Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska is Worn Out, and That’s Perfectly Fine

December 20, 2020

Wisconsin is heading to the Duke’s Mayo Bowl in Charlotte, North Carolina, to play a 4-4 Wake Forest team. Iowa will play a 5-4 Missouri team in the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tennessee. Where might 3-5 Nebraska have gone? Birmingham, Alabama? Texas? To play who? When? 

A week from now? Ten days? 

ESPN’s final bowl projections put Nebraska in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, on Dec. 26 against Army. FPI would have projected that to be a line somewhere in the neighborhood of Nebraska -6.9. One-score game. Those are emotionally exhausting for Nebraska right now.

Had the Huskers played a normal campaign, the regular season would have ended in Iowa City 23 days ago (at the time of this publication). If they had been eligible for a bowl game, they would have had three weeks to practice and prepare by this point. Fifteen practices are important on a normal timeline. 

Nebraska could use that practice. At times, it was bad. At times, it showed promise. At times, it was very bad. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

But this isn’t a normal timeline. Nebraska would get how many days of practice?  Four? What big-picture work would be accomplished in that time as the coaching staff tried to prepare and install a gameplan for a triple-option attack?

Put yourself in Nebraska’s black Adidas cleats for a moment. 

You haven’t seen your family since March, you haven’t gone outside your normal routine since June 1. You’ve been getting daily COVID-19 tests since the closing days of September, worrying about the 1:30 class you’re about to walk into and what kind of exposure might be lurking there, avoiding crowds, and telling your friends no when they ask to hang out. 

You get home at 4 a.m. Saturday morning from a trip to New Jersey. You won, but the celebration is subdued. Everyone looks and feels drained. There are six days until Christmas.

Would you rather spend Christmas Day isolated in a hotel room in Louisiana or your dorm room? Or would you want to go see Mom and Dad?

Would a ninth game after you’ve played eight be worth missing Christmas with your family?

I know what I’m doing, it rhymes with snowing gnome.

A bowl game for Nebraska would provide little value. A win wouldn’t ensure a winning record on the season. They can use their latest win as a motivational springboard, should they chose to do so. The practices tied to a bowl wouldn’t be substantial enough to accomplish much. A loss would change the perception of your team. It’s a high-risk/low-reward situation. 

Nebraska shouldn’t be called soft for making a business decision. Any question about the locker room’s mental makeup should have been put to rest when they flew 1,300 miles on short notice for a meaningless game on a Friday night in mid-December that they came from behind to win. 

Nebraska shouldn’t be derided for wanting to play a season in August and now wanting to be done. 

The season Nebraska wanted to play wasn’t the one it played. That should be acknowledged. The season Nebraska wanted to play died with the Big Ten’s August postponement.

(We can talk about the merits of Nebraska’s request—to play football during a pandemic—another day. It’s an interesting discussion. I’d guess that five years from now everyone will look back at this summer and wish to have back a few of the decisions made or statements given. But that’s beside the point.)

What it got instead was a nine-games-in-nine-weeks meat grinder. Nebraska played eight of nine. Only Rutgers, Penn State, and Iowa got to eight, and two of those three came to the same bowl decision as Nebraska. 

“The young men in our football program have shown great discipline this year adhering to necessary safety measures and protocols,” said NU Athletic Director Bill Moos Sunday. “It has been a grueling 10 months for all involved, but because of the efforts of our football student-athletes, coaches and staff, we were one of only a few Big Ten teams that avoided a pause in team activities during the 2020 season.”

Nebraska didn’t pause. It got through a full season because enough of the young men on its roster agreed to live by a certain set of guidelines that adults currently making fun of them online have shirked for months.

If they’re tired, they have every right to be. 

If they’re done, they have every right to be. 

The “what’s another week of protocol after four months of it” crowd is veering dangerously into the mindset that considers athletes vehicles for personal entertainment rather than actual human beings. 

The “they fought to play and now they don’t want to play” crowd is right. That is what happened. Your point?

Both things can live in congruity.

Scott Frost asked his team what they wanted to do, and then created a safe environment to do that thing.

This weekend, he again asked his team what they wanted to do and then respected their decision. Frost gets a $150,000 bonus, per the terms of his contract, if Nebraska appears in a bowl game by the way.

(A 2-8 South Carolina team is going bowling. If Nebraska wanted to, options were on the table.)

Nebraska wanted to play football this calendar year. A spring season was and remains a dumb idea. 

Nebraska has played football. Now, those players want to go home. We’re talking about a bowl game here, something draft-eligible players opt out of all the time. It’s not like Nebraska looked at a division opponent in November and said, “Nah, we don’t want to do this anymore.”

“This whole year has been hard,” Frost said Friday night. “Again, I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me. There’s a lot of people that have it worse than I do through this COVID deal. But we’ve been grinding for a long time. I lost Dad this year. I really expected us to turn a big corner this year and thought we had the team to do that. I still do. Really excited about the future, but I’m worn out, too.”

And there’s nothing wrong with admitting that.

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