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McKewon: Big Ten is the 'NFL of college' — where anybody can really beat anybody

McKewon: Big Ten is the 'NFL of college' — where anybody can really beat anybody

Damion Daniels: "We're not where we wanna be"

LINCOLN — It’s a small, occasionally grim group of people who can joke about college football schedules.

Scott Frost probably leads that pack. Last October, as the Big Ten hashed out its schedules, he quipped about his team's willingness to play in Uzbekistan. This year he landed a good punchline about Nebraska’s vigorous Big Ten slate.

“Might as well just schedule a scrimmage with Penn State on a Wednesday if we’re going to play everybody who’s good in the league every year,” Frost said.

He said it with a smile, but NU’s schedule has been hard, with games against Oklahoma, Michigan and Michigan State. All three are ranked in the top 10. Three more Big Ten programs are as well — No. 2 Iowa, No. 6 Ohio State and No. 7 Penn State.

That won’t last — four of these teams are in the East Division and they'll start playing each other Oct. 30 — but for now the league has never been stronger at the top. You could argue — as NU coaches and players do — that it’s never been tougher at the bottom either.

“Anybody can beat you any week,” Frost said.

“The level of play is really high right now, and each week you have to be on,” quarterback Adrian Martinez said. “I truly believe that each team is capable of beating each other.”

The tight betting lines say as much. Michigan was a field goal favorite over NU, which is now a field goal favorite over Minnesota. Rutgers, decently competitive in losses to Michigan and Michigan State, is just a two-point favorite over awful Northwestern.

The margins are small enough that even teams headed for Christmas at home can punch up.

“This is the NFL of college,” defensive tackle Damion Daniels said. “Anybody can get beat any day. Every game is a rivalry. That’s why we practice for nameless, faceless opponents.”

Because the Big Ten often plays second fiddle to the SEC, there could be a small hesitation to Daniels’ quote. But it seems true in 2021.

Think about it: Of Nebraska’s five remaining games, you could argue Wisconsin — the team that haunts Husker dreams — is the weakest of the bunch. Scary stuff if Nebraska wasn’t playing well with two upcoming bye weeks.

“Our team is also a really good team,” Martinez said. “We can be in a completely different spot if we can get a couple of those plays cleaned up.”

More Husker notes:

» Daniels wants to be a coach one day, so it’s not surprising he gets praise from coaches and teammates for his vocal leadership. The Husker defensive tackle doesn't give rah-rah pregame or halftime speeches. He makes a personal trip around to teammates.

“People get butterflies, I get butterflies," Daniels said. "I’ve got the jitters in me because I can’t wait to put hands on somebody. But I need to make sure that ‘Hey, you go out there, you make sure you hit them first, and those jitters will be gone.'

"That’s what I harp on, and that’s why I love the defense going out there first. We’re going to set the standard. We’re going to set the tempo for the rest of the game.”

Damion’s brother, Darrion, was a team captain in 2019. Their styles are a little different. Damion’s blunter. He has a look in his eyes. Teammates respect it.

» Two home night games. Just a few official visitors.

Nebraska, at eight commits in the 2022 class, is recruiting like it expects almost all of its 17 scholarship juniors to come back next season.

I can see why NU would want that, given all but one is a major contributor. I’ll be curious to see how many choose the NFL — or a transfer — and what role NIL plays in the decision.

Frost has said the class will land at about 13 scholarship signees. Transfers will then presumably be added through the winter, spring and summer at positions of need like offensive tackle, pass rusher, safety, running back and quarterback if Martinez chooses to leave. Logan Smothers and a couple tall, wild colts are likely not the short-term depth chart solution.

You also have to figure multiple Huskers — including a few key contributors — will become free agents.

Wan’Dale Robinson improved his situation by heading to Kentucky and now leads the SEC in receiving yards. He's also in good shape for the 2022 or 2023 NFL draft.

» Lindsey Krause has taken the Nebraska lead in “freshman outside hitters to figure things out” in 2021. Krause has hit .300 or better in every Big Ten match but Penn State. She doesn’t shoulder the load Madi Kubik does, but the Omaha Skutt product could be in that position by the end of this season.

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