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Mailbag: Will Football See More Parity in 2020 or a Widened Gap at the Top?

May 13, 2020

It’s mailbag time. Let’s get to it.

On the COVID-19 question (in last week’s mailbag)… the answers were mostly in terms of recruiting. Do you think lack of spring ball and possibly some impact in the fall will give the upper-tier schools at the peak of their game even more advantage (schools not at that level need more time to develop players, chemistry, etc.), or do you see less prep by the well-oiled machines leveling the field a bit? (Steve C., Facebook) 

Derek Peterson: I keep going back and forth on this because I’m not sure which side I land on. I don’t think Alabama is going to somehow drop an irregular game or two because it didn’t have spring ball, but I could totally see Nebraska struggling out of the gates. This is going to feel like a cop-out, but I don’t think it’s going to be a clear distinction either way, context is going to matter. It’s going to depend on how teams utilized this time away. Was everyone doing what they were supposed to do in a time where they could get away with slacking? I think Nebraska’s going to be worse off for it early on, but I could see the same being said for LSU because of all the moving pieces with its offense.  

Mike Babcock: Theoretically, everyone’s in the same situation. But we know some programs have handled things differently than others. All things being equal, it could be a set-back to programs trying to get over the hump, depending on the number of experienced players—which holds, to some degree, for the successful programs. I think it hurts Nebraska, which has a new offensive coordinator as well, though, of course, Frost is the ultimate decider there. 

Jacob Padilla: I do think it could hurt teams like Nebraska that are trying to gain ground on other programs. Every bit of strength and conditioning and skill development and comfort with the system helps. All programs are going to be set back relatively evenly (dependent on how they’ve handled this time like Derek said). What really hurts is the loss of development time when Nebraska needed to make major strides as opposed to other programs that were more looking to simply maintain success or make improvements on the margins. 

Brandon Vogel: I waver a bit here too, but I tend to approach it from a “most to lose” perspective most often. Schools like Alabama, Clemson, et al. are just in a different class right now. They’ll most likely be fine. But it’s the teams on the cusp of contending with those programs that could have it the hardest. Texas A&M and Texas are two that, based on returning production, are well positioned to make a jump this year. But that was assuming a normal offseason routine and, based on recent results, teams like that are not on such solid footing that we can just assume they’ll absorb that chaos and maitain the same path. I’d put Nebraska a tier below A&M and Texas entering 2020. There are reasons to believe the Huskers could take a jump this year too, but their recent past is shakier than the Aggies’ and Longhorns’ so the stakes seem a little lower. If we were drafting teams least likely to be impacted by the lack of a traditional offseason, Nebraska isn’t very high on the boar––like the others, I think there will be an impact––but it seems better now than a year or two down the road when Nebraska should be getting ready to take its biggest swing.

What is going on with Tennessee and Minnesota recruiting classes? (@Corn_Huskers) 

DP: PJ Fleck is good. There are programs out there finding success with this virtual recruiting thing, and they’re the ones embracing the way kids behave nowadays. Fleck can connect with this generation of recruits on a widespread scale. So too, it seems, can Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt. Mel Tucker can, too, and Michigan State has a top-25 class currently to show for it. It also helps that Minnesota has a tremendous amount of momentum as a program right now. Beating Penn State will do that. People yell at me for saying this, but Fleck is executing the plan Frost is trying to at Nebraska, he’s just a few steps further down the road. 

Greg Smith: The start that Minnesota is on should be expected. They have a young energetic coach that can connect with recruits. The team seems to be on a good trajectory after a big season last year. That is all easy to sell. It also bodes well for other schools that are looking for that same type of boost if they could get over the hump: see Nebraska. In theory, you should be rewarded on the recruiting trail for putting a great season together. When it comes to Tennessee, they always recruit well. It’s a matter of if they can coach and if they can run the SEC gauntlet. I expect a few decommitments from their class because word is they have been very aggressive in pushing kids to commit during this uncertain time.  

