Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 31, Illinois 16

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Nebraska fans saw an uninspired Cornhusker team struggle for three quarters against a spirited Illinois squad, before scoring 21 unanswered fourth-quarter points to notch a win that was nowhere near as comfortable as the final score might suggest. My photos of the game are here. So for Nebraska fans looking back on Nebraska’s second conference win of 2016 …

The Good

Stick To The Plan. Nebraska’s plan against Illinois was pretty straightforward. Even though Nebraska trailed for a good part of the game, Nebraska still maintained its run-heavy playcalling. The final tally ended up with Nebraska having 49 rushing attempts to 23 passes, a plan that clearly bore fruit in the fourth quarter against a weary Illini defense.

That helped senior I-back Terrell Newby have a break-out game, finishing with 140 yards on 27 carries and two touchdowns. And it was a far cry from the pass-happy game plan last year against Illinois in Champaign. In head coach Mike Riley’s second year, it’s clear lessons were learned from last year’s campaign.

Bye Bye. At the start of the season, Nebraska’s bye seemed poorly placed. It was early in the season, and Nebraska had two games against lesser competition before its gauntlet of Wisconsin and Ohio State. Getting a breather before Indiana and Purdue, even coming off a 5-7 season, did not seem like an ideal use of a bye week.

But, boy, does Nebraska need the week off now. With an offensive line bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to a MASH unit and injuries to wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp and tight end Cethan Carter still to be determined, Nebraska would be ill-prepared to face another B1G foe – especially one coming off a huge upset of Michigan State. Proving once again how little pre-season predictions mean, the bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for Nebraska.

Rising To The Occasion. Linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey and two of his teammates got quite a bit of attention last week when they knelt during the national anthem before the Northwestern game. Rose-Ivey endured quite a bit of criticism, including from some local politicians (including some that was exceptionally ill-informed, as discussed by this smart and particularly handsome analyst).

Some people around the country have reacted poorly to the athlete’s protests, as evidenced by East Carolina’s fans booing their own band when some knelt during the anthem (according to SB Nation). So in a deep red state (politically, not in a football sense) like Nebraska, it was certainly an open question how NU fans would react when Rose-Ivey’s name was announced in the starting lineups.

Well, Nebraska fans came through. Here’s what Michael Rose, Rose-Ivey’s father, had to say on Twitter about the fans’ cheering of Rose-Ivey’s name.

It’s nice that Nebraska won the game. But this is one time where the ridiculously self-congratulatory moniker foisted on the Sea of Red by former athletic director Steve Pederson, really did ring true. On that cloudy October afternoon, Nebraska fans really were the Greatest Fans In College Football.

The Bad

Next Man Up. By the end of the Illinois game, Nebraska had three players on the offensive line that were backups – at best – at the start of the season. But when an injury to David Knevel pressed walk-on Cole Conrad into duty – playing next to Corey Whitaker, who was making his first start of the season at guard – the depth of Nebraska’s offensive line was called into question.

As discussed above, Nebraska’s bye couldn’t come at a better time. Indiana just beat Michigan State in Bloomington, and Purdue knocked off Nebraska last year. And that’s before Nebraska gets back-to-back trips to Madison and Columbus. If Nebraska is going to continue this run, its offensive line has to produce.

Cashing In. Part of the reason Nebraska struggled against Illinois was because it wasn’t able to take advantage of opportunities it had to score. Four times Nebraska had the ball at the Illinois 42 or closer, and NU got exactly zero points out of those possessions.

It was a similar story against Northwestern last week. Four times, Nebraska had the ball at the Purples’ 41 or closer, and didn’t get a single point from those possessions. Of course, two fumbles at the goal line will help make that particular statistic look worse.

Advanced analytics, like Bill Connelly at SB Nation, use efficiency of offensive performance as one of the key metrics to determine how well a team is playing. Having a number of those empty possessions might help explain why Nebraska is only no. 23 in the most recent S&P+ rating (according to Football Outsiders) while no. 12 in both the AP and coaches’ poll.

Leaving it Late. Yeah, you’ve all heard the number by now. Nebraska has outscored its opponents 78-6 in the fourth quarter. That’s a remarkable achievement, and speaks volume to the resilience and coaching of the team.

But it’s also playing with fire. Perhaps more than any other game this season (other than Oregon), Nebraska’s late-game heroics felt especially needed. Illinois not only took a lead into the fourth quarter, but felt at many points like it could have taken charge and pulled an upset.

