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McKewon: Controlling COVID-19 is different ballgame on college level, so NU must 'be really careful'

McKewon: Controlling COVID-19 is different ballgame on college level, so NU must 'be really careful'

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LINCOLN — Scott Frost was right. And the Big Ten was right, too.

If they didn’t agree on most things, how could that be true? A look at the first month of college football during the pandemic provides the answer.

Frost, talking to two reporters in late June, expressed concerns about the toll contact tracing would take on teams if programs conducted surveillance — that is asymptomatic — testing on entire rosters. The positive tests wouldn’t take teams out. The quarantine rules would.

“If we don’t get there, where we’re able to just play football and take care of kids who are symptomatic — pull them, isolate them, isolate people in direct contact with them and let everybody else go — I think football’s unlikely,” Frost said.

As cancellations pile up for teams performing multiple surveillance tests per week — Baylor had to cancel a season opener despite conducting three tests per week, and Notre Dame’s testing fell apart, too, after a 52-0 win over South Florida — it’s clear Frost foresaw how a team’s season might collapse. Houston has lost four season openers. A go-stop-go-stop-go-stop routine can be devastating to well-trained athletes who get themselves to a physical and mental place few of us reach, only to have the competitive door slammed in their face.

As padded practices are scheduled to begin this week, the Big Ten will launch a testing initiative as aggressive as the NFL, which through several weeks hasn’t experienced a blip in its schedule. Major League Baseball, after early hiccups, has stabilized, too. The Big Ten should be able to duplicate their success.

Short of the symptomatic-only approach, six-days-a-week antigen testing probably achieves the closest thing to an entire roster. And the Big Ten’s positive test thresholds are stringent enough that, if a team falls short and has to shut down operations for a week, it’s doing so with a much smaller spread of the virus than what Memphis dealt with or Notre Dame may be navigating.

But the nature of college athletics will test that theory. The rosters are bigger. The coaching and support staffs often can be, as well.

Pro athletes are far more likely to be married and have kids, which tends to anchor them to fewer locations during the week. Pro athletes also aren’t walking around campuses on a frequent basis. If the Big Ten protocols and testing frequently can’t control spread among its 14 programs, it tells us something interesting about the difference between college and pro sports.

Eyeballs will be on Nebraska. NU fought to play football for football’s sake — Ohio State doesn’t have to apologize for its self-interested motives, but self-interested the Buckeyes are — and now must, with the league’s largest roster, perform a high bar routine that sticks the landing.

In an appearance on the Husker Sports Network, Frost said the Big Ten’s standards “have us worried a little bit.”

“Just the number of kids who can be current positive with COVID, and the limit on that before you’re told that you can’t play that week,” Frost said. “We’re going to have to be really careful.”

Frost and Co. will have a fuller chat with the media this week. We’ll drill down into the tweaks Nebraska is making — on and off the practice field — to meet the balance of safety and quality preparation.

The Huskers have one important advantage — it typically is one but perhaps pandemic protocols further underline it — in an experienced quarterback. Saturday’s games, in which Oklahoma and LSU had shocking home losses to Kansas State and Mississippi State, showed as much.

OU’s Spencer Rattler looks to be a stronger-armed, less-athletic version of Kyler Murray. For 2½ quarters against the Wildcats, he shined. But as Kansas State tightened the game, Rattler tightened up.

Oklahoma didn’t score on its final five drives. Rattler took bad sacks and seemed flummoxed by the coverages. It was his second start — and looked like it.

LSU’s Myles Brennan wasn’t going to fill Joe Burrow’s shoes. Few quarterbacks could ever think to duplicate Burrow’s 2019 season. Brennan seemed hesitant — and admitted as much after the game — in a 44-34 shootout loss to Mike Leach and quarterback K.J. Costello, a three-year starter at Stanford before transferring to Starkville. Costello, who torched Bo Pelini’s overaggressive, risky pass defense for an SEC-record 623 passing yards, looked like a seasoned senior. Brennan looked as Burrow once did in his LSU debut: Shaky.

Elsewhere, quarterback experience proved important.

Texas’ Sam Ehlinger overcame a 15-point deficit to Texas Tech in the game’s final four minutes. Auburn’s Bo Nix avoided big mistakes in a 29-13 slugfest over Kentucky. Florida’s Kyle Trask — who along with Costello most improved his Heisman profile Saturday — tossed six touchdowns at Mississippi. Trask’s one season of starting in 2019 has carried over.

Nebraska has two-year starter Adrian Martinez, and that’s valuable. So is having an experienced offensive line. NU has that, too.

Of course, so does Ohio State. And the Huskers’ second opponent, Wisconsin. And Penn State, NU’s fourth foe. New Northwestern starting quarterback Peyton Ramsey has taken a few turns around the block, as well. The Big Ten, as a whole, is a league full of seasoned quarterbacks. In the Big Ten West, only Iowa is breaking in a truly fresh starter in Spencer Petras.

So it goes. At least Nebraska can feel good about the experience where it matters most.

Other observations from the weekend:

» It can happen to any program, an abject, multiyear collapse. It’s happening to Florida State, which lost 52-10 to Miami on Saturday night and may have its best chance at a win next Saturday against Jacksonville State.

Florida State is staring down the barrel of its third straight losing season. Before 2018, Florida State had 41 straight winning seasons.

» There are so many spread, shotgun, pass-first teams now that it wouldn’t surprise me if over the next five years the pendulum shifts back toward offenses that more resemble Wisconsin and Iowa. And it wouldn’t stun me to see more of it from Nebraska, either.

The Huskers dabbled just a little last season. Frost and offensive coordinator Matt Lubick can run just about anything, given the breadth of their experiences.

One thing seems a must: Backs who can catch passes out of the backfield.

» Great uniforms all over the joint this weekend.

Georgia’s “1980” road look with red pants, Oklahoma State’s 1980s throwback that Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas used to don, the Mississippi powder-blue tops and helmets, Cincinnati’s all-black home look, Baylor’s green-and-yellow combo. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, dipped their alternate uniforms in ash, it appears. Let’s never see that again.

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