They are two of the greatest programs in college football history, though their paths have diverged in the past 20 years.
When Ohio State plays at Nebraska on Saturday night, it will be only the second matchup featuring two programs with 900 victories. The Buckeyes’ game against Michigan last year was the first.
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The Buckeyes and Cornhuskers also each have a coach who is settling into his job. But Scott Frost and Ryan Day face completely different situations. Frost, a Nebraska native, led the Huskers to two national championships as a quarterback in the 1990s. Those were the last of the glory years for Nebraska. After Tom Osborne retired, the Huskers gradually and then not-so-gradually fell from their lofty perch.
Bill Callahan was a disaster, as was Frost’s predecessor, Mike Riley. Frost had just built Central Florida into a power from virtually nothing when he heeded the call to come home. He must have felt like a kid who returned to live in his boyhood house only to find its windows broken, shutters askew and weeds everywhere. This would be a reclamation project, and it is ongoing.
Nebraska (3-1) is a 17-point home underdog against the Buckeyes, a point spread that would have seemed unfathomable during the Huskers’ heyday.
Frost might look at Day’s situation with envy. Day had never been a head coach when he arrived in Columbus after the 2016 season to be the Buckeyes’ offensive coordinator. The transition from Urban Meyer has gone as seamlessly as imaginable. The fifth-ranked Buckeyes are 4-0 and look primed to make a run at the College Football Playoff.
Day knows what Frost faces. He is appreciative that he didn't have to rebuild a program. But his job comes with a different type of pressure.
“You're at a place where the margin for error is like about this much,” he said Thursday, holding his fingers less than an inch apart. “And so there's pluses and minuses to everything. But this is a wonderful place, and what was built here ahead of when I got here and then even the last couple years when I was here by coach (Meyer) is tremendous. Great people, unbelievable infrastructure, and then what (athletic director) Gene (Smith) and the athletic department has supported in terms of resources is off the charts.
“But with that comes great expectations, and that's understood when you come in. It's every day. People are expecting to win every game. Every place has its own challenges, and not one is easier than the other. It’s all different, but why you put a whistle around your neck is to have an opportunity like this.”
Ohio State has barely been tested in its first four games. The Buckeyes expect to be against the Cornhuskers.
“We’re going to face some real adversity Saturday night,” Day said.
Perhaps. Nebraska hasn’t taken the major step forward expected of them this year. The Huskers struggled to beat South Alabama 35-21 in the opener, blew a 17-point lead in a loss at Colorado and needed to rally to beat Illinois 42-38 last week.
At the start of the season, this looked like a potential 2017 Iowa or 2018 Purdue pothole on the Buckeyes’ schedule. With a prime-time kickoff in the first truly hostile road environment — OSU fans made the Indiana game less than imposing — the danger is there for Ohio State.
But there’s a reason the Buckeyes are prohibitive favorites. Frost is still working on a fixer-upper. Day isn’t.