Nebraska Football: Power Ranking the Difficulty of the Cornhuskers’ 2016 Season

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As August bears down on us, the 2016 college football season can’t be far away. With B1G Media Days coming next week, and fall camps about to open, it’s time to look at the calendar and start thinking about the season to come.

So, with a little more perspective on the coming campaign, it’s time to power rank Nebraska’s 2016 season from the easiest game to the most difficult.

No. 12: Wyoming (Sep. 10, home)

The Cowboys were 2-10 last year, and are still trying to make up a pretty significant talent gap. Craig Bohl has some work left to do.

No. 11: Purdue (Oct. 22, home)

The Boilermakers were 2-10 as well last year, and are likely still coached by Darrell Hazel in part to their mystifying defeat of Nebraska last year. Honestly, the more times you look back at that game, the more unbelievable it is that Nebraska lost to a team like Purdue.

No. 10: Fresno State (Sep. 03, home)

Fresno State isn’t BYU, but it is still a legit program with a respectable history. Sure, 3-9 wasn’t great last year, and the Bulldogs haven’t really been very good since Derek Carr left. But given last years’ experience, Nebraska fans should feel at least a little sense of concern seeing a non-directional-school as the season opener.

No. 9: Minnesota (Nov. 12, home)

Tracy Claeys has a tall task ahead of him, taking over for the perpetually-over-achieving Jerry Kill. Yes, quarterback Mitch Leidner is better than he probably gets credit for, but the Gophers still look like a squad about to fall back to earth.

No. 8: Maryland (Nov. 19, home)

Last year Maryland combined a decent (no. 54 nationally) rushing defense with a poor (no. 104 nationally) passing defense to finish 3-9. That combination (decent rush defense, poor pass defense) seems to at least benefit the Terrapins against what we think Nebraska will do offensively, which could make the game more challenging than the talent gap might suggest.

No. 7: Illinois (Oct. 01, home)

The arrival of Lovie Smith should help to stabilize an Illinois program that has been staggering under the weight of mismanagement for years. And with an NFL-caliber quarterback in Wes Lunt, the Illini have weapons to work with. But attrition will hit Illinois hard this year, pushing Smith’s guidance of the Illini back to respectability back at least a year or two.

No. 6: Wisconsin (Oct. 29, away)

Well, at least we won’t have Joel Stave to kick around anymore. Whether Bart Houston or Alex Hornibrook wins the job, though, he’ll have phenomenal talent Corey Clement behind him, which should add punch to Wisconsin’s attack. Still, questions on defense and needing to break in a new quarterback should make this year’s trip to Madison less frightening than trips past.

No. 5: Indiana (Oct. 15, away)

Stop me if this seems familiar. Team finishes 6-7, with all of its losses coming in soul-crushing ways that couldn’t possibly replicate the following season. Yes, Indiana’s season was just about as ridiculous as Nebraska’s in 2015. Indiana’s offense should be just as good as it was last year, too, which should put Nebraska’s re-tooled defense to the test early. Particularly with the game in Bloomington, if you have money to wager invest on an upset, this game would be a prime candidate.

No. 4: Northwestern (Sep. 24, away)

The Purples were nowhere near as good as their 10-3 record would suggest. But the defense in Evanston last year (nationally, no. 12 in scoring defense, no. 21 in rushing defense, no. 23 in passing defense, and no. 13 in total defense) should still be salty. That’s a challenging draw for a Nebraska team going on the road for the first time in 2016, for its first conference game of the season, and coming off a challenging game against Oregon the week before.

No. 3: Iowa (Nov. 25, away)

The Hawkeyes make few bones about who they are – solid defense, good play on the lines, and an offense that will do enough to keep them in games and wait for your mistake. Iowa won a whole bunch of games last year (including in Lincoln) sticking to that formula. By the time the Heroes Game comes to Iowa City, given their schedule the Hawkeyes should be in position for another trip to Indianapolis, and ready to give Nebraska a challenge.

