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On the Line: Illinois opener could be a turning point for Scott Frost and Nebraska

Saturday's game is a must-win for Frost, not because what he gains with a victory, but what he avoids with a loss.

Do you know what a derecho is? If you live in Nebraska, you probably do.

Coined in 1888 in the American Meteorological Journal by University of Iowa physics professor Dr. Gustavus Hinrichs, a derecho is "a widespread, long-lived wind storm that is associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms." It's basically a inland hurricane. Last August, a derecho spread across eight states, covering 770 miles in 14 hours, whipping up 140 mile per hour winds and killing four people in Iowa.  

One of these bad boys is looming over the entire state of Nebraska right now. 

Derecho

Scott Frost's homecoming was supposed to be the perfect fit. He was the link between Nebraska's past and its future -- a program builder with connections in Florida and on the West Coast and an offense that would translate from the Sunshine State to the great plains. 

This was supposed to be the golden child moving home to revitalize the family business. Instead it's been... anything but that.

Maybe the Frosts' home being burglarized shortly after moving to Lincoln was an omen, but from the outside looking in it appears no one's happy in red right now.

The Huskers began Frost's debut season an unfathomable 0-6, and they're only 12-14 since then. Nebraska sits at 9-17 in Big Ten games in Frosts's three seasons. At a program that won at least nine games for three decades straight, Nebraska has finished below .500 for four straight seasons.

Frost isn't just 0-5 against Iowa and Wisconsin, he's 2-4 against Minnesota and Purdue. 

Beyond all that, Nebraska was one of this offseason's biggest losers in the transfer portal. With Wan'Dale Robinson now at Kentucky, Nebraska's leading returning receiver, sophomore Zavier Betts, caught two passes for 21 yards per game. The defense hasn't finished in the Big Ten's top five in yards per play since 2013. 

Off the field, Frost is under investigation for possibly breaking easily-documentable NCAA rules. Nebraska allegedly held unauthorized practices during the pandemic and had analysts provide unauthorized coaching. Those aren't the type of (alleged) violations the head coach can wave away with plausible deniability. Quite the opposite, they're the type of (alleged) violations the head coach would have to approve, condone and order. 

He's also under the purview of an athletics director that didn't hire him -- an AD that may not see Frost as a necessary link to Nebraska's past since he himself, an All-American linebacker under Tom Osborne, is a link to the glory days on his own. The 2022 recruiting class is currently ranked last in the Big Ten.

Again, who seems happy right now in Lincoln?

This brings us to Saturday's Illinois game. 

Win Saturday, and Nebraska likely heads to Norman on Sept. 18 3-0. Pull that off and Nebraska will have its first 3-game winning streak since ripping off seven straight to open the 2016 season. 

No one expects this Big Red team to knock off the No. 2 team in the nation, but at least you'll come home saying you've done what you're supposed to do over the first third of the season. You can feel good about nabbing three more wins and returning to the postseason for the first time since 2016, tangible progress at a time the program sorely needs it.

None of the above is promised with a victory over Illinois, but it would be an important, necessary first step. 

What follows the Sept. 18 Oklahoma game is a trip to Michigan State, home dates with Northwestern and Michigan, a trip to Minnesota and a home game with Purdue. The Cornhuskers close with three likely losses: Ohio State, at Wisconsin, Iowa. 

In fact, Nebraska's schedule is the most difficult in the country for a team like Nebraska.

If Nebraska can't beat Illinois, how confident can it feel about defeating Michigan State, Purdue, Minnesota -- let alone Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa. 

Frost can't save his tenure with a win over Illinois. A victory simply gets him a 1-0 start and a pat on the back on his way back to work for the following week's game. A win Saturday isn't about what he gains, but what he avoids: a derecho unleashing holy hell upon the entire Big Red Nation when the clock hits zero around 4 p.m. Saturday.