As COVID-19 never wanes and the college football season marches ever closer to the cliff’s edge, following the news in sports can be an overwhelming experience. The Big Ten has not officially, but almost certainly canceled college football for the fall, with a vast majority of university presidents voting in support of the move.
If you’re suspicious about the finality of the Big Ten’s decisions, that’s fine—as I said, nothing’s been confirmed. But Nebraska’s football program is making no efforts to hide their intentions this year, as head coach Scott Frost spoke to media today after the cancellation was leaked:
If other Big Ten programs share Frost’s sentiment, we could see a ramshackle Big Ten season jerry-rigged from the scraps of the conference’s fractured decision. But another hypothetical that was thrown into the eternal brainstorm of the internet: Nebraska back in the Big 12, where they played up until conference realignment in 2011. Nebraska themselves seems to have had this idea, as there are reports that they’ve reached out to the conference still yet undecided as to their college football season in 2020.
Could Nebraska on a one-year swan song in the Big 12 actually work? It’s more feasible than it initially seems. The current Big 12 scheduling provisions detail a “9+1” model, in which the 10-team conference sees each team play the other nine, as per usual, on top of one non-conference game. That non-conference game must be scheduled at home, and before the nine conference games are played. As of this week, the Big 12 still has not finalized a start date—mid-to-late September is anticipated—nor a hard schedule of weekly opponents.
The addition of Nebraska would force a couple questions. Firstly, would the Big 12 still follow a 9+1 model, or would they look to continue their unique everyone-plays-everyone approach with a 10+1 schedule? If they pursued the second option, they would need an extra week on the calendar to account for the additional team. The Big 12 championship, currently scheduled for December 5, can be moved back one or even two weeks, which does make this structure possible.
So the Big 12 can absorb Nebraska (and even another program, like Iowa) as a one-year loaner to beef up their schedule and haul in more revenue. Interest in Frost’s still-recovering Nebraska program in a sudden return to the Big 12 would be electric, potentially bringing in a segment of the dormant Big Ten fan base to more closely follow Big 12 football. Nebraska would also be afforded the opportunity to rekindle old rivalries, such as their storied vitriol with Oklahoma, not to mention Kansas State and Texas. A phoenix of a throwback game could very well rise the ashes of rigid college football schedules.
Of course, Nebraska fans would also like to see a Missouri or Colorado clash, with the SEC and the Pac-12 both still standing on the cliff’s edge of a college football season. But even before this latest wave of concern, both the SEC and Pac-12 committed to conference-only schedules, taking those out-of-conference options off the table.
How can Nebraska fill that non-conference game? There are two clear and extremely viable options: North Dakota State or a service academy.
North Dakota State, just a six-hour drive north of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium, desperately needs some opponents in the fall. The Missouri Valley Football Conference has pushed all conference games to the spring, but the door is still open for fall games, and as NDSU Athletic Director Matt Larsen said: "In talking to our players, they want to play as many games as they can and it was good to hear their feedback and what they wanted. If we can play three in the fall, we're going to try and do it… At the minimum, we would like to have two at home.”
That one on the road? It could very well be Nebraska. North Dakota State had one of their non-conference games as the first casualty of COVID-19 when their Oregon game was canceled in early July. The three-peat FCS champions were ready for a tough test against an FBS powerhouse, which was a key game on quarterback Trey Lance’s radar. Lance, a big-time NFL hopeful with first-round hype, is the crown jewel of the North Dakota State program right now—and playing games in the fall, especially against a Power 5 opponent, would go a huge way to keeping Lance around for the spring.
Only a redshirt sophomore, Lance has the ability to forgo the 2020 season and enter the 2021 NFL Draft, as other potential first-rounders before him have done. Lance also has transferring on the table, and plenty of Power 5 programs could use a player of his caliber. If there is Pac-12 football in the fall, what’s to stop Lance from transferring to Oregon, once a scheduled enemy, and playing a year there before entering the 2021 NFL Draft—or even staying for next season and waiting to hear his name called in 2022? Lance dominated at the FCS level last year and has nothing to prove against those caliber opponents—if North Dakota State can’t get him at least one Power-5 opponent this year, he has every reason to leave, whether via transfer or via early declaration for the draft.
So North Dakota State is a big one—but if you’re really oriented on a safe bubble, a service academy is the move. Because the service academies have such a controlled campus environment and consider the physical aspect of the cadet-athletes’ development as imperative to their growth in the service, Air Force, Navy, and Army all expect to have somewhat college football seasons and completely safe campuses. Navy just invited BYU to their campus after losing Notre Dame on their football schedule, with head coach Ken Niumatalolo saying “The game had to be right for us. We wanted to play a really good opponent… Losing Notre Dame, we wanted to play a good program with a national brand.”
Now, Air Force (which has lost their entire season with yesterday’s Mountain West cancellation) hasn’t lost an opponent like Navy lost in Notre Dame, but Army did lose Oklahoma, a team they played tough in 2018. After the Black Knights nearly stuck it to Michigan last year, losing a nail-biter in overtime, why wouldn’t they want a crack at Nebraska? They’d be the worst Power 5 team they’d play in three years, and they run the option better anyway.
Both Army and Navy are open for scheduling, while Air Force currently seems limited to just playing the other service academies—but in the immediate wake of Mountain West’s decision, there’s still room for revisiting. Nebraska will be on the phone with anyone who’s available, should they make a serious push for Big 12 participation in 2020.
A hypothetical Nebraska schedule, then, has a North Dakota State/service academy game as early as Week 0 (August 29), with a full slate of games against the Big 12 waiting in September. How would Nebraska fare?
After a 5-7 2019 season on a schedule that missed Michigan and Penn State, it’s tough to imagine Nebraska looking much stronger on a 10+1 Big 12 slate. Nebraska would almost certainly take losses to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas, hoping to fall somewhere in the second tier with Baylor, TCU, and Iowa State. Wins would perhaps be expected against Kansas and Texas Tech, as well as their non-conference game.
So the season wouldn’t necessarily be played for the sake of illustrious wins and a revitalized program, but Nebraska would get a precious something that all other Big Ten programs would miss: money. Generating any revenue by safely playing football is the dream of all college coaches and ADs, as Frost himself reflected—and with Nebraska’s history in the Big 12, they just might have a shot at it.