B1G 5: Nebraska's problem is simple: It had the dudes in the 1990s. It does not anymore
1. The B1G Reality
Look, this Nebraska meltdown? We’re going about it the wrong way.
This isn’t about the coach. It’s not about the game having passed by a once-proud program, or a bad fit in a conference the Huskers should never have joined.
It’s about dudes.
This story is as old as the first game of college football in 1869 between the New Jersey Tigers and the Rutgers Queensmen. Those with the best players win games.
Period. Full stop.
Want to know why Nebraska hasn’t looked like the 1990s editions that dominated college football for a decade? Because Grant Wistrom, Jason Peter and Aaron Taylor aren’t walking through that door.
Tommie Frazier isn’t under center. Hell, Scott Frost isn’t under center.
“I was embarrassed by our level of execution,” Frost, the coach, said after last weekend’s unthinkable loss to Illinois — because Frost, the player, must want to puke at the decision Frost, the coach, made 3 years ago.
Frost had the Florida job. It was his as long as he signed on the dotted line.
I understand the pull of your alma mater. I understand the idea of resurrecting the Nebraska program from the ashes and becoming a Huskers legend on the sidelines, too.
What I never understood was how Frost ignored reality: It’s much easier to recruit elite, game-changing players at Florida than it is at Nebraska.
Why would any coach – much less the hottest young coach in the game — put his career on the line and stroll into the beautiful town of Lincoln and think he can recruit like Tom Osborne did when every major conference didn’t have its own television network that televised every single game.
The Peter brothers aren’t leaving New Jersey and getting away from Penn State in 2020. Wistrom isn’t leaving Missouri or the SEC footprint, Taylor isn’t leaving Texas, and Frazier isn’t leaving Florida.
More telling: I’m not sure Frost, the player, is leaving Stanford and transferring to his hometown Nebraska. And I’m positive Ahman Green gets out of Omaha and goes to Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State.
Players win games. Ask any coach at any program at any level.
That doesn’t mean coaching isn’t critical in development and putting players in position to maximize their potential. Like Frost did with undersized quarterback McKenzie Milton at UCF.
But this isn’t the AAC, it’s the Big Ten. The only thing an undersized overachiever gets you in the Big Ten is out of the tunnel and onto the field.
I understand that the two quarterbacks currently at the top of the Heisman Trophy race are both underrecruited stars (Kyle Trask, Mac Jones), but more times than not, there are many more stories about 4- and 5-star recruits at every position elevating programs to championship levels.
There’s a reason Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma have the most College Football Playoff appearances, and it isn’t because they’re “bluebloods.”
Alabama, Clemson (lately) and Ohio State consistently recruit better than every team in the nation. Oklahoma consistently is among the top 10 in the nation, and here’s the key: recruits better than anyone in its conference, where winning the league typically means a CFP spot.
Knowing that, where does Nebraska fit in that very specific, and very rare, formula? Here’s your answer: nowhere.
LSU and Georgia have broken through because of their ability to recruit the talent-rich Southeast. Even Oregon made the party early on because of how it recruited, and its ability to land elite talent from California and Texas.
Nebraska doesn’t recruit at that level, and when that doesn’t happen, there will be weekends where you lose to one of the worst Power 5 teams – and then get punked on social media by that very team’s official Twitter account.
You want rock bottom in Lincoln? It’s not any record or any number of coaching changes. It’s Illinois – for the love of all things pigskin, Illinois – making fun of your program on social media.
Nebraska is 10-18 under Frost, 7-15 in the Big Ten and 0-7 vs. ranked teams. The Huskers are 0-4 vs. rivals Colorado and Iowa going into this weekend’s game at Iowa City.
Nebraska’s 3 recruiting classes under Frost finished 23rd, 17th and 20th in the 247sports composite rankings, and this year’s class currently sits at No. 18.
Those aren’t bad numbers, but you’re not winning the B1G with that haul. But you might win the West Division for the right to get smoked by Ohio State in the championship game.
At least, that’s the way it looks on the surface. Frost apparently sees something completely different – which is strange to most, yet maybe comforting to Nebraska fans.
“We’ve got plenty of talent right now to compete in every game,” he said. “We’re going to get this fixed, but the results need to come. The results are going to come when their expectations and their efforts are aligned.”
That sounds good, but every coach since Dr. Tom has said the same thing. Solich and Callahan and Pelini and Riley, and now Frost.
They all talked about changing the culture. They all talked about it being a process and something that doesn’t change overnight.
None ever had a plan of how they were going to crack the top 10 in recruiting. None ever made it happen.
And none ever addressed the Big Red elephant in the room: Nebraska doesn’t (and can’t) recruit like it used to.
Dudes win games that matter.
Anything else is staving off a pink slip.
2. Blip or concern for Justin Fields?
Justin Fields threw 3 interceptions last week against Indiana, and there was barely a blip on the reaction radar.
The results – a top-10 win, 378 total yards, 3 TDs – and the train continuing toward the Playoff was all that mattered for Ohio State’s star junior quarterback. But think about this:
— Fields threw as many interceptions against Indiana as he did all of last season.
— He had 11 incompletions in his first 3 games — and 12 against the Hoosiers.
— After rushing 15 times against Nebraska in the season-opener, the staff scaled back on his QB runs (12 the next 2 games) to protect him from absorbing dangerous blows. He had 15 carries against the Hoosiers.
