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Shatel: NU finds it must adjust to succeed in Big Ten

Shatel: NU finds it must adjust to succeed in Big Ten

Bury my laptop down with the Edmund Fitzgerald. Fill my Oaken Bucket with cheese curds. Order me a Woody Hayes costume for Halloween.

Take me, Big Ten. For better, for worse or the Camp Randall press box.

Last week I bid farewell to Oklahoma, the Big Eight and whatever they’re calling the Big 12 these days. A place where I used to live.

It only took 10 years, but I’m ready for the Big Ten, otherwise known as “Ohio State’s 13.” Three Buckeyes and a cloud of dust.

Well, how about that?

The Big Ten actually looks interesting this year.

Give the credit to Ohio State’s defense, which ranks 13th in the Big Ten after three games. Four spots behind Nebraska.

Ryan Day, who guided Urban Meyer’s machine to two Big Ten championships and College Football Playoff berths, is having hard conversations with his defense and has already changed defensive play-callers.

It’s only three games, but it appears the Big Ten could be wide open this season.

In the Ohio State-dominated East, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and Maryland are 3-0. Indiana and Rutgers are no pushovers.

If the Buckeyes are a notch down, that could get crazy in a hurry.

Meanwhile, Iowa looks like the class of the West. Unless quarterback Graham Mertz gets it together for Wisconsin. Minnesota isn’t far behind.

There are all kinds of possibilities and combinations for the Big Ten championship game in December.

And the door could be opened slightly for Jim Harbaugh or Kirk Ferentz, perhaps P.J. Fleck, to win the Buckeye Trophy.

So where does Nebraska fit in?

As the Big Red enter their second decade in the Big Ten, that’s still a good question.

After 10 years, Nebraska is 43-41 in the Big Ten, with five winning seasons, five losing seasons and one division title in 2012.

It’s been a black and blue experience. Part of that is Nebraska’s fault. And part of it isn’t.

Timing is everything. When NU entered the league in 2011, Big Ten schools weren’t highly ambitious. In terms of priorities, facilities and coaching staff salaries were somewhere behind library cards and finding tuba players who could dot the “i.”

But then came Urban Meyer in 2012. As Adam Rittenberg notes, Meyer lit a fire under the entire conference and pulled everyone up.

“Urban coming into the league enhanced the investment at a lot of schools,” says Rittenberg, a national college football writer for ESPN.com and a 2003 Northwestern graduate.

“Interestingly, the league has gotten much better without Michigan getting better.”

What’s interesting about that is that the Michigan Man himself, Harbaugh, leads the Big Ten with an $8 million annual salary.

But at least eight coaches in the league make at least $4.9 million, including Purdue’s Jeff Brohm and Indiana’s Tom Allen.

Big Ten schools hit the Jim Delany Lottery and discovered there was more to Saturday football than tailgating on the old lawn.

Nebraska has had to deal with that, losing at times to teams it probably never imagined it would lose to when it joined.

NU has been a big disappointment in the Big Ten, and maybe part of that is a delusion that having the Nebraska name was going to be enough.

NU has been something of a reluctant Big Ten soldier when it comes to football. And that attitude boiled to the surface a year ago, when Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos, coach Scott Frost, Husker football parents and fans took on the Big Ten commissioner, Desmond Howard and seemingly anyone wearing a Big Ten cardigan.

At some point both sides had to be wondering if this arrangement was worth it. But eventually cooler heads prevailed.

Put the past and memories in a shoe box for the closet. Nebraska is in the Big Ten.

And the era of Nebraska as a Big Ten school is about to begin.

Trev Alberts is in charge now. Under Alberts, there will be a greater emphasis and focus on the Huskers winning in the Big Ten. Including, and especially, football.

Upon his hiring, Alberts immediately pledged allegiance to the Big Ten. He said NU and the Big Ten need each other, but it was up to the school to start pulling its weight.

Alberts drove himself to Big Ten media days in Indianapolis to meet with Commissioner Kevin Warren and league office staff.

Alberts wants NU to become a Big Ten member in good standing. Not to mention good in the standings.

This is the preferable approach, because Nebraska football isn’t at its best when it’s fighting with the conference office, which has seemingly been the case going back to the Big 12. Or distracted by so much drama.

Husker football is clicking and everyone is happy when it’s focused on winning football games.

How can Nebraska do that in the Big Ten? Well, the A.D. plans to fix that, too.

Alberts, an Iowa boy who played for Osborne in the Big Eight, has laid out his vision for his football program.

It includes discipline, physical play, accountability, no-excuse fundamental football. Special teams. Little things. Development. Coaching up all levels of talent.

In other words, like all those teams that Alberts played on. And those teams that Frost played on.

And all those Nebraska teams that won nine games a year and played in major bowl games and won titles during the ’60s to the ’90s.

Sound familiar?

“The Big Ten is very much a developmental conference, as far as how you recruit,” Rittenberg said. “It’s about execution. When you look at the West, it’s about who screws up the least.”

And that’s what makes no sense to Rittenberg, a longtime admirer of Nebraska football.

“There seems to be a reluctance to embrace that part of the equation,” Rittenberg said. “I’m not sure why that is, because that was their calling card forever.

“Based on their history, for me, Nebraska was always the robots. They would show up and beat your butt and they wouldn’t hurt themselves.

“That’s where Nebraska has fallen short. That, to me, is hard to explain. That was in Nebraska’s DNA and now they are doing the opposite.”

There is no question that is the Nebraska Alberts wants. Whomever is coaching for him will be in charge of bringing back those traits, that identity.

Right now, that’s Frost. And while the Huskers have made progress in areas of physicality and playmaking this season, shortcomings and leaks still pop up.

Execution must be tightened up if the Huskers want to win games like Michigan State on Saturday night. Or all the other Big Ten games on the schedule. When will NU learn?

Wins are important. But it’s the good coaching, good football things Alberts will be watching as he evaluates Frost.

Back in 2018, Frost said he hoped the Big Ten would adjust to his style. And it seems like that’s been Nebraska’s attitude ever since 2011.

But it’s always been the other way around: Nebraska had to become a Big Ten team before it could win in this league.

There’s no shame in that. Back in the day, Osborne went to the option and recruited Oklahoma-type quarterbacks and running backs to beat the Sooners. Then made an adjustment to catch Florida State and Miami.

Adjusting to the competition is Nebraska tradition.

In this case, the secret to this Big Ten thing is right under their nose.

“It’s accepting that, but I don’t think it’s hard to change it,” Rittenberg said. “In many ways there were things that Nebraska did in the past that were very Big Ten-like.”

Whatever the league, it was always known as Nebraska-like.

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