photo and story by Patrick Runge
Nebraska football fans know that the season is now achingly close. Fall camp is just about finished, and fans throughout the state have been anxiously reviewing Nebraska’s schedule to imagine how the 2014 campaign will unfold.
So now that we’re just about ready to kick a football in anger, let’s take one final game-by-game look to see how Nebraska’s 2014 season will unfold.
Aug. 30: Florida Atlantic
When this game was first put on the schedule, it looked to be a reunion of the brothers Pelini. But with Carl losing his job as head coach of the Owls, and Bo potentially losing his job after his post-Iowa meltdown, there was a chance that neither Pelini would be prowling the sidelines on Aug. 30.
As we know, Bo survived, but Carl did not. And given that the Owls are breaking in a new coach and have a pretty significant talent. As a result, Nebraska’s 2014 lid-lifter should be comfortable.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 42, Florida Atlantic 13 (1-0 overall, 0-0 in conference)
Sep. 6: McNeese State
An FCS opponent for Nebraska looks to be a thing of the past, with the Big Ten going to a nine-game conference schedule, a B1G edict to remove FCS opponents, and a strength of schedule component to the new College Football Playoff selection committee. The Cowboys may very well be the last FCS opponent to make the paycheck-driven trip to Lincoln.
McNeese State did upset FBS South Florida last year, 53-21, in Tampa. So the Cowboys could be dangerous if not taken seriously. But Nebraska is better than South Florida, both in terms of talent and coaching. An upset here would be a stunner.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 56, McNeese State 10 (2-0 overall, 0-0 in conference)
Sep. 13: at Fresno State
On paper, this looks like a dangerous game for Nebraska. And there are some reasons to be concerned. The game is on the road, at a very weird starting time (9:30 p.m. central time), and playing a team that was a BCS-buster threat a year ago.
But that was a year ago, when the Bulldogs had Derek Carr at quarterback. Carr is gone now, a second-round pick by the Oakland Raiders, and there is not an NFL-ready quarterback waiting to take his place. The time and the road trip might make things challenging to start, but this game should not be a major threat for Nebraska
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 38, Fresno State 17 (3-0 overall, 0-0 in conference)
Sep. 20: Miami
For long-time Nebraska fans, this game is a dream come true. The Hurricanes made their name on the national scene by beating Nebraska in their home stadium of the Orange Bowl, time and again. Just once, Nebraska fans thought when watching Miami run circles around the Big Red on those New Years’ nights, it would be great to see the Hurricanes have to play a game in Lincoln.
Well, now is your chance. While it is unlikely there will be snow on September 20, Miami will still have to face the Sea of Red at long last.
But at least as of right now, we still don’t know who will be Miami’s quarterback when the Hurricanes arrive in Lincoln. According to the Miami Herald, the quarterback race is still between fifth-year transfer Jake Heaps and freshman phenom Brad Kaaya. While Duke Johnson will be the best tailback to face Nebraska in Lincoln (and second only to Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin overall), the unsettled quarterback situation (along with head coach Al Golden having a -1 coach rating, meaning he’ll be responsible for at least one loss per year, according to the incomparable CFB Matrix), suggests an opportunity for a marquee win in September.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Miami 20 (4-0 overall, 0-0 in conference)
Sep. 27: Illinois
Nebraska’s game against the Illini will be unique for a couple of different reasons. First, the game will kick off at 8:00 p.m., incredibly late for a home game, to accommodate television. Second, the game will feature this year’s alternate uniform for Nebraska, the “Red Rising” outfit from adidas.
And Illinois will be bringing Wes Lunt, an Oklahoma State transfer, at quarterback. Lunt was tapped to be Brandon Weeden’s successor, and does have at least bring a big-time athlete to the Illini sideline. But with a deficit of talent around him, Nebraska’s 2014 alternate uniforms should have a better result.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 48, Illinois 14 (5-0 overall, 1-0 in conference)
Oct. 4: at Michigan State
At first blush, this looks like an easy game to pick a loss for Nebraska. The Spartans handled NU last year in Lincoln, and would have gotten a home win in East Lansing the year before without a dramatic last-second touchdown catch by Jamal Turner. Plus, Michigan State is the defending B1G champion, and has all the momentum, while Nebraska seems stuck in a four-loss rut.
But Michigan State is a uniquely good matchup for Nebraska. Even with a horrific minus-five turnover ratio, Nebraska outplayed the Spartans last year. Of Michigan State’s 41 points, 24 came on drives starting in Nebraska’s territory after turnovers.
The easy pick would be for Nebraska to drop this game on its trip to East Lansing. But a Nebraska team on a five-game roll, with a marquee win against Miami under its belt, should come into the game with confidence. And if it can muster even a few fewer turnovers, this could be a season—and career—defining win for Bo Pelini
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 28, Michigan State 24 (6-0 overall, 2-0 in conference)
Oct. 18: at Northwestern
When the 2014 schedule came out, this game screamed danger for Nebraska. Northwestern was 5-7 last year, sure, but they lost some achingly-close games (including, of course, on a Hail Mary to Nebraska in Lincoln). Plus, the Purples were getting a healthy Venric Mark back, one of the most dynamic and dangerous offensive weapons in the B1G.
