A seismic shift in the college football landscape tore two rivals apart in 2011.
Colorado bolted the Big 12 for the Pac-12, Nebraska moved on to the Big Ten and one of the sport’s best rivalries came to a halt.
What conference realignment couldn’t do, however, was dissolve the disdain the Buffaloes have for the Cornhuskers, and vice versa.
The energy in Lincoln Memorial Stadium last year when the teams met for the first time since 2010 was intense. On Saturday, when the Huskers make their first visit to Folsom Field in 10 years, the stadium promises to be unlike any game in recent years.
“I’m very thankful I get to play in this game, because I know how big it is for Colorado history,” Buffs receiver KD Nixon said.
First-year CU head coach Mel Tucker has never experienced this rivalry, but he’s been a part of some of the game’s most heated matchups, so he understands what’s at stake.
“That’s what makes the game great,” Tucker said. “That’s what everyone wants to see and that’s why players come here, to play in big games like this.”
From the mid-1980s until the final Big 12 matchup in 2010, this was the biggest game on the Buffs’ schedule every year.
“For so many years, whoever won CU-Nebraska was either going to the Big 12 title game, winning the North or … going to the Orange Bowl,” said former CU defensive lineman Matt McChesney. “That’s what drove and stoked this rivalry.”
There was no rivalry until Bill McCartney was hired as head coach of the Buffs in 1982. Nebraska was a national power, while CU was struggling. McCartney pointed at the Buffs’ neighbors and declared them as the team to beat.
“We followed our head coach and believed in what he believed in and wanted to fulfill his promise for us,” said CU associate athletic director Lance Carl, who played receiver for the Buffs from 1986-87 and was one of McCartney’s first recruits. “Coach Mac realized that if you were able to challenge Nebraska, you would be able to challenge nationally.”
In 1986, Carl caught a 52-yard halfback pass from O.C. Oliver to highlight a stunning 20-10 upset of the No. 3 Cornhuskers at Folsom Field. That win snapped an 18-game losing streak to Nebraska. It also lifted a CU team that was 2-4 coming into the game to a 6-6 finish and an appearance in the Bluebonnet Bowl.
“I believe that really changed our program,” Carl said. “It gave us an identify that we could compete with the top programs in the country.”
The win in 1986 sparked a six-year run in which the Buffs went 3-2-1 against Nebraska. Wins in 1989 and 1990 were significant moments in the two best seasons of CU football history.
In 1996, when the Big Eight was expanded to the Big 12, the game was moved to the day after Thanksgiving, becoming one of the marquee matchups of the final weekend of the regular season for 15 years. Ten times in those 15 years, the Buffs or Huskers won the Big 12 North, and they often had to win that game to claim the North.
Whether it was a national title, division title or bowl eligibility, something was on the line every year.
Eight years apart, separate conferences and an early September date has changed the stakes, but the impact of the matchup is still significant. That was evident last year when the Buffs made the trek to Lincoln.
The players on CU’s roster last year had no idea what the rivalry was like going in, but heard the stories and embraced it. CU’s 33-28 victory sparked a 5-0 start to the season and became an instant classic for some Buff fans.
“For some of the young men on our team, they didn’t realize the magnitude until they actually got in Lincoln Memorial Stadium and saw the impact that their crowd had on the game,” Carl said. “Standing together as a team and walking out with a victory, it went a long way to build the confidence for last year for the first five games for sure.”
McChesney, who is one of the few Buffs to ever be a part of three wins against the Huskers, made the trip to Lincoln last year and felt some familiar emotions after the Buffs’ win.
“Last year was awesome, not only for the win and the way it happened, but there’s just something different about beating certain people,” McChesney said.
McChesney took pleasure in standing in the locker room and watching former CU receiver and current Buffs assistant coach Darrin Chiaverini address the team after that win.
“Darrin never beat them when he was in college and that’s a huge payoff for him last year to get that W against Nebraska,” McChesney said.
Years apart may have actually enhanced the payoff. CU has yet to develop a significant Pac-12 rivalry, despite the conference trying to manufacture one with Utah. Nebraska’s chief rival in the Big Ten is Iowa, but there’s not much history between those teams.
CU and Nebraska don’t like each other, but they need each other, McChesney said.
“This game means more to Buffalo Nation and it means more to them, too, because they are rival-less, as well,” McChesney said.
On Saturday at Folsom Field, the rivalry will be alive and well and the stakes, while different, are high once again.
Neither team is a national power anymore – since the start of the 2016 season, CU is 21-18, while Nebraska is 18-20 – but they’re trying to get there. The outlook of the entire season could change for the team that wins on Saturday.
“This is an incredibly massive game for both,” McChesney said.
“It changes everything,” Carl said of the Buffs winning on Saturday. “It’s a nationally televised game, you’re in the most beautiful college football stadium in the country, you’re playing your former Big 8/12 rivals and you have a chance to go 2-0.
“It’s another victory for coach Tucker, it’s another victory for our student athletes, it’s another victory for the university. This game means a lot to everybody. I think our team is prepared to play well.”
Game at a Glance
Matchup: No. 25 Nebraska Cornhuskers (1-0) at Colorado Buffaloes (1-0)
Kickoff: 1:35 p.m. MT
Where: Folsom Field in Boulder. Capacity: 50,183. Turf: Grass
Radio: KOA (850 or 760 AM & 94.1 FM)
Odds: Nebraska by 4
Series: Nebraska leads 49-19-2