Nebraska Football: Don’t Let Anyone Fool You, Schedule Difficulty Matters

So, last time I was able to get a piece posted here, we were reviewing the B1G’s newly-released conference-only schedule, postulating on how it affected Nebraska, and looking forward to at least some level of college football. As the song from “Hamilton” goes …

Since then, Nebraska has been on the vanguard of pushing the B1G to reconsider the decision that commissioner Kevin Warren said “would not be revisited.” In the national conversation, Nebraska has taken a bit of a heel turn, summarized most likely by ESPN’s Desmond Howard referring to NU as “the loudest five-win team in the country.”

But all that noise apparently paid off, as the B1G announced it would return for an nine-game schedule starting on October 24. On Saturday, the schedule was announced (with no little amount of snark from the FOX hosts about how Nebraska should be careful what it asks for). So here is Nebraska’s 3.0 version of its 2020 football schedule

10/24at Ohio State
11/07at Northwestern
11/14Penn State
11/28at Iowa
12/05at Purdue
12/19B1G East opponent

When the schedule was released, Nebraska Twitter exploded (which is, in all honesty, kind of what Twitter is for) about how front-loaded the schedule was. Many in the local media pushed back on that perspective.

From a coach’s perspective and a player’s perspective, I get it. Complaining about the difficulty of a schedule is, at its heart, finding a reason to fail. And for any competitor, even acknowledging that increased level of difficulty undercuts the confidence necessary to perform at your best and maximize your ability to perform.

But those of us who just watch the game – whose mindset does not directly influence the outcome – in this case have the benefit of clearer sight.

Let’s start with an agreement that the teams on Nebraska’s schedule would have been set one way or the other. Yes, Nebraska lost Rutgers instead of Penn State as a crossover game, which increases the schedule’s degree of difficulty. But that was the most likely scenario simply for the distances involved in the travel.

Even so, it’s silly not to acknowledge that the order in which the games are put influence how difficult the schedule would be. To demonstrate this, let’s just walk through a few thought experiments.

First, would it make Nebraska more or less likely to have a successful season if it was able to start well and gain some momentum as opposed to taking a loss or two early?

We know the answer after seeing head coach Scott Frost’s first two years in Lincoln. In 2018, Nebraska missed its season opener against Akron, then lost a heartbreaker to Colorado. In 2019, after a less-than-convincing win against South Alabama, Nebraska again lost a gut-wrencher to Colorado. I would argue that those early losses affected the psyche of those teams – which, don’t forget, were coming off two losing seasons in three years – and made getting over the hump in close games later in the season harder.

So if stacking wins early makes it more likely to win later, then Nebraska’s 3.0 2020 schedule definitely will make it harder for Nebraska. Having three of its first games against top ten teams (Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State) makes it incredibly challenging for Nebraska to get early momentum in the season.

Here’s the first experiment then. Which of these possible schedules would give Nebraska the best chance to get off to a good start – which we have established would help succeed later in the season?

Schedule 1: at Illinois, at Purdue, Michigan, at Northwestern

Schedule 2: at Ohio State, Wisconsin, at Northwestern, Penn State

If you said Schedule 1, quite honestly, you’re lying. Clearly Schedule 1 would give Nebraska a far better chance at getting off to a good start.

Schedule 2 is, of course, Nebraska’s. Schedule 1? Well, that’s Wisconsin’s (minus going to Nebraska in week 2).

Second, would it make Nebraska more or less likely to beat some of the most challenging games on its schedule if they were spread out, giving Nebraska time to recover, or having them all put together?

(Cue all of the B1G cliches about being such a physical league and leaving bruises week after week)

So, let’s try the same thought experiment. The games I would deem “challenging” I’ve put in ALL CAPS.

Schedule 1: Illinois, Purdue, MICHIGAN, Northwestern, MINNESOTA, Indiana, IOWA

Schedule 2: OHIO STATE, WISCONSIN, Northwestern, PENN STATE, Illinois, IOWA, Purdue, MINNESOTA

This one isn’t quite as start, but you still see that gauntlet at the start of the season with Schedule 2, with three “challenging” games in four weeks. There’s nothing like that in Schedule 1. So, clearly, Schedule 1 is a more navigable schedule because it doesn’t have all those “challenging” games back-to-back.

And yes, Schedule 2 is Nebraska, and Schedule 1 is Wisconsin minus Nebraska in week 2. Even if you count Nebraska as a “challenging” game, Sconnie still doesn’t have any back-to-back.

The point of these thought experiments is not to allege a conspiracy theory (although if one was inclined to think the B1G head honchos wanted Nebraska to pipe down it’s hard to imagine how it would do much different with the schedule.)

The point is, quite simply, to show that schedules matter. I know Football Tough Guys would respond with a variant of “it’s a tough game, shut up and play,” usually accompanied by some form of grunt and beard scratch.

That’s what Nebraska is going to do, of course – and the silver lining to this is the opportunity NU has to get even more attention and credit if its able to pull off an upset.

But to pretend that a schedule doesn’t make a team’s path to success easier and harder in the service of – I don’t know, some mythical notion of toughness – is just being willfully blind.

GBR, baby.