photo and story by Patrick Runge
When Nebraska hired Mike Riley as its new head football coach, some were perplexed. How could Nebraska fire Bo Pelini after another nine-win season, something he had achieved in each of his seven years in charge?
While the reasons for Pelini’s dismissal were legion (and discussed by a smart and particularly handsome analyst), the fact remains that the bar has been set high for Riley in year one. Win fewer than nine game—heck, maybe win fewer than ten games—and some fans will be baying at the moon about how Nebraska was better off under Pelini.
So, will that happen? Of course, it’s far too early to be making definitive projections about a college football season still months away. But there’s still plenty we do know to make at least some educated guesses about how 2015 will unfold for Nebraska.
BYU (Sep. 5)
Nebraska fans should be terrified of this game. BYU comes to town with (at least at this point) a healthy Taysom Hill at quarterback. He’s adequate as a passer and dynamic as a runner, and that combination has given Nebraska defenses fits in the past.
As for the Cougars’ defense, according to CFBStats.com it’s good against the run (no. 20 nationally) and not so good against the pass (no. 114). So in game one of the Riley era, Nebraska will face an opponent that will push it away from what it does well offensively and towards what it doesn’t do well.
The difference in talent level (as of 2014, Nebraska’s talent ranking was no. 24 and BYU’s was no. 71, according to the incredibly-useful CFBMatrix) should be enough for Nebraska to win. But don’t be at all shocked if Riley starts his career in Lincoln at 0-1.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 28, BYU 24 (NU 1-0 overall, 0-0 in conference)
South Alabama (Sep. 12)
South Alabama isn’t exactly a paycheck game. The USA Jaguars did go to a bowl game last year, and did absorb a number of players from the now-defunct UAB Blazers football program. But even with that influx, the gap in quality between the two teams should be more than enough for Nebraska to comfortably expect a victory.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, South Alabama 13 (NU 2-0 overall, 0-0 in conference)
At Miami (Sep. 19)
In 2014, Nebraska won a bare-knuckle street fight of a contest in Lincoln. In 2015, both star tailbacks (Ameer Abdullah for Nebraska, Duke Johnson for Miami) are now on NFL rosters.
But Miami will have the benefit of a settled head coach in Al Golden, think what you will of him. Sophomore quarterback Brad Kayaa will be settled in to his offensive duties. And Miami will easily be the most talent team Nebraska will face in the non-conference season.
Particularly if Nebraska gets by BYU in the lid-lifter, a win over Miami could give Riley fantastic momentum and buzz. But given the travel (even though Miami is hardly an intimidating road game) and talent level of the Hurricanes, that’s an awfully big ask as Nebraska transitions to life under Riley.
Fearless Forecast: Miami 31, Nebraska 24 (NU 2-1 overall, 0-0 in conference)
Southern Mississippi (Sep. 26)
It’s really remarkable what’s happened to the Golden Eagles. In 2011, Southern Miss was 12-2, and looking like a non-power-conference team on the rise.
In the next three years, Southern Miss has gone 4-32.
Yes, the Golden Eagles will likely be better under head coach Todd Monken’s third year in charge. And yes, it was Southern Miss who delivered a stunning upset to Nebraska in Bill Callahan’s first year in charge.
But that was a different Southern Miss team in 2004. The Golden Eagles’ appearance on the schedule may be coincidental, but a similar outcome to what happened in 2004 is unlikely.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 51, Southern Miss 10 (NU 3-1 overall, 0-0 in conference)
At Illinois (Oct. 3)
Illini head coach Tim Beckman has been busy defending himself against allegations that he mistreated his players. According to the Chicago Tribune, Darrius Millines added his voice to Simon Cvijanovic as former players critical of Beckman’s handling of injuries.
For a team that snuck into a bowl game last year at 6-6 and desperately trying to turn a corner, this type of controversy is exactly what the Illini don’t need. How much of a story this will be—or if Beckman is still in charge in Champaign on October 3—is yet to be determined.
Either way, this won’t help an Illini squad already overmatched against Nebraska.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 35, Illinois 10 (NU 4-1 overall, 1-0 in conference)
Wisconsin (Oct. 10)
The second incarnation of the Freedom Trophy will be played in Lincoln, with Nebraska coming off a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Badgers last season—a loss that likely contributed in large part to the firing of Pelini as head coach.