Let's say college football is able to return with only a six-week practice timeframe. Which B1G teams would have the biggest advantages and which would be at the biggest disadvantage heading into the season? (@Corn_Huskers) 

Erin Sorensen: I’m really struggling with this question, not because there won’t be those with bigger advantages and those with bigger disadvantages, but because I'm not sure how to quantify it. Similar to the first question, it’s hard to know what to expect without context. Maybe teams with older rosters that have been around one another longer come out of this ahead because they’re not trying to build chemistry in the same way. Maybe that doesn’t matter. I think the time off will affect everyone, but I do think teams like Nebraska, Indiana and Purdue will have a lot more to overcome to get things moving. That’s not a knock on a program like Nebraska. There are just a lot of unknowns and those will be made a little more difficult without the traditional practice and conditioning schedule to prepare for a season. 

Brandon Vogel: Teams with well-established identities seem like they would have the biggest leg up. Iowa has to break in a new quarterback and replace a decent amount on defense, but the culture is well established at this point. Wisconsin’s in that category. I’d put Northwestern in that group, too. The Wildcats are one of the most experienced teams in the country entering 2020 and Pat Fitzgerald knows what he’s trying to do. (Northwestern also got a decent chunk of spring ball in.) Overall, I think it’s reasonable to expect teams with coaches who have been there awhile might be better off. It really hurts a program like Maryland or Rutgers. Offseasons are essential early in tenures and the Terps had a ton of turnover, making this year like a second Year 1. Rutgers is in an actual Year 1. Michigan State, too. Most of the other Big Ten teams—minus Ohio State, which just talent trumps everyone else—I'd put somewhere in the middle. 

With the hyped anticipation and then overwhelming success of “The Last Dance” and the recent talk of the “Day by Day” film, sports-related docu-series are becoming more and more popular. What athlete, team, game, series, or coach would you like to see a docu-series created on? (@Corn_Huskers) 

DP: When this question comes up, I always answer the same way: 2012 Thunder. I’ll switch it up. I want either eight or 24 hours of Kobe Bryant stories. Viewership records would be obliterated.  

MB: This wouldn’t have the national appeal of Jordan or Bryant, but the 1984 Orange Bowl, Nebraska-Miami, had a lot of twists and turns—on and off the field, not just during the game but leading up to it—that would make for an interesting set of shows. 

ES: I’d like a documentary on Andy Reid or Tyrann Mathieu. In Reid’s case, I would also settle for a show on the Food Network where he just takes us to his favorite spots for cheeseburgers. As for Mathieu, I mentioned to Brandon Vogel that he’s lived quite a life so far (today is his 28th birthday) and he said he’d be an interesting topic for something like a documentary. I agree. I remember when Les Miles dismissed Mathieu in 2012. Who knew the path the Honey Badger would take from there? Now he’s a Super Bowl champion. Let’s schedule it for 2022 and relive the last decade from that dismissal.  

GS: Aside from my obvious answer of a Kobe-related documentary, I’ve been thinking about the Williams sisters lately. Serena might be the women’s tennis GOAT which is the only way a career like Venus had gets overshadowed. Plus, you have the Richard Williams angle too. I’m just really interested in their story. 

Can we get a refresher on new OC Matt Lubick? Having spring ball taken away kind of spoiled the introduction a bit…also, I completely forgot Nebraska hired him. (@Jeremy_J_KCSR) 

DP: Lubick’s defining trait is his attention to detail. Recruits say he’s able to paint a clearer-than-normal picture of how they’ll be used and developed. Past co-workers say he’s meticulously committed to the routines in his life. Everyone talked about Nebraska’s organization after that first day of spring ball. Lubick hammers home the details of perimeter blocking and route-running and teaches a specific way to catch the football. Wrote this about Lubick in early March: 

Some folks call the details the nitty-gritty. To Nebraska’s newest wideout coach, they are rules. 
Lubick lives in the rules. 
“Probably his most admirable trait is he coached defensive backs for a number of years at Arizona State and a couple of other places since that’s the position he played, so he really understands the rules of coverage that certain defensive backs are in,” (Nate) Costa said. “So, when it comes time to play-design, passing routes specifically, he’s really good at putting defenders into conflict, to where he’s not just beating them based on the coverage but he’s beating them based on the rules. (He’s) designing concepts where the defensive backs really can’t be right, and when it comes down to being successful in this game from a play-calling and play designing standpoint, that’s probably the best attribute that you can have. Being able to actually beat someone’s rules and not just their specific coverage.” 

BV: I think Derek highlighted the key point—his detail-driven approach with the wide receivers should improve Nebraska’s passing game. Beyond that, I put together a “to-do” list for Lubick back when he was hired, that was some of what Nebraska needs helps with but through a lens of what Lubick has proven to do well. 

