Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Checking In on Nebraska’s Opponents Around the Conference

October 02, 2020

Nebraska’s been through quite the summer, but so has everyone else in the Big Ten.

Teams were set to get the pads back on in early August as they moved out of the “acclimation period” under the original return-to-play timeline, but the Big Ten halted proceedings and then shortly after voted to postpone the 2020 season.

Since, Nebraska has seen members of its 2020 recruiting class opt to put their names in the transfer portal, it has shut down and reopened the Training Table, furloughed and brought back employees of the athletic department, and finally returned to practice.

Though it’s unclear if the Huskers have had any run-ins with COVID-19 since returning to organized team activities in July, Nebraska says it’s ready for the season.

What about the Huskers’ opponents?

I asked around the league for help from various journalists covering teams on Nebraska’s 2020 schedule with one open-ended question: “Where is the team that you cover at right now as it prepares for the season?” (Though multiple people were contacted, I wasn’t able to get a hold of someone covering Purdue.)

Here are the responses.

Ohio State Buckeyes (Oct. 24) — Caroline Rice, The OZone

“This team is excited to be back out there. I don’t think the COVID-19 testing and protocols fazed them at all. The players have been very vocal about how safe they have felt throughout all of it and I don’t think it affected the team as much as maybe some others across the conference. The players expressed how smart they have been in terms of staying away from the rest of the student body in classes, in dorms, and not going out in public to events or anything. I think the leadership of the team got it through to the younger guys just how serious this is and what they need to do if they want a season. That was set early on.

“I think they’re ready to get back to full contact and get back to playing games. We got to talk to players after practicing this week and the vibe I get from the team is that they are ready to go and they have waited long enough. They simply want to get back out there and play and I sense that urgency.”

Wisconsin Badgers (Oct. 31) — Jake Kocorowski, Wisconsin insider

“As seen via social media, Wisconsin has resumed its preparation of the season. On Sept. 23, head coach Paul Chryst spoke with reporters, saying it was ‘great being with our players’ and noting how the program is getting ‘more guys back each day.’ There was a halt in ‘team activities’ earlier this month, as first reported by WOZN and the Wisconsin State Journalthough on Sept. 18, the latter confirmed with UW that some were given the OK to resume for ‘unaffected players.’

“Like many colleges, UW saw its number of COVID-19 cases increase once students returned to Madison. Earlier this month, the campus quarantined two dorms and shifted classes ‘remotely’ for two weeks after a spike in cases. According to a recent announcement, it appears UW will begin to work its way back to some ‘in-person instruction’ starting next week.

“That being said, I think it’s safe to say the players are ready to play a football season after having it briefly taken away from them.”

Northwestern Wildcats (Nov. 7) — Lia Assimakopoulos, Inside NU

“Right now, a lot is uncertain for Northwestern football, but we are certainly optimistic about the year ahead. Quite frankly, things can’t get much worse than our 2019 season, so there’s really only going up from here. We have a new offensive coordinator in Mike Bajakian and a new quarterback (most likely) in grad transfer Peyton Ramsey. I think the combination of that duo definitely bodes well for an improved offense if they can use this next month to get everything together in time for the season. And as always, our defense is our core and is expected to be strong again. Overall, things seem uncertain too because the state of our football team and overall campus are very different. Mostly, students are not on campus right now, which I know is different from the majority of Big Ten schools. Some juniors and seniors are back, but most are living off-campus and have all online classes, so the athletes are the main ones accessing campus buildings regularly. However, when the schedule was released last weekend, we were definitely excited and think it’s very manageable. Last year, not only was our offense and overall performance atrocious, but we had a terrible schedule and faced something like five preseason top-25 teams in the first six weeks. Ultimately, while a lot is uncertain, the program and school definitely seem hopeful that 2020 can be our year to turn things back around, despite COVID.”

Penn State Nittany Lions (Nov. 14) — Audrey Snyder, The Athletic

“Penn State is working on ramping up for the season which means shifting back to their traditional practice schedule as opposed to the previously allowed 12 hours per week and like everyone else trying to stay healthy on a college campus where COVID-19 continues to be a challenge. Penn State hasn’t had to pause football workouts because of COVID to date, but other Penn State athletics programs have been paused in previous weeks. On field, this is a team with a new offensive coordinator, new offensive line coach, new receivers coach, and a new defensive line coach. They had zero spring practices so this time is crucial as they develop, build chemistry, and get ready for the season. At this point, the last time they actually hit had to be at the Cotton Bowl.”

Illinois Fighting Illini (Nov. 21) — Bob Asmussen, the Champaign News-Gazette

“I haven’t surveyed all the Big Ten schools, but I think Illinois had one of the best medical responses to the pandemic. Early on, with the full backing of the administration, the school created its own test and immediately put it to use. For several months, the Illinois players have been tested daily and had a total of nine tests per week for each player. That’s a big reason Illinois was so disappointed when the season got postponed on Aug. 11. The team felt it was doing all the right things. All the students, faculty, and staff on campus are being tested at least twice a week, so the case counts continue to drop. That’s how you slow the virus: Test, trace, and isolate. Illinois has been smart about its approach school-wise, which gives hope to the team being able to make it through the season with limited interruptions. As for the team’s readiness, like everybody else, there was no spring ball,  so that hurt the connectivity for the offense. Lovie Smith is used to the lighter-contact practices in the NFL, so I don’t think he is sweating the delay in being (able) to wear full pads. Illinois does that very little normally.”

Iowa Hawkeyes (Nov. 27/28) — Scott Dochterman, The Athletic

“Iowa is in a strange, almost tranquil state right now as a program. Like Nebraska, Iowa wanted to play football this fall in the worst way. The players went through all of the precautions and put themselves in a position to compete when the league chose to postpone the season. Any of the discipline the players showed throughout the summer evaporated for a few weeks in August and COVID-19 ravaged the roster. Then after a week-long pause, the numbers are in a much better place, especially now with football resumed. They’ve got the guts of a good roster and should be competitive as usual. If new quarterback Spencer Petras plays well and the defense can generate a pass rush, Iowa should be right there with Wisconsin for the divisional title.”

Minnesota Golden Gophers (Dec. 12) — Megan Ryan, the Minneapolis Star Tribune

“It’s hard to say where the Gophers are now because they’ve been pretty hard to track in recent months. I saw one spring practice before the pandemic set in, and I can count on one hand the number of times coach P.J. Fleck has spoken to local media since. So trying to judge the kind of offseason the team has had is a shot in the dark, at best. My impression, though, is the players and coaches are excited to play and feel raring to go. They’ve certainly had ample time to game-plan and work on fundamentals, which can only help some of the younger guys. And I think the veterans are looking forward to what they can accomplish this season, after an 11-2 year in 2019.”

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