Both teams will be breaking in new head coaches, with Paul Chryst taking the helm in Madison. But Chryst has deep ties with Wisconsin, and his arrival is nowhere near the culture shock that Riley is in Lincoln.
This game may well be the de facto Big Ten West championship game, and should be fascinating to watch. But given how Wisconsin has played against Nebraska in their last two encounters, it’s hard not to lean towards the Badgers.
Fearless Forecast: Wisconsin 24, Nebraska 20 (NU 4-2 overall, 1-1 in conference)
At Minnesota (Oct. 17)
They couldn’t make it three straight, could they?
It’s hard for Nebraska fans to wrap their collective heads around this, but the Golden Gophers hold a two-game winning streak over Nebraska. In 2015, though, Nebraska will not be trying to massage a clearly-injured Taylor Martinez through a game at quarterback like it did the last time the two met in Minneapolis, and Minnesota will not have David Cobb running the ball.
Combine that with the talent disparity (Nebraska at no. 24, Minnesota at no. 64 in 2014, according to CFBMatrix), and 2015 should be the year Nebraska breaks the Gopher jinx.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Minnesota 16 (NU 5-2 overall, 2-1 in conference)
Northwestern (Oct. 24)
In 2012 and 2013, the Purples had Nebraska dead to rights, but couldn’t land the knockout blow. After a win in 2011, Northwestern could easily have been 3-0 against Nebraska going into last year’s game in Evanston.
But Nebraska pulled away in that game, winning 38-17. Northwestern slipped quite a bit last season, finishing at 5-7. There’s little to suggest that the Purples will be able to right the ship in 2015.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 41, Northwestern 14 (NU 6-2 overall, 3-1 in conference)
At Purdue (Oct. 31)
Purdue’s last bowl appearance was after the 2012 season, where the Boilermakers lost to Oklahoma State in the Heart of Texas Bowl, 58-17. Since then, Purdue went 1-11 in 2013 and 3-9 in 2014.
So, yes, there’s progress. But there’s also quite a ways to go. And even with the game being at home (and on Halloween, no less), the disparity between Purdue and Nebraska should be on display.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 35, Purdue 13 (NU 7-2 overall, 4-1 in conference)
Michigan State (Nov. 7)
Say goodbye to former Legends Division rival Michigan State, as the Spartans fall off Nebraska’s schedule with their relocation to the B1G East division last season. And given how Michigan State has fared against Nebraska recently (winning two straight), Nebraska fans might not be sad to see them fall off the schedule.
But Michigan State returns the most experienced and effective quarterback of Nebraska’s 2015 opponents in Connor Cook. And while the Spartans do lose receiver Tony Lippett and running back Jeremy Langford to the NFL, head coach Mark D’Antonio’s defense should still be a stern test for Riley’s pro-style offense in its first year in Lincoln.
Fearless Forecast: Michigan State 21, Nebraska 17 (NU 7-3 overall, 4-2 in conference)
At Rutgers (Nov. 14)
For a time, Rutgers looked like it might have a sneaky good 2014 football season. The Scarlet Knights started out 5-1, with their only loss a 13-10 heartbreaker against Penn State.
Then, the Knights were drubbed by Ohio State, 56-17, and proceeded to lose four of their last six games. Rutgers did finish last season at 8-5, with a win over North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl. But Nebraska handled Rutgers comfortably last year, 42-24, and there is little about a trip to Piscataway that suggests a different outcome in 2015.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 35, Rutgers 21 (NU 8-3 overall, 5-2 in conference)
Iowa (Nov. 27)
Hawkeye fans were amazed at how Iowa stumbled to the finish line in 2014, losing three of its last four games (including blowing a 17-point lead to Nebraska before losing in overtime), and yet seeing Nebraska and not Iowa make a change at head coach.
Iowa has now handed the keys at quarterback to C.J. Beatherd, a move many Hawkeye fans had been clamoring for throughout much of 2014. Neither team has won a home Heroes Game trophy since the inauguration of the anodyne monument in 2011.
But given Iowa’s struggles to find traction over the last few years, look for Nebraska to break that streak in 2015.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 27, Iowa 20 (NU 9-3 overall, 6-2 in conference)