“I’m not going to overreact by one game because there was a lot of good in that game,” an NFL scout told me earlier this week. “But there were some concerns, sure. Two of the interceptions were just bad throws. But you have to understand, he was behind an experienced offensive line last year. A big difference between this year and last year.
“He’s going to have to do more. He’s going to have to be more accurate when he gets outside the pocket, and when he’s not framed (to throw) because of the rush. This is all nitpick stuff. He’s the No.2 guy in the (NFL) draft. In any other year, he’d be No. 1 overall. But that doesn’t mean he can’t continue to find ways to improve.”
3. Big Blue effort
More than a few television bobbleheads have questioned Michigan’s “effort” this season, and that’s a dangerous road to travel.
Michigan has many problems this season. Last on the list is effort.
Let’s not forget that college football players have gone through rigorous protocols to stay eligible to play a game they’re not paid to play. Remember, they’re college students.
Now think to when you were in college.
Imagine being told you can’t go anywhere, can’t socialize, can’t be with friends – because you risk the rest of your team’s ability to play on Saturdays. You’re 18 or 19 or 20 years old, and you are – like it or not, fair or not – responsible for another 100-plus people on campus and millions in television money.
“I get really pissed off when I hear that,” a Big Ten coach told me. “They’re having problems, but don’t ever take that (expletive deleted) out on players. We’re asking a helluva lot of them.”
If you’re looking for a problem at Michigan, check out what the roster looked like last week in that triple-overtime win over Rutgers:
- DE Aidan Hutchinson (injured, likely out for season).
- DE Kwity Paye (injured, out).
- OT Jaylen Mayfield (injured, out).
- CB Ambry Thomas (opt-out)
- WR Nico Collins (opt-out)
- LB Cameron McGrone (injured, out)
- OL Andrew Vastardis (missed game)
- OL Ryan Hayes (missed game)
Starters, all. And all significant pieces to a team that looked capable of challenging Ohio State at the beginning of the season, and is now trying to stay above water over the final month of it.
4. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll – and one big thing.
1. Ohio State: Up next: Illinois! Woof. Hey, don’t blame the Buckeyes because Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State have all hit a down cycle at the same time. In typical years, they’d have the toughest road of any CFP contender.
2. Indiana: The absolute worst part of 2020 for IU: the Rose Bowl is part of the Playoff. If not, the Hoosiers could’ve been partying in Pasadena as a nice consolation prize. Can this team get back up emotionally and mentally for the dangerous Maryland offense?
3. Northwestern: I love most things Northwestern. The defense is stout, the coaching is fantastic, the energy is off the charts. Now, the problem: The offense better improve in the passing game, or the idea of beating Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game is a pipedream.
4. Wisconsin: We finally saw Graham Mertz dealing with adversity and a stingy defense, and frankly, it wasn’t pretty. That doesn’t mean he’s not the answer (he clearly is); it means he takes the next step in the growth process against Minnesota.
5. Iowa: A ton of credit goes to Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who has held together a team that could’ve easily fractured after a rough offseason and 2 losses to begin this season. They need a miracle to get to win the West Division (3 Northwestern losses), but finishing the season with wins over Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin is a nice way to wrap up a brutal year.
6. Maryland: We still don’t know if Maryland and Indiana will play because of COVID issues. Let’s hope we all get to see a battle between 2 of the B1G’s most exciting young players: IU QB Michael Penix Jr. and Maryland QB Taulia Tagovailoa.
7. Purdue: Rondale Moore is back, and if there were competence within the B1G officiating crew in Minnesota last week, the Boilers would be 3-1 heading into a winnable game vs. Rutgers.
8. Michigan: Jim Harbaugh might have stumbled upon a quarterback out of necessity. Cade McNamara looked solid against Rutgers, and more than anything wasn’t giving away the ball like Joe Milton. The Wolverines need to string together a few victories to ride out the early-season funk. Why not keep Penn State winless in the process?
9. Minnesota: The Gophers have been gutted by COVID for much of the season and were without 22 players last week. There will be more missing this week at Wisconsin, which is much better than the mistake-filled response against Northwestern.
10. Illinois: That’s 2 in a row for the Illini, after things looked desperate 3 weeks into the season. Now here comes Ohio State, and time to find out what karma looks like (see: that deleted tweet at Nebraska).
11. Nebraska: Iowa has figured it out, Nebraska isn’t anywhere close to finding what works. QB Luke McCaffrey looks like a potential answer, but it will be a long road until the talent level around him increases.
12. Rutgers: This program was embarrassing the last 3 seasons. At the very least, Greg Schiano’s return has Rutgers playing smart and tough.
13. Michigan State: The majority of teams that come off a COVID-produced break typically play well. This thing has upset all over it. A bye week for the Spartans, a natural letdown for the Wildcats – and there’s not much of a talent gap (except at QB, which could be a big problem for Sparty).
14. Penn State: Will Levis or Sean Clifford at QB? Doesn’t really matter? Until the Lions get more consistent in pass protection, it will continue to look ugly.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread.
- Nebraska at Iowa (-13.5)
- Minnesota at Wisconsin (-21)
- Penn State at Michigan (-2)
- Maryland (+13.5) at Indiana
- Ohio State (-28.5) at Illinois
Last week: 2-2 (1 cancelation)