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Hail Varsity Mailbag
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Mailbag: Breakouts and Step-Backs in the Upcoming Big Ten Football Season

March 10, 2021

Wednesday is Mailbag Day. Let’s get to it.

It seems like every year the east division is pretty predictable. Meanwhile the west always seems to have one team do much better than they did the previous year and one team do much worse. Give me your predictions for which teams will be a surprise this year. (@InDaWilderness) 

Brandon Vogel: Northwestern, in its relatively consistent boom-or-bust cycle, is the team most likely to “crash” in 2021. The Wildcats have one of the lowest returning-production numbers in the country. On the other end of the spectrum, I expect Minnesota to be back in the race for the division title again. The Gophers return quite a bit and the program’s just on pretty solid ground under P.J. Fleck. 

Derek Peterson: Brandon grabbed both of the teams that came to mind first for me, so I’ll go a different route for the sake of the reader (you’re welcome). I think Indiana is probably coming down to earth a little bit. There’s a new defensive coordinator in town, Michael Penix Jr. is coming off an ACL tear and Stevie Scott needs replacing in the backfield. They open the season at Iowa, then play Cincy, Penn State (on the road), Michigan State, and Ohio State in their first seven games. No room for a slow start. On the other end I think the West will be a surprise on the whole. Nebraska and Purdue will be better, Wisconsin will be there, Iowa will be there, and even if Northwestern takes a step back I just think the competition level in the West will be higher than people will give it credit for.  

If you were in charge of the new in-house Husker multimedia and radio broadcast, what changes would you make? (@dmhusker1) 

Mike Babcock: If I were in charge, I would suggest the athletic department reconsider . . . OK, I’d like to think I wouldn’t have to make sweeping changes, that the folks involved in coverage would be on-board with the university so little would change. The concern is the locking down of the athletic department to all forms of media, doing as much in-house as possible, including limiting print. 

Which position group needs to make the most improvement this year in order to have a winning record? Or needs to be better than expected. (@InDaWilderness) 

BV: It’s the offensive line for me. I like the Huskers talent level there, again, but it’s time to see some real progress. To get to where Nebraska wants to be, I think the Huskers need to consistently have one of the four best lines in the league. It’s hard to be bad when you’re good up front. 

MB: I’m always focused on beginning with what’s up-front. Plus, with the loss of Wan’Dale Robinson, some wide receivers are going to have to step up, something needed even if Wan’Dale hadn’t left. 

DP: It’s the offensive line. That group is the swing spot for Nebraska this season. They could be really good, which would make Nebraska pretty good if the defensive continues on the trajectory it was on to close out 2020. 

Who has an overall winning record at Nebraska first: Frost or Hoiberg? (@deapsee60) 

BV: Frost. It’s just easier to get there in football, and Nebraska has a bigger advantage on the gridiron than the hardwood. Just looking at the 2021 football schedule, I’d guess the Huskers will be favored six games. That’s a pretty good base upon which to build a winning season. When’s the last time Nebraska basketball was favored in half of its regular-season games for a year? 

MB: Frost, no question, for the reasons Brandon cites. 

Jacob Padilla: For the reasons Brandon stated, it’s probably Frost. But I think next year is something of a swing year for Fred Hoiberg. If the Huskers have another single-digit-win season, I’ll start to wonder if Hoiberg can get it done in Lincoln. If they make a jump and are not only competitive (like they have been most of this season) but actually win a fair share of those games (even if that doesn’t mean a top-half finish in the conference), I’ll start to feel pretty good about the trajectory of the program. Also, Hoiberg typically doesn’t put together a difficult nonconference schedule, so that provides an opportunity to pad your win total in a normal season. 

Bill Snyder was famous for scheduling weak non-conference games, do you think Nebraska should consider a similar strategy? (@dmhusker1) 

BV: Nebraska already has at least one Power 5 opponent scheduled every year through 2035, minus one: The Huskers don’t play a nonconference power opponent in 2025, but they are schedule to play at Cincinnati (which, right now, is better than about half the P5 teams out there anyway). I tend to like the one “marquee” opponent approach. Things have not been good for Nebraska football of late, but I don’t think it has fallen so far that it needs to schedule as many wins as it can get. Kansas football on the other hand . . . 

MB: That would take some study, right? Troy came in here and beat Nebraska in 2018. It finished the season 10-3, of course, but had been hammered by Boise State in its opener. I don’t think Nebraska wants to get carried away scheduling non-Power 5 opponents in the non-conference season. It always has a couple.  

JP: Personally, I don’t think scheduling easy opponents to pad your win total is going to make any kind of difference. This program will be judged based on what it does against Big Ten competition, and I think at least one tough nonconference game can only help prepare Nebraska for what the Huskers are going to face in conference.  

Why not futbol divisions in D1 football? Twenty-five per tier. Top two move up and low two go down after season. Bowl game ties to final eight per tier, adds interest to teams moving up, so seven playoff games per tier and five tiers equals 35 bowls that mean something. As always, only 1-5☆ rec x team x class! (@howard_parkett) 

BV: Promotion and relegation is always the most entertaining way to go, but I’m just not sure we’ll ever get there for an American sport. MLS can’t even get it done. I think this is probably due to the fact that American sports didn’t start out that way. Unless you’re a soccer fan, it feels totally foreign (and is, really). Also, there’s just too much money at stake. But as for the idea itself, I’d give it a try. 

DP: I love the idea of promotion and relegation. This particular setup would be interesting. I proposed something a little different a couple years ago. 

Who is out next commit? (@HuskerTom1997) 

Erin Sorensen: Good question. I’ll answer for Greg. His recruiting notebook on Tuesday focused around the potential domino effect that Ernest Hausmann’s commitment might have. He lists a number of names to know. It seems like you might want to keep an eye on those names as we go forward. 

Aliens come to destroy earth, but they give you one chance to show earth is worth sparing. Who are the 3 people, still living, that you would send to plead our case? Side note: Any list that doesn’t include Dolly Parton is wrong. (@40924d2c7e4a418) 

MB: I’m at a loss. Evaluating the character of national personalities is difficult, in part because of social media and its promotional value. Tom Osborne? I respect him.  I’ll defer to Jacob. 

JP: If you’re giving me Dolly Parton to start, I’ll add Brandon Vogel and Erin Sorensen. Phenomenal human beings and an absolute joy to work with. (Derek, on the other hand, would be at the bottom of my list.) 

ES: I was just going to say Dolly Parton three times and then I saw Jacob’s answer and he has just made my day. I’m really lucky to work for Hail Varsity. 

DP: Had I known blatant pandering was going to occur I would have restricted Jacob’s ability to answer this question.

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Tags: Mailbag