Whether eight or nine conference games, Big Ten play is Huskers’ No. 1 priority

LINCOLN — Dylan Utter could be the poster boy for week-to-week focus, so unworried about the big picture or future games that the Nebraska center wasn’t even sure Monday why the Huskers were already playing Northwestern this week.

The bump-up goes with the Big Ten switching to a nine-game conference schedule in 2016, which Utter and some teammates admit they hadn’t given much thought.

“I guess I didn’t even notice that,” Utter said, with a shrug.

Saturday’s game will mark the Huskers’ earliest league contest since the Big 12 set an NU-Oklahoma State matchup to start the 2003 season. It begins a nine-game march to what Nebraska hopes is a spot in the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 3.

Coach Mike Riley and several players said they favor it and look forward to it, and in essence it will be eliminating a fourth nonconference game that is usually against a team from a lesser league.

“Once you go into the Big Ten games, those are always going to mean a whole lot,” Utter said. “That’s what our goal is, to win a Big Ten championship, so it’s just kind of nice to get after it.”

The Big Ten joins the Big 12 and Pac-12 as conferences playing nine-game league schedules in 2016. The SEC and ACC are still playing eight, along with most non-Power Five leagues.

For the Big Ten, it will be the first nine-game conference season since 1984.

“I think it’s probably appropriate that we play nine,” Riley said Monday. “I think, if that is the case, then every league should probably do that. And I think, probably, with the playoff at stake and things like that, that that should be equitable that way.

“You know you have to play everybody in your division. And since our conference is so big, I think having those other league games that aren’t in your division are good for everybody, to play in and watch.”

It was actually new to Riley last season to only play eight league games in his first year at NU, having come from the Pac-12 after 12 seasons at Oregon State.

And Riley said he believed most Pac-12 coaches were in support of nine.

“I think that everybody kind of liked that, the way it was,” he said. “I didn’t hear any opposition.”

Riley, however, remembered Stanford coach David Shaw being among those during a 2014 spring teleconference who didn’t like some leagues playing eight if others were playing nine.

“Play your conference,” Shaw said. “Don’t back down from playing your own conference. It’s one thing to back down from playing somebody else. But don’t back down from playing your own conference.”

Riley said the common thought was “how we basically beat ourselves up, and somebody else is scheduling a lesser opponent.”

“So that’s where it becomes an issue,” he said. “That’s what they thought about it then.”

In Nebraska’s case, its final nonconference game in recent seasons included opponents such as Southern Mississippi, South Dakota State, Idaho State, Wyoming and Louisiana-Lafayette.

Starting this season, NU will draw three teams from the East Division to go with its mandatory six games against the West. West teams will play five of their nine on the road in even-numbered years, and five at home in odd-numbered years.

“I think it’s kind of fun,” receiver Alonzo Moore said. “We just got to stay healthy, come ready to work and just take games one at a time.

“We look at it like the regular season is over. Now, it’s playoff time. It’s 0-0 now. That’s our record going into conference play, so we’re just going to prepare for that now.”

Jordan Westerkamp grew up in Big Ten country, so it would be hard for the Nebraska receiver not to like seeing more league opponents.

“It adds to the experience for me, a senior guy, to play all those Big Ten teams,” Westerkamp said. “It’s a great part of the season, especially coming off the 3-0 start, which is huge for us. We got some momentum going for it, and I’m really excited to get this conference play kicked off.”

But no matter if it’s nine, eight or five, Utter said all he knows is that Nebraska starts it with Northwestern.

“Sometimes people will ask me something like, ‘Hey, when do you play Illinois?’ and I’ll have no idea,” Utter said. “I know who we play this week and what we’re doing.

“The cliché thing is always to say each game is the most important one, whether you’re playing the worst team or the best team, so that’s kind of how we want to approach it. And that’s what great teams do, they take each week as seriously as they can.”