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I did it again. Dang it.

A few days ago, I was scanning Twitter when I stumbled onto CBS Sports’ projected Big Ten West rankings for 2020. Click. Skim. Scroll. Ah ha. Seven expert panelists. Where did they pick Nebraska?

3rd

4th

5th

5th

5th

5th

6th

How did I — a native Nebraskan who grew up during the 1990s — instinctively respond?

“C’mon! Fifth? Seriously?!”

And then I remembered three consecutive losing seasons. Seven years without a division championship. Twenty years without a conference title. Countless “rock bottom” moments.

We Nebraskans have this horrible habit of assuming the Huskers are better than they actually are. And when reality hits home, we’re shocked! Seeing prognosticators pick Purdue ahead of Nebraska will never feel normal to me; I don’t care how often it happens.

But a golden opportunity awaits.

Yes, Nebraska faces its toughest schedule EVER. Ohio State is favored by almost four touchdowns Saturday! Wisconsin, Penn State, Iowa and Minnesota are better on paper, too.

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Obviously it’s a perilous road. But the bright side should be clear, too. The Huskers get a shot to earn back their reputation where it matters most — on the field.

So much of the discussion around NU has focused on politics and public relations. But the Huskers finally get a chance to compete without excessive scrutiny, distraction or expectations.

Nobody would argue that Big Red is the biggest show in our lives this fall. Not with the virus surging again and a presidential campaign culminating in two weeks. We all have a broader perspective on what matters.

Nebraska (and its fans) should take advantage. Compete with freedom and joy. The Huskers haven’t won a game as an underdog since Mike Riley’s last year (at Purdue). They haven’t beaten a really good team since Riley’s first year (Michigan State). This program is so due for a breakout performance.

And what’s the worst that happens? Go 2-7 in a pandemic-shortened season? So what.

Nebraska isn’t winning the West in 2020. But if the Huskers pull a few upsets, they’ll earn credibility and confidence and suddenly 2021 looks like a real chance to contend again. By then, hopefully the world has calmed down and we can give our hearts to college football again.

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» More than anything this fall, I’m rooting for legitimacy.

I look around the Big Ten and see COVID numbers escalating at alarming rates. I see university administrators still uncommitted to football and college students still casual with the virus.

It wouldn’t take much for a mini-outbreak in a locker room to prompt cancellation of multiple games, especially considering the Big Ten’s strict quarantine policies.

Sports is brilliant entertainment for many reasons, but a big one is integrity. If Team A beats Team B, we accept that Team A is better. COVID threatens that equation.

How, for example, are we supposed to fairly determine a division champion if Minnesota plays six games, Iowa plays seven and Nebraska plays eight? Messy, right? Now add the possibility that Minnesota’s toughest game is canceled.

So yes, I want to see Big Ten football. But I want to see it on the condition that it feels like a real competition. With COVID on the rise and zero wiggle room in the schedule, that’s no sure thing.

» Rebuilding Nebraska football was harder than Scott Frost anticipated. I don’t think that’s a secret. But too often Frost (and others) cited intangible obstacles, specifically a lack of commitment and leadership in the locker room.

Hopefully those narratives have expired. If your players aren’t cohesive after everything they’ve endured the past six months, they never will be.

We shouldn’t hear anything about who’s a Frost player and who’s a Riley player. We shouldn’t hear anything about leadership voids. The confidence is yet to come. Understandably. But commitment and chemistry? No more excuses.

» I’ll pick Nebraska to finish 4-4 in Big Ten play. Wins over Northwestern, Penn State, Illinois, Purdue. Losses to Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.

Anything over .500 will feel like an early Christmas present to Husker fans.