December 15, 2015

The FBS has been saturated with so many bowl games that the eligibility rules had to be altered in order to fill them.

First-year Nebraska coach Mike Riley certainly isn't complaining after his squad suffered a number of close defeats that have the Cornhuskers believing their 5-7 record is a misrepresentation of their season.

They'll get a chance to prove that against a UCLA team that also fell short of expectations in the Foster Farms Bowl on Saturday night at Levi's Stadium.

NCAA rules state that teams must have at least six wins and a .500 record to compete in a bowl, but with a record 80 slots to fill, three 5-7 teams are getting a chance to play in the postseason.

Nebraska was the first to be given the opportunity based on the program's Academic Progress Ratings for 2013-14. The situation is so uncommon that even the university isn't acknowledging the bowl appearance in regard to Riley's contract, which calls for bonus money to be paid to him and his assistants for reaching the postseason.

It wouldn't have been so complicated had the Huskers pulled out some more close games. Five losses were by five points or fewer with none coming by more than 10, and they hung tough with then-No. 3 Iowa in the season finale before falling 28-20 at home.

The Huskers won at least nine games in each of the previous seven seasons under Bo Pelini, who was fired after 2014. Riley left Oregon State to take the Nebraska job.

"We're really glad to be practicing football," Riley said. "We have a great opportunity. All of what we are doing is focused on winning the game. This is one more great opportunity. We've had a couple of them in the past month, and we have one more coming up."

The Huskers do have a quality victory on their resume, beating Michigan State - which now is ranked third and headed to the College Football Playoff - when Tommy Armstrong hit Brandon Reilly on a controversial 30-yard touchdown pass with 17 seconds remaining in a 39-38 win Nov. 7.

Nebraska ranks second in the Big Ten in total offense at 442.5 yards per game and has the nation's eighth-best run defense at 113.4 yards allowed per game.

"I think it's a great opportunity for us to show that we're a better team than what our record says," offensive lineman Ryne Reeves told the team's official website. "For us seniors, it's another opportunity for us to go out on top with a win and it would be a good springboard for the guys going into next year."

This was supposed to be the year UCLA took the next step after back-to-back 10-win seasons with Brett Hundley at quarterback. Josh Rosen took over and was named Pac-12 offensive freshman of the year while throwing for 3,349 yards and 20 touchdowns, but the Bruins finished just 5-4 in the conference and are 8-4 overall.

The Bruins began the year ranked 13th and were expected to contend for the Pac-12 title, even getting some attention as a dark horse for the CFP. Back-to-back losses to Arizona State on Oct. 3 and then-No. 15 Stanford the following week derailed those hopes.

UCLA still had an opportunity to clinch the South Division and appear in the conference title game with a chance to make a major bowl, but it lost 40-21 to rival USC in the regular-season finale.

Instead, the Bruins were relegated to facing sub-.500 Nebraska, which they'll be playing for the third time in four years. UCLA beat the Huskers 36-30 in 2012 at home, then scored 38 unanswered points to win 41-21 the following year in Lincoln.

The advantage this year also appears to go to the Bruins, as Rosen will be going up against a Nebraska defense that ranked 13th in the 14-team Big Ten in passing defense allowing an average of 288.2 yards per game.

And if it ends up coming down to a UCLA field-goal attempt, it can count on Lou Groza Award winner Ka'imi Fairbairn.

"Facing a storied program like Nebraska presents our young men with a tremendous challenge," coach Jim Mora said. "We are looking forward to putting the pads back on, competing hard and making the most of this opportunity."

UCLA and Nebraska have met 12 times since 1946, with each winning six.

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