INDIANAPOLIS – The last time Bret Bielema was on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium as a Big Ten head coach, he was the head coach at Wisconsin celebrating a dominating 70-31 destruction of Nebraska in the 2012 conference championship game.
Fast forward nearly nine years later, and Bielema was on the field again as a Big Ten head coach on Thursday, this time making his debut as the new leader at Illinois at the league’s media days.
For as much that had changed since that 39-point route of the Huskers, Bielema found it fitting he’d be coaching his first game with the Fighting Illini against NU in just over a month.
“Last time I was in this building was my last game as a head coach in this conference, and we played Nebraska,” Bielema said. “To open up the season this year against Nebraska is a completion of a journey that has brought me to where we are…
“To have a kickoff against Nebraska, a team that we have great respect for … and now the opportunity to open up the college football season at noon, literally as the first college football kickoff of the year, is truly an exceptional opportunity.”
The matchup in Champaign, Ill., on Aug. 28 will have plenty of meaning for both Nebraska and Illinois. While Bielema and the Illini will be ringing in a new era together, the game has been tabbed as by far the most critical season opener of Scott Frost’s career at NU.
This will mark Nebraska’s first time opening a season against a conference opponent since hosting Oklahoma State in Week 1 of 2003. The last time the Huskers started a season on the road vs. a league foe was at OSU in Stillwater, Okla., in 1995.
Nebraska will be in rare territory next month, and Frost acknowledged that his team would need an extra level of focus when fall camp gets underway next week.
“It’s a conference game on the road, which is always tough in this league,” Frost said. “We’re playing against a team with a new coach in Coach Bielema, so we’re going to be doing a little bit of guesswork on some of his schemes and things we’ll see, but we’re going to do our best to get the players ready.
“This group of guys right now is a group that I’m more excited about than any group that I’ve worked with since I’ve been at Nebraska. So, we’re going to band together and do everything we can to get ready for that game.”
The importance of Nebraska’s opener isn’t being lost on the players, either.
While the team is still trying to keep perspective on the season and prepare as if no game is more significant than the next, they also understand that for this year to be the stepping stone for the program wants, starting with a divisional win would carry considerable weight.
“That game is a factor,” Williams said. “That game is going to determine how this season is going to go. I feel like that game right there is the most important game of the season.
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