to be had through the air, nobody’s really lined up and tried to run at Nebraska so far this season. I like Josh Ferguson a lot. He’s a good back and, judging from the stats, it seems like Bill Cubit has figured this out in the last two games.

SP: Is Lil’ Red as frightening in person as he is in pictures?

Vogel: Moreso. No photo can prepare you for the head-standing, terror-bouncing, eternally open, lifeless eyes of Lil’ Red. To avoid long-term damage, do not look directly at Lil’ Red.

SP: Illinois is technically a 6.5-point underdog in this game, so how much of my kids’ college fund should I bet on them to win?

Vogel: As mentioned above, I fully expect Nebraska to play nothing but close games from here on out, so you can probably send all of your kids to reasonably decent colleges just by taking any spread, plus or minus, that’s greater than about five points and involves Nebraska. I see more of the same on Saturday. Illinois will move the ball. Nebraska will too. Ultimately, a couple of red zone stops — Nebraska’s been good at that, Illinois hasn’t — will be the difference. Nebraska 38 – Illinois 34.

Pelini photo from The Huffington Post; Westerkamp photo from Hail Varsity.

Illinois and Nebraska kick-off in Champaign at 2:30 on Saturday. The game will be televised on the Big Ten Network. Follow our guest on Twitter @brandonlvogel for in-game commentary.

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