photo and story by Patrick Runge
At one point in history, any loss would be considered catastrophic for Nebraska football fans, something to be agonized over throughout the year. But Nebraska fans have endured enough multiple-loss seasons under Frank Solich and Bill Callahan, and enough comically-bad losses under Bo Pelini, to be a little numbed to the pain of an individual defeat.
But even if Nebraska fans have become (somewhat) accustomed to losses, there are still a number of games on the schedule that could ruin Nebraska’s 2015 season. Here they are, and why those individual losses would be so catastrophic.
South Alabama or Southern Mississippi
No, we’re not going to list every game on Nebraska’s schedule, even though some fans would consider any loss disastrous. But if Nebraska would drop a game to one of its two paycheck opponents, it would color the rest of the 2015 season. Even a 9-3 or 10-2 final result would be tainted with a “yes, but” from a loss to a clearly inferior opponent.
It’s not unprecedented. In 2013, Oregon State got beat at home in a season opener by Eastern Washington. And in 2011, the Beavers dropped their season opener at home to Sacramento State. So Riley’s teams certainly have a history of shocking losses to sub-par opposition.
Let’s be clear. It is unlikely in the extreme that Nebraska will drop either of these games. But it was unlikely that McNeese State would outplay Nebraska last year in Memorial Stadium, as well. And if the worst does befall Nebraska against either of these opponents, it will be the story of the 2015 season.
There’s an argument to be made that the BYU season opener isn’t as critical for Nebraska as some other games on the schedule. It’s a non-conference game, and unless Nebraska is going to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff this season, how NU does in conference is the only real gauge of success.
But let’s face it. Nebraska is starting a season with a new head coach, after firing a guy who never won fewer than nine games in seven years. Yes, Riley is a great guy whom just about everyone loves. But if Nebraska opens the season 0-1 – especially if the loss is ugly, which is not impossible to imagine given that NU is breaking in a new offense and a new defense – then the good feelings of this offseason could evaporate quickly.
I hesitated to include this game, as there’s only one real scenario where a loss to Miami could ruin Nebraska’s season. If Nebraska ends the non-conference season 3-1 with a loss to the Hurricanes, then there will be very few complaints.
But if Nebraska drops the opener to BYU, and then loses to Miami, Nebraska will (with all due respect to the Jaguars and Golden Eagles) be 2-2 starting conference play. Losing one non-conference game will likely be accepted by most of the Nebraska fanbase. But losing two of its first three games could throw a fanbase into a panic.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers have a two-game winning streak over Nebraska. In football. Raise your hand if you thought that sentence would ever be written.
You, in the back. Put your hand down, you liar.
Minnesota under Jerry Kill, though, was almost like a laboratory experiment designed to beat Nebraska even though it was thoroughly out-manned in talent. According to Dave Bartoo’s College Football Matrix, in 2014 Nebraska’s talent ranking was no. 24, while Minnesota’s was 64. With that big of a disparity, a two-game winning streak for Minnesota is an amazing accomplishment. And a remarkable failure on Nebraska’s part.
With a smash-mouth running attack, Kill’s Gophers were perfectly suited to attack former head coach Bo Pelini’s defense that focused primarily on stopping the pass and would drop an eighth defender into the box only reluctantly. Combine that with smart and disciplined play, along with NFL-level talent (running back David Cobb, tight end Maxx Williams, and defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman), and you have the recipe for a winning streak.
Under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker, Nebraska will likely play more three-linebacker sets with a safety playing closer to the line of scrimmage, offering an eight-man (or even nine-man) front against the run. Instead of meeting strength with weakness, the Blackshirts should go into this matchup against Minnesota meeting strength on strength.
So this is a game that Nebraska should win, regardless of the Gophers’ two-game win streak. That means a loss to Minnesota, in conference and in division, would seriously threaten Nebraska’s goal of a return trip to Indianapolis in December.
Admit it, Husker fan. You want this one. You want it more than any other game on the schedule.
You remember the feeling of being up 17-3 (!) in the second quarter last year, in Camp Randall. You remember thinking that this might, finally, be the metaphorical corner for Nebraska to turn.
And then you saw a corner turn, all right. A whole bunch of corners, actually, turned by Melvin Gordon on the way to rushing for 408 yards against the Blackshirts. Gordon shattered the previous NCAA record for rushing yards in a game (in three quarters, and on only 25 carries) and led Wisconsin to a 59-24 demolition of Nebraska, likely securing Pelini’s dismissal at the end of the season.
Nebraska may end up an underdog to Wisconsin, even at home. A loss to Wisconsin may not derail any of Nebraska’s reasonable expectations in Riley’s first year.
But a loss to Wisconsin means you, Husker fan, have to deal with Bucky owning you for another year.
(On the plus side, though, a loss to Wisconsin would mean this ridiculous thing won’t be cluttering up the trophy cabinet in Memorial Stadium. Seriously, it looks like someone is trying to make a giant sailboat out of the two stadium facades.)
I know, I know. Nebraska fans really don’t take Iowa seriously as a rival. If Nebraska has to have an in-division rival, most Nebraska fans would pick Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes aren’t that big of a deal to most Nebraska fans.
There’s one of two things that could happen on the day after Thanksgiving. Either Nebraska could be on the verge of a division title, with a loss to Iowa preventing that return trip to Indianapolis. Or, Nebraska could be out of contention for the division, and a loss to the Hawkeyes in Memorial Stadium would end a disappointing season on a sour note.
Either way, ending the regular season by watching Nebraska’s black-and-gold neighbors charge across the field as time expires to grab the Heroes Game trophy and parade it back to Iowa City in triumph will leave a lasting impression on the Nebraska fanbase throughout the offseason. That’s not the way Riley wants to see his first season in charge end.