- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Michigan's players celebrated on the field after snapping a four-game losing streak to Michigan State last week, and they staged a rousing reunion with the Paul Bunyan Trophy inside the locker room.
But the party didn't last long.
"You come to Michigan to win the Big Ten championship," Wolverines center Elliott Mealer said. "As a recruit, that's what your goal is. So for us, it was fun getting to beat Michigan State and getting Paul Bunyan back. But the celebration ends pretty quickly because you realize next week is another championship week, and you've got to win it if you want to reach that ultimate goal."
The Wolverines are hungry to hang another Big Ten banner after an unacceptably long -- for them -- title drought. Their opponent this week, Nebraska, feels the same way.
The two schools have combined to claim 85 conference titles in their illustrious histories -- 43 by the Huskers, 42 by Michigan. Yet kids in junior high right now might have trouble believing that, given how long it's been since either program won its last one.
The winner of Saturday's game in Lincoln will take a giant step toward rectifying that. With a victory, Michigan (3-0 Big Ten) would have a two-game lead over everyone in the Legends Division except Iowa with four games to play, and it would own head-to-head tiebreakers against Nebraska and Michigan State. The Wolverines could afford to lose a game down the stretch, as long as either it beat Iowa or the Hawkeyes lost somewhere else, and still make the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.
The Cornhuskers (2-1), would still have more work to do even if they beat Michigan, with games left at Michigan State and Iowa and versus Penn State. But head coach Bo Pelini told his team it needed to win out after losing to Ohio State on Oct. 6; a loss this week would leave Nebraska needing a lot of help to win the Big Ten.
"That's definitely been our goal since early January and offseason lifting, and it's been in the back of our minds since then," running back Ameer Abdullah said. "We don't want anybody standing in our way, and right now Michigan is standing in our way. So we've got to take care of it."
Michigan owns more Big Ten titles than anybody but hasn't brought one to Ann Arbor since 2004, when it was co-champion with Iowa and went to the Rose Bowl. That's two full presidential cycles, and it makes Bo Schembechler's famous, "Those who stay will be champions" creed ring hollow.
The program's current seven-year drought is its longest since it went from 1951-63 without hanging a Big Ten banner. I asked second-year head coach Brady Hoke this week if the title drought bothered him.
"Oh, sure, there's no question about it," he said. "That's part of the legacy and tradition of this program.
"Let's face it: besides graduating and honoring your name and your university, the expectations are to win Big Ten championships, especially at Michigan. We embrace it. We're not going to shy away from it, and we're going to be very honest about it."
Hoke has made no secret that winning the Big Ten is the ultimate goal as long as he's in charge of the Maize and Blue. He famously called last year's 11-2, Sugar Bowl championship season "a failure" because the team did not win the conference.
That's not just his public posturing, either. Mealer said Hoke reminds the team about the Big Ten championship in some form every single day. Players see a picture of the Big Ten trophy as they enter the football facility.
"We've been brainwashed to want nothing but the Big Ten trophy and the Rose Bowl," Mealer said. "Maybe for outsiders and reporters and things like that, maybe it gets a little tiring to hear about. But as players, it keeps us focused and keeps us motivated."
Nebraska is in a similar situation. The program's last conference championship came in the last century, when it won the 1999 Big 12 title. (The Huskers did win the Big 12 North division in 2001, '06, '08 and '09). Prior to 1999, Nebraska hadn't gone more than two years without a conference title since the barren years between 1941 and 1963.
Players know all about the drought and are reminded of it by fans. Abdullah, a sophomore from Alabama, was able to recall the last year the program won a conference title without prompting in a recent interview. The Huskers talked a lot in the preseason about needing to bring a championship home to Lincoln. But Pelini, who likes to focus on day-to-day progress during the season, says he doesn't use the carrot of a conference crown as motivation too often.
"Our players understand what's out there and what the challenges are," he said. "Every now and then we talk about it, but I don't have to talk about it a lot because they have a great understanding of what's at stake."
What's at stake is nothing less than the very nature of what these two blue-blooded programs are supposed to be.
"When I came to Nebraska, I felt this was a good team that could have success and win championships," Abdullah said. "So it would mean a lot for me and for this coaching staff."
Winning Saturday hardly guarantees a Big Ten title. The victor still must navigate the rest of the season and then face off with the Leaders representative in Indianapolis. But this is a giant step toward ending a long championship drought. And the team that does that can really celebrate.
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