Fourth-quarter pull-aways are great, but leave little margin for error. One turnover, one defensive error, or one great play by the opponent could have been enough to render Nebraska’s comeback unsuccessful.

And The How Many

Look, it’s a good thing that Nebraska is 5-0. A very good thing. At this point last year, Nebraska was 2-3. So an undefeated and twelfth-in-the-country Nebraska is awesome for the scarlet and cream faithful, regardless of how it came about.

But as a famous smuggler once said, don’t get cocky. If you feel a little cockiness coming on, just use the bye week to take a glance at how Nebraska’s opponents this year have fared. After losing in Lincoln, Oregon has dropped a game to Colorado (no real shame in that, the Buffs are actually pretty good this year) and Washington State (well …)

Fresno State is 1-4, with its only win over FCS Sacramento State. Yes, Northwestern did beat Iowa last week, but it also lost to FCS Illinois State. Before their game in Lincoln, Illinois got beat at home, 34-10, by Western Michigan. Heck, Wyoming has the best record of all the teams Nebraska has played in 2016 to date.

So Nebraska doesn’t appear to have faced a Murderer’s Row of opponents to earn it’s 5-0 mark. But it’s still 5-0. My golf partners have long since become sick of hearing me, after an ugly shot gets a lucky bounce and ends up on the fairway, that “it ain’t about how, it’s about how many.”

That pithy logic holds true for Nebraska as well. There’s no style points sought after here. Nebraska’s one win away from bowl eligibility in early October, with a trip to Indianapolis entirely in its hands. After last year, Nebraska fans can’t ask for anything more than that.

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Nebraska Football: NU Re-View, Nebraska 43, Fresno State 10

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On Saturday, Nebraska opened the 2016 season with a 43-10 win over Fresno State. My photos from the game can be found here. Nebraska only led 14-10 at halftime, with Fresno State missing a short field goal and missing a chance at a touchdown to end the half due to poor clock management. But Nebraska pulled away, scoring 22 in the fourth quarter to seal a comfortable win. So in looking back at Nebraska’s victory …

The Good

Picking Up Where They Left Off. Against UCLA, Nebraska ran the ball 62 times and threw it 19. Throughout the offseason, though, we were told about how the game plan was unique to UCLA’s undersized defensive setup and should not be expected to be repeated.

Against Fresno State, Nebraska ran the ball 51 times and threw it 13.

It was very clear that the game plan was to take the ball out of quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s hands. Out of Nebraska’s first 21 plays, 20 were runs. So whether this distribution can last the season (see below), at least for one game Nebraska kept with a winning formula.

Back in Blackshirts. It’s not like there wasn’t time to panic. The game was 14-10 at halftime, with Fresno State engineering an alarmingly-familiar march down the field at the end of the first half. Would déjà vu strike all over again and Nebraska see its lead slip away in the final frame?

Nope. Nebraska locked down Fresno State, shutting the Bulldogs out in the second half as a fourth-quarter flurry of scoring put the game away. Fresno State was unable to hit the big strikes downfield that were Nebraska’s downfall in 2015. So, again at least for one game, Nebraska seemed to have put its ghosts behind it.

A Two-Headed Monster. Nebraska’s wide receivers came into the season as the generally-accepted strength of the team. And, in fairness, they’re still really good, especially when Brandon Reilly returns from his one-game suspension.

But Nebraska’s running backs looked awfully good on Saturday, as well. Devine Ozigbo led the charge with 17 carries for 103 yards and two touchdowns. Terrell Newby, the starter, ran strong with 53 yards on 11 carries. And when you add in Armstrong’s running (42 yards on 11 carries with two touchdowns), and the appearance of true freshman Tre Bryant (36 yards on five carries) and Mikale Wilbon (16 yards on his single carry), Nebraska’s running back corps suddenly looks pretty salty as well.

The Bad

An Unsustainable Imbalance. You know that guy. The one who wears the faded red polo shirt and goes on incessantly about how Nebraska could start winning again if it would just get back to the option and give those walk-ons a chance to play.

Well, that guy has been loving Nebraska football the last couple of games. And with the success Nebraska has enjoyed, it’s hard to criticize. Wins are wins, and coming off a 5-7 season it’s hard not to fall into intellectually lazy traps like this being “real Nebraska football.”

Don’t fall for it. This ridiculous run-pass imbalance stemmed from specific matchup issues, against an undersized UCLA team and an undermanned Fresno State. It was successful in both, and could very well be just as successful against a team like Wyoming next week.