But then Mark decided to leave the program. And Christian Jones, Northwestern’s leading receiver, has also been lost to a knee injury (Both according to Tom Fornelli of CBS Sports). While the Purples’ defense should still be stout, it’s hard to see how Northwestern will score enough to compete in this contest.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 27, Northwestern 17 (7-0 overall, 3-0 in conference)
Oct. 25: Rutgers
Welcome to the club, State University of New Jersey! The Scarlet Knights make their first trip to Lincoln, coming off a 6-7 campaign in 2013, but making a big step up in class from the American Athletic Conference to the B1G. It does look like senior Gary Nova has won the starting quarterback position (according to Keith Sargent of NJ.com) which will help the Knights gain some continuity in fall camp.
But the talent level overall is still a question, and Rutgers’ schedule is simply brutal. Before facing Nebraska, the Knights travel to Washington State, get Penn State at home, and then have back-to-back contests with Michigan and at Ohio State before coming to Lincoln. Any chance of an upset by Rutgers will likely have been beaten out of the Knights prior to their arrival at Memorial Stadium.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 41, Rutgers 20 (8-0 overall, 4-0 in conference)
Nov. 1: Purdue
When a team goes 1-11 in the previous year, there’s no place to go but up. And while Purdue may have won the divisional realignment lottery for the Hoosier State, getting placed in the West instead of the East like in-state rival Indiana, that doesn’t mean the Boilermakers are looking to compete anytime soon. Whether Darrell Hazell is the right man to turn Purdue around is open for debate. But it ain’t going to happen in 2014.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 49, Purdue 10 (9-0 overall, 5-0 in conference)
Nov. 15: at Wisconsin
Let’s stop to take a breath. In this preview, we’ve now got Nebraska at 9-0, with wins over Miami and at defending B1G champion Michigan State. Nebraska at this point would likely be in the top ten and a serious contender for making the initial College Football Playoff. Can Nebraska keep the magic going with a trip to Camp Randall in November?
It’s a big ask. Assuming Joel Stave wins the quarterback position, it’s true that he’s not going to scare anyone. Wisconsin has lost almost all of its returning receiving corps to graduation, as well as its entire front seven on defense.
But the Badgers still have Melvin Gordon, who would still be my pick as the conference’s best running back. They still have an offensive line that would rival an NFL squad’s in terms of size and power. And they still have Gary Andersen, whose teams tend to not beat themselves with turnovers and penalties. And the game is in Madison, in the notoriously difficult Camp Randall, in mid-November (and likely with a prime time kickoff, especially if Nebraska is undefeated coming into the game).
And we won’t get into the B1G title game in 2012, the last meeting between the two schools, where Gordon torched the Blackshirts for 216 yards on nine—yes, nine—carries en route to a 70-31 demolition of Nebraska.
The upshot? This is a game Nebraska can win—on paper, Nebraska is at least equal if not superior to Wisconsin. But it’s hard to see Nebraska under Pelini being able to pull a string of results together sufficient to escape Madison with a win.
Fearless Forecast: Wisconsin 24, Nebraska 20 (9-1 overall, 5-1 in conference)
Nov. 22: Minnesota
Nebraska’s loss to Minnesota was, in some ways, the most distressing of the four. Nebraska had a big lead against UCLA and collapsed with a young defense. Turnovers doomed Nebraska against Iowa and Michigan State.
But against Minnesota? In Minneapolis, Goldie simply out-muscled a Nebraska squad, grinding out a thoroughly-deserved victory. Can the Gophers repeat that upset in Lincoln?
Unlikely. Minnesota will be breaking in a new quarterback, and will have lost defensive back Brock Vereen and Ra’Shede Hageman to the NFL. Minnesota’s talent level is not what it was in 2013.
More importantly, Nebraska will not be trotting out a clearly injured Taylor Martinez at quarterback, which hamstrung NU’s offense and forced the Blackshirts on the field even longer, to be worn down by a punishing Minnesota ground attack.
Head coach Jerry Kill is very good at getting the most out of his players. But with the memory of last year’s upset fresh in the minds, look for a focused Nebraska to stay on track in Lincoln.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Minnesota 17 (10-1 overall, 6-1 in conference)
Nov. 28: at Iowa
Who says the Heroes Game doesn’t mean anything? Nebraska fans should already have burned into their memory the image of the entire Iowa sideline rushing across the field the moment the clock hit zero last year to take the trophy from the Nebraska sideline in Memorial Stadium, giving this year’s day-after-Thanksgiving contest extra venom.
Plus, the stakes really couldn’t be higher. In this scenario, Nebraska is 10-1 and 6-1 in conference. Look at Iowa’s schedule. Go ahead, take a look. Iowa has the most settled quarterback situation in the B1G West, a stable of talented running backs, and the best offensive line in the division. If the Hawkeyes have more than one loss coming into this game (absent catastrophic injuries), serious questions about Kirk Ferentz’s leadership of the Iowa program need to be asked. Quite simply, between returning talent and schedule, Iowa has the best chance to win a division title it will have in the next decade.
So can the Hawkeyes retain the trophy? Iowa’s talent on the offensive line is better, going squarely against Nebraska’s strength on the defensive line. And this will be an end-of season game where Nebraska has just finished playing two brutally physical teams in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Add into the mix that the game is in Iowa City, against a Hawkeye squad not prone to beating itself, and the trends point black and gold.
Iowa was tapped as Nebraska’s natural rival coming into the B1G. Last year’s loss in Lincoln didn’t kick start the rivalry, likely because of all the drama surrounding Pelini’s job status. But Iowa denying Nebraska a shot at a conference title, and a possible entry into the College Football Playoff? That’s the stuff rivalries are made of.
Fearless Forecast: Iowa 17, Nebraska 14 (10-2 overall, 6-2 in conference)