The landscape of college football is ever-changing. TV contracts, apparel deals, scholarship limits, recruiting rules and population shifts all contribute to the dynamic nature of the sport.
Nebraska football is one of the timesless, iconic names in college football history. The Cornhuskers’ program is more than just a cornerstone – it's part of the very foundation that helped build what the sport has become over the years. If the story of college football were a novel, Nebraska football would be a main character throughout the majority of it.
For the better part of the last half of the 20th century, the Cornhuskers were one of a handful of programs that could call itself a national brand. They became a household name on the back of a passionate fan base, winning games and being part of a legendary rivalry with fellow power Oklahoma. They gave us The Jet, The Fumblerooski and Touchdown Tommie.
Nebraska set the original standard for football facilities at the collegiate level. The legendary Husker Power weight room was where much of Nebraska's success in the 20th century was born. It was there where recruits – often times average ones – were molded into elite football machines that were envied and eventually emulated nationally.
Even with success, the program was humble. The Huskers won games by doing things "the right way" without much fanfare. There was (and still is) very little about Husker football that one might call "fancy" outside of its facilities. They were very much the anti-Notre Dame, Florida State and Miami – all substance, very little flash. That gained them the respect and admiration of football conservatives and purists.
You could say they were Middle America's college football team.
In recent years, however, Nebraska football has faded back into the pack. In that aforementioned novel that is the ongoing saga of college football, the Huskers are now a supporting character – relevant primarily because of history. They've been replaced in the main storyline by a new cast of high-profile characters.
One of those high-profile characters is Oregon.
Once an afterthought in the Pac-12 with a footprint primarily only in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon football has become the face of the West Coast in the sport. The Ducks are the anti-Nebraska in many ways. They are progressive in both the appearance of their uniforms and in the style of football they play.
The program has risen to power largely off of an influx of cash from Nike. Oregon football has become a well-documented living and breathing collection of mannequins and billboards for the world's more powerful apparel company. Furthermore, the ruler of the Nike kingdom also happens to be Duck super fan (and benefactor) No. 1. As a result, the Oregon "O" is now a powerful and widely recognized logo and brand on a national scale. Additionally, the Nike money has resulted in a collection of facilities on campus that look like artist renderings of what the future might one day look like.
But the future is now, and it's Oregon that sets the bar in terms of what it takes to build a winning program in the modern era of college football.
Money is great, but you also must rise up the college football ranks the old-fashioned way – just like Nebraska did – by winning. Oregon football has been able to do just that, parlaying the influx of cash and newfound popularity with high school recruits into two national title game appearances since 2010 and a Heisman Trophy winner.
Oregon football has become the national brand that Nebraska once was.
On Saturday, the Ducks will take the field in Lincoln to face the Huskers for the first time since 1986. In the short term, the matchup appears to be one that can set the tone for both teams for the remainder of the 2016 season.
But there's a bigger picture being painted here.
You get the sense that, even with its recent success, Oregon is in danger of fading back to the back and becoming just another member of the supporting cast in the story of college football. Programs around the country are closing the gap when it comes to cutting-edge facilities and branding. Virtually any program has the ability to rise to the top just like Oregon did, and the parity in the sport – specifically within the Power Five conferences – has never been greater.
The Ducks need a road win over a relevant Power Five program to both maintain their current position in the polls as well as to send a message to the rest of the country. Oregon needs an out-of-conference statement win to show the nation that it is capable of being legit in the long-term and maintaining its new blue-blood status.
The Huskers are in a similar situation; but perhaps trending in a different direction. A win over a ranked Oregon team has the potential to be one of the first steps of Nebraska's climb back to the top of the college football mountain, reclaiming a leading role in the story of college football. In a world where it's trendy to be trending, Nebraska football has a chance to reintroduce itself to a nation of young fans with no knowledge or recollection of its historical relevancy.
This weekend, an iconic program from the past will host an iconic program from the present, and the future is likely to be much brighter for one of them when the clock hits zero.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.