In a twist, the Big Ten football season will begin this year where it ends every year—Lucas Oil Stadium.
The home of the Indianapolis Colts and the Ohio State Buckeyes, the field in Indy will host representatives from each of the Big Ten’s 14 members on Thursday and Friday of this week.
Nebraska takes to Indy on Thursday for its scheduled appearance at the 2021 Big Ten Media Days. Husker head coach Scott Frost, defensive end Ben Stille, safety Deontai Williams, and tight end Austin Allen will represent the team.
Last year saw the event axed as the league took precautions for Covid incredibly seriously. This year, it’s back.
Most coaches could probably take it or leave it, but there’s usually insight to be gained and fun to be had. This is where features are born, weird food preferences are shared, style comes out and the new college football season, from a coverage standpoint, officially moves from offseason to preseason.
There figures to be some interesting storylines not just with the Huskers but across the league, so we’re put together a “quick hits” guide of sorts to try and get you ready.
Does time truly heal all wounds?
Bill Moos made a habit of making himself available to the media at these events. After all, while Frost and his players were the public face speaking with the media, the former Nebraska athletic director was in the background meeting with the league’s 13 other athletic directors.
The expectation is that new Husker AD Trev Alberts will be no different. He officially started on Monday, and the plan is to be in Indy. “Looking forward to that occasion,” he said last week.
As it relates to interacting with Big Ten leadership, this will be a significant early test for Alberts as Nebraska’s leading man. Just how frayed has the relationship become between Nebraska and the league over the last year?
Though Nebraska’s prickliness was often mischaracterized and overblown, to say Nebraska was a thorn in the side of the Big Ten’s power brokers would still be accurate. Nebraska asked questions publicly the Big Ten would have preferred be discussed privately. Player parents sued the conference. Nebraska was the butt of jokes once the season started, and that kind of animosity will fade once new games come around, but if there’s any actual tension between commissioner Kevin Warren or members of the COP/C and Nebraska, it’ll be on Alberts to try and smooth those over.
Earlier this summer, Frost admitted to fans that he might have painted a target on his team’s back with the volume of his stance. At Alberts’ introductory press conference, Nebraska’s president and chancellor reaffirmed once again their commitment to the league. Alberts stressed that both parties can still benefit from the relationship.
Warren will have his time at the dais as well this week, as the commissioner normally holds a Q&A session with attending media. Will he get any questions about Nebraska?
What is the Big Ten’s stance on Covid-related protocols for 2021?
This has been a key piece of information from both the SEC and Big 12 media sessions that have already occurred. Both of those leagues were certainly more proactive in preparing for a football season than the Big Ten was last year, but the Big Ten held itself up as more of the moral arbiter among its Power Five peers.
They weren’t going to play and then once that path was no longer tenable, they instituted some of the strictest measure. Top-down mandates on attendance annoyed many. The league lost its most marketable product in any football season—the Ohio State-Michigan game—to Covid protocols.
Gone is the rescheduled game from the vernacular for the SEC. Commissioner Greg Sankey used the f-word during his time at the dais. Teams who can’t play because of Covid reasons will forfeit the game.
While both Sankey and Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby urged anyone listening to consider getting vaccinated, they know they can’t mandate players get the shots. The SEC will loosen restrictions for teams that reach a 85% vaccination threshold—no more masking inside school facilities, no more testing requirements—as a strong-arm way of encouraging teams get vaccinated without wading into the murky waters that would come with a requirement.
While commendable public stances to take, they’re probably not as altruistic as either men would have you believe. No one wants to see the Iron Bowl or Red River Shootout wind up as a forfeit.
Which leads us back to the Big Ten. Those two leagues were able to go already. Warren will have the benefit of watching the reaction to Sankey’s and Bowlsby’s stances. What are the Big Ten’s plans?
And for Nebraska?
Frost said in the spring he wouldn’t require his players to get vaccinated and that he’d wait for more guidance from the Big Ten before addressing much more.
Has anything changed?
Nebraska was among the group of schools last year that chose not to publicly report Covid numbers (it still reported them to the appropriate agencies privately), so how much info will Frost be willing to give about the team’s own precautions? He’ll surely be asked.
How much pressure does Frost feel this season?
The last time Nebraska gathered with its Big Ten peers in a setting like this it was the betting favorite to win the Big Ten West. Its quarterback had Heisman odds coming off of a Freshman All-American campaign. Frost was the talk of the town and comparison’s were drawn to Central Florida’s second-year leap up into another stratosphere of play.
None of what was predicted came to pass. Nebraska went 5-7 and Adrian Martinez struggled mightily.
Nebraska’s offense slipped even further in 2020. Its scoring output has declined each year under Frost, who is now 12-20 as the Huskers’ head coach.
Assistant coaches in the spring showcased legitimate urgency. Frost believes this team is talented and capable. But patience has begun to wear thin. The oft-used talking point that Nebraska has made progress behind closed doors is sellable to people watching close enough to see the little things not adding up to impact the bottom line, but Frost won’t be able to feed that message to a room of people who have only seen the lopsided scorelines and the laughable headlines in the last three years.
What’s the demeanor for the coach in front of that kind of room? What kind of message does Frost try and convey?
Remember playoff expansion?
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has used this time in the past as a soundboard for his ideas to modify the sport. What does he think of the proposed model that would see the College Football Playoff expand from four teams to 12?
What does Penn State’s James Franklin think? An expanded field would surely benefit those two more than someone like, say, Bret Bielema. Better yet, what does Ryan Day think? His Buckeyes would all but be assured a spot every year if they maintain their current output.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney (perhaps) made waves Tuesday when he said “our team wasn’t for it. … And to be honest with you, I don’t think there (are) 12 teams good enough.”
This will be our first opportunity to hear what the Big Ten’s coaches and players think about the potential changes. How many will be on board?
What’s going on at running back?
On to the Nebraska-centric storylines, and this is an important one.
Who’s healthy? Who’s ready to go for fall camp? Nebraska could have as many as six scholarship running back vying for playing time in camp. It’ll also hopefully get its first look at USC transfer Markese Stepp.
The rushing attack needs to take a significant step in 2021, and the traditional running backs need to play their part. Sixty percent of Nebraska’s rushing attempts last season came from Martinez, Luke McCaffrey, and Wan’Dale Robinson. None of those players are running backs, and the last two have transferred away. Nebraska was an above-average rushing attack statistically last season thanks to its explosiveness on the ground, but those numbers were perhaps juiced by an improvisational quarterback run game. NU’s ball-carriers got stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage on 22% of their carries, a mark that ranked 82nd nationally.
The ground game is of vital importance to Frost’s larger offensive structure, and the Huskers know they have to find more consistency there, if at the very least to help insulate Martinez more from wear and tear. Frost has already expressed confidence this offseason in his wide receivers, how does he feel at the outset of fall camp about the ground game?
Seven of the last nine Husker representatives at his particular event have gone on to be named a team captain by their teammates. That includes five of the six players who have been selected to go under Frost.
It was Austin Allen’s goal this spring to earn his teammate’s vote and become a team captain, and it would seem he’s pretty darned close to doing exactly that.
Allen will represent the offense. He’s grown into a tremendously comfortable voice for the team, particularly in front of the cameras. He’ll handle some uncomfortable big-picture questions, no doubt. But this should also be a moment for the fifth-year junior to revel in.
Under the tutelage of tight ends coach Sean Beckton, Allen has developed into a more-than-capable tight end. He’s one of Nebraska’s more seasoned players, the team’s leading returning receiver from last year, and figures to be a staple of the offense in 2021.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.