But teams that are better than Fresno State and Wyoming are coming. Against teams like Oregon, LSU-beating Wisconsin, and Ohio State, certainly Nebraska shouldn’t be channeling its inner Mike Leach. But Nebraska won’t be able to have a 51-13 run-pass balance against those teams if it wants any chance at victory.

Target Acquired. In the last three games, Nebraska has had four targeting penalties called against it. Now, one of those was rescinded on Saturday, but that still means Nebraska has had three ejections in three games.

Yes, I know you think it wasn’t fair. And I think there’s probably a good case to be made that the targeting flags were at best marginal. But the bottom line is that Nebraska’s been hit with those penalties. And we’ve seen the damage caused by those flags – Iowa scored straight after Nate Gerry was ejected, and Fresno State’s best drive of the game came right after Luke Gifford’s dismissal.

So whether the flags are fair or not, Nebraska needs to be taking steps to make sure it isn’t even getting close to such a targeting foul in the future.

Not Ready For Prime Time. Hey, remember this guy? After an injury-ravaged 2015, it’s easy to forget how electrifying De’Mornay Pierson-El was for Nebraska. And when Pierson-El was proclaimed healthy and ready to get back on the field, Nebraska fans were understandably excited at the potential.

Well, Pierson-El was back on the field. But his return was nothing he’ll want to remember. He touched the ball only once, fumbling a jet sweep handoff for a loss of seven. Although he was listed as the number one punt returner, it was Jordan Westerkamp that went back to field punts (somewhat shakily) throughout the game.

Maybe the fumble shook him. Maybe the coaches don’t quite have the confidence in him yet. But whatever it is, the Pierson-El we saw in 2014 isn’t back yet.

And The Unconvincing Blowout

Have you ever seen an unconvincing 33-point win? Well, if there ever was one, it was Saturday against Fresno State. Sure, getting the win is great – keep in mind, this is the first time Mike Riley has gone 1-0 at Nebraska. And for the investors among us, having Nebraska cover the 28-point spread wasn’t bad either.

But this was a game that was 14-10 at half – and very easily could have been a 17-14 Bulldog lead absent a missed chip-shot field goal and an inexplicable failure to call time out and waste a down while inside Nebraska’s 10.

Sure, Nebraska ultimately pulled away in the second half, and the fact that NU was able to do so speaks volumes compared to a team that lost to Illinois and Purdue last year. But the fact remains that a 33-point margin is utterly flattering to how Nebraska played.

A win is a win. If 2015 taught us anything, it’s that Nebraska is in a survive-and-advance mode as a program. But there’s still big questions left for Nebraska to answer if it wants a trip to Indianapolis in December.

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.

Nebraska Football: Will the Cornhuskers Suffer an Upset Before Wisconsin?

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans were relieved to leave Evanston on Saturday with a 38-17 win over Northwestern, and could be forgiven for sneaking a peek at Wisconsin. After all, the Badgers look to be Nebraska’s next big test, with home games against Rutgers and Purdue standing in the way.

But those games still need to be played, and the chance exists for either team to upset Nebraska. Could that happen? Here are three things to worry about.

The First Defensive Series

Other than against Fresno State and (remarkably) Michigan State, Nebraska has allowed each opponent this year to score on its opening possession.  Nebraska has not lost any of the games in which it has conceded an opening-drive score, but that doesn’t lessen the fire with which NU is playing.

There are only a few ways teams with inferior talent can pull off an upset, particularly away from home. One is to get a lead early and play keep-away, hoping that the pressure of a potential upset on the favorite will lead to more mistakes.

Surrendering an opening drive touchdown doesn’t necessarily lead to an upset. Nebraska gave up opening scores to Florida Atlantic and Illinois before blowing those teams off the field. But Nebraska also gave up an opening score to FCS opponent McNeese State, helping the Cowboys to stay confident and able to hang with NU until the very end of the contest.

If Nebraska wants to avoid an upset prior to Wisconsin, coming out of the gate strong defensively would be a significant first step in doing so.

The Sneaky-Good Opponents

Hear me out. Yes, Nebraska has Rutgers and Purdue prior to Wisconsin, teams that at the start of the season would have been assumed wins.

Rutgers showed at least some signs of life this year, putting up a 5-2 record including a win on the road at Washington State.  But the Scarlet Knights’ close loss to Penn State is looking less and less impressive as the Lions struggle. And Ohio State ran Rutgers off the field last week, beating the Knights 56-17 in Columbus.

Purdue came into the