Chicago — For the better part of the previous three years, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh has been the most popular coach at the Big Ten’s media days.
Challenged at least some by Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, Harbaugh often has the largest media throng at his availability. Maybe not for anything he’s going to say, but out of sheer interest in the coach and the program, the cameras and notepads typically follow.
On Monday, the crowd around Harbaugh was still big, but at least as many reporters were talking with the lone new coach in the Big Ten — Nebraska’s Scott Frost.
Frost brings with him nearly as much hype after leading Central Florida to an unbeaten season in 2017 and a “national championship.” He, like Harbaugh, is now coaching at his alma mater and has the fanbase whipped into a frenzy, hoping he can bring back the glory days of Tom Osborne that included three national championships, the last coming with Frost at quarterback in 1997.
He’ll have to overcome a couple of decades of mediocrity at Nebraska, which hasn’t won a conference title since 1999 and has only reached the Big Ten championship game once — in 2012 — since coming over from the Big 12.
“Nebraska, historically, belongs in the upper echelon of college football,” Frost said. “Hasn't really been accomplishing things to that degree for a while. Certainly, not to the degree that the people in Nebraska and the people of the university want it to. I'm just excited to start the process of getting Nebraska back where it belongs, making it competitive and trying to compete for championships.”
How he’ll do that remains the question.
There’s no doubt the culture of recruiting has changed since Osborne was running the Cornhuskers program, but Frost believes he can turn the Huskers into contenders the same way his former coach did, highlighting player development and getting the hungriest athletes in the Midwest.
“Coach Osborne had the formula that Nebraska figured out,” Frost said. “Some of the things he did to make the program arguably the best in the country can still work today. Nebraska has just gone away from them. We're going to adopt a lot of things again and do it in a modern way, and do it in a way that recruits and kids are going to want to be a part of.”
The turnaround won’t happen overnight, Frost said. He admitted the talent level has to increase and said most of today’s high school players don’t know Nebraska as a top program.
He intends to change that.
“In this first recruiting cycle, the parents all remember Nebraska as Nebraska,” Frost said. “A lot of the kids don't remember that. It's our job to change that. It's our job to make sure that the new generation remembers Nebraska for what it is and what it should be, and we're in the process of making sure that the kids that we're going to recruit going forward see Nebraska as one of the top programs in the country.”
'Fired up' for redshirt rule
Coaches across college football are dealing with a rule change this season they all seem to like. That, of course, is the rule that allows freshmen to play in up to four games without burning their redshirt season.
“I'm fired up about that rule,” Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald said. “I think there's a lot of coaches in the country excited about it. … It's great for players.”
It could dramatically change the way freshmen are used. In the old system, it was rare to see a true freshman play who wasn’t going to see significant time on the field. There were some occasions a redshirt was lost late in the season because of injury.
The hope is the new rule not only alleviates those issues, but also prepares young players better for the length of their college career.
“I do think that what we've done this year with the redshirt rule really helps,” Penn State’s James Franklin said, “because coaches and players get into some challenging situations where late in the season you have an injury and you're trying to decide whether you're going to burn a kid's redshirt season for one game or two games at the end of the season. I think that was a really, really positive rule for our student-athletes and for the game as a whole.”
Striking a balance
The Big Ten East has dominated since the conference went to geographic divisions in 2014. In all four season, teams from the East have won the conference championship game — two for Ohio State and one each for Michigan State and Penn State.
However, don’t expect any change to the way the conference is divided.
“We've had two experiences with divisions,” commissioner Jim Delany said. “The first one was based on competitive balance over the last 20 years, and to be honest with you, it wasn't received that well. I think the identification by fans, their desire to play geographic rivals and to really fully sort of reinforce the historical rivalries at the end of the day was more important than trying to achieve in any particular timeframe competitive equality.”
The league was divided into Leaders and Legends divisions from 2011-13 before switching to the current format in 2014.
But Delany believes the competitive balance can be fluid, comparing the Big Ten to the SEC.
“I think the data is self-evident now, but I think you'll see greater and greater competitiveness.” Delany said. “I know in the SEC you saw a decade of Eastern dominance, and probably in the last 15 or years the West has probably been more dominant.”