Do we take two quarterbacks in the ‘21 class? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

ES: I don’t think so, unless something happens that would require Nebraska to need another quarterback. Maybe the Huskers take a walk-on quarterback, but an additional scholarship quarterback? It doesn’t feel likely, unless there are injuries, transfers, departures, etc. to address. 

GS: At this point I lean no. If they did bring one more in, it could be a player viewed as a true athlete who gets a shot at QB but ultimately plays another position? I also don’t think the numbers will allow for two scholarship quarterbacks this cycle. 

Any updates on those players NU was expecting to arrive this summer (aka academic eligibility)? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

GS: I don’t have anything concrete but the last I heard, Nebraska felt confident about everyone making it. There will likely be a waiver process for any high school prospects right on the line. We don’t know officially what the JUCO policy will be yet. The chances are good that everyone makes it. 

Why is everyone committing so early? (@Peyton51533) 

DP: I think there’s a snowball effect happening. With the transfer portal being what it is, I think there’s become a slightly-faster-ticking clock for guys who want to ensure their spots. Right now, with so much uncertainty, grabbing a spot before it disappears is even more important. Which means spots are going at a fervent pace, which means there’s even more pressure on uncommitted guys to pull the trigger. Like I wrote Monday, we’ve seen an upswing in commitments, but there hasn’t been an increase in available scholarships.  

MB: There are certainly fewer distractions right now, more time to reflect and evaluate, and as Derek points out, the available scholarships continue to diminish. Plus, guys have an easier out these days than in the past. They have to sacrifice some eligibility if the fit isn’t right, but it is an out. 

GS: Exactly what Derek said. There is no need to “play the game” by dragging out your recruitment when things are so volatile. There are very few prospects that can just afford to wait it out and still be able to go to any school that offered them.  

JP: It’s looking less and less likely that there will be visits of any kind in the near (and perhaps extended) future, so that’s one less thing the recruits will be able to factor in. Keagan Johnson wanted to take his official visits before committing, but that’s not happening so he just decided to go with all the information that he had and pulled the trigger. I think earlier commitments are trending up, but I think the degree of it this cycle is a result of the specific COVID-19-related circumstances.  

Do you think the two defensive analysts are going to make a big difference in whether the defense stays the same or gets worse this season? (@CarnesRegg) 

DP: Hard for someone who doesn’t do on-field coaching to make a drastic difference one way or the other. Jonathan Rutledge, the analyst tasked with running special teams, might be the exception, but I don’t think an offensive or defensive analyst’s job is to overhaul anything. Rather, I think those guys’ primary utility is providing direction to the assistant coaches trying to steer the ship in the right direction.  

MB: Big difference? No. But every bit of influence helps. Lots of time to evaluate video right now, become familiar with what’s returning. 

JP: Adding analysts is all about improving on the margins. Their job will probably be to find any small advantage that Nebraska might be able to take advantage of. Adding more ideas could lead to a solution the coaching staff might not have come to otherwise. But the success or failure of this defense will be on Erik Chinander, his position coaches and the players.  

Noah Vedral the lead dog in the (Rutgers) quarterback room immediately? (@lilbluesquatch) 

DP: I think so. Greg Schiano is trying to implement a spread, up-tempo offense in Piscataway and he just landed an immediately-eligible grad transfer quarterback with three years’ experience in one of the better playbooks out there for that sort of thing. I don’t think Vedral would have gone there if he didn’t feel he had the inside track to the job; the point of leaving Nebraska is to play. He’s talented enough to do it at a Power Five level, and Rutgers provided the best opportunity. Sure, he could help Rutgers out when NU travels there for an Oct. 24 meeting, but he also doesn’t have to. I’m sure Rutgers is just happy to have someone that can give a little stability at that spot. 

MB: Agree with Derek, with one stipulation: Noah has to earn the respect of his new teammates. How quickly can he fit in, be comfortable with those around him and those around him be comfortable with him? His personality is a plus in that area. But you never know. 

BV: Probably. Rutgers has been an atrocious passing team of late. Over the last three seasons, as a team, Rutgers has thrown 19 touchdowns to 48 interceptions. The two guys that contributed numbers in 2019 are both back, but Vedral, I think, can be better than that and he might be even more valuable as a runner. I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t win that job. 

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