No. 2: Oregon (Sep. 17, home)

The Ducks weren’t at their national-title-challenging caliber last year, and have another FCS transfer quarterback in Dakota Prukop learning the ropes in 2016. But Oregon’s talent is still better than Nebraska’s (no. 19 vs. no. 24, according to SB Nation’s five-year recruiting average),

No. 1: Ohio State (Nov. 05, away)

Yeah, the Buckeyes in 2016 are basically quarterback J.T. Barrett and a whole bunch of “Hello, My Name Is” stickers. But by November, those Buckeyes will have had plenty of experience, and the talent differential (and playing the game in the Horseshoe) should make this a difficult trip for Nebraska.

All stats courtesy cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted.

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3 thoughts on “Nebraska Football: Power Ranking the Difficulty of the Cornhuskers’ 2016 Season

  1. Interesting. Most people I’ve heard talk on the radio are saying Nebraska should beat Oregon, but are marking Wisconsin and Northwestern as almost definite losses. I take it based on those rankings that you’d disagree? The thing about Oregon is they might have talent all over, but their offense seems to really depend on having a very talented QB to accomplish much. There’s enough questions about Prukop to think Nebraska should be able to win that game.

    I’d also question if you aren’t giving Iowa too much credit. Don’t get me wrong, there’s every chance they beat us next year, but even with that I don’t know if they can contend for another division title. Let’s not forget, the last time the Hawkeyes were coming off an out-of-nowhere fantastic season and a BCS bowl (one that they won), they immediately crashed back to mediocrity. That said, mediocrity might be all it takes to win the B1G West next year, but I don’t think it’s too hard to imagine them struggling with Iowa State or North Dakota State early in the season, which could expose some of their weaknesses for conference play.

    As always, enjoyed reading your thoughts.

    • I think Oregon is such a fascinating game, simply because it’s so hard to know what Nebraska is going to be this year. 2015 season was so, so strange simply because of all the ridiculous losses. There’s no way Nebraska was 6-7 bad given the talent level and the coaching prowess on the sidelines — and yes, I’m still all-in on Riley as a professional coach who can get the best out of a group of players.

      But Oregon will be the second-best team Nebraska faces on the schedule, eclipsed only by Ohio State. You’re right about the quarterback issue, and I’m not entirely sold on Helfrich as a guy who can win at the top level. But man for man, Oregon’s players are as good if not better than Nebraska’s. I certainly think Nebraska CAN win the game, and if it does, then that really is a jolt in the arm for the season. But I think it’s an uphill sled.

      And yeah, you’re right, I’m not as concerned about Wisconsin and Northwestern. The Purples play really, really, really good defense, but their record last year was so amazingly flukey. If Nebraska stays out of its own way (which is pretty much the running theme all year) then that’s a very winnable game. And I am not at all sold on Wisconsin. I think from a talent level they have been slipping for a few years now. Nebraska was just better than Sconnie last year, and utterly gave the game away. Back to the running theme, if Nebraska stays out of its own way then I think that’s a win.

      if we’re talking about running themes, though, it’s nowhere more evident than last year’s game against Iowa. You want reasons for optimism, watch that game again. Nebraska was so clearly better on both sides of the ball, and Iowa’s game plan was clearly to sit back and wait for Nebraska to implode. Which it did, again and again. That game still keeps me up at night, to be honest. But Iowa does what it does so well, so ruthlessly — and has such a favorable schedule — that it’s hard not to see the Hawkeyes with double-digit wins coming into the Nebraska game. Some of those wins might be close, and ugly, but a win is a win.

      Always appreciate your feedback, thanks!

      • You’re definitely preaching to the choir about that Iowa game. I’ve said repeatedly, Nebraska outplayed them handily in 21 of 22 positions. Tommy just… forgot what colors look like, or thought Nebraska was playing a road game, or… Yeah, I really don’t know how to explain that performance. Speaking of QBs, though, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts, if you have any, on CJ Beathard. I just feel like in the last couple of weeks, so many sports news sites, such as Bleacher Report, have talked about Beathard not only being one of the Big Ten’s best QBs next year, but potentially being one of the country’s best. But I just don’t see it. To me, he seems like an average-to-good QB with a lot of support and a lot of fortune, but certainly not a special talent.

        You’re a logical man. Your opinions are usually pretty accurate. Tell me: Am I wrong? Am I just genetically predisposed to discount any success Iowa has? Or has the rest of the world got lost in the glow of Iowa’s (pretty flukey) 12-game win streak of last year? I’d be interested to hear any thoughts or (conspiracy) theories you have on the matter, if you care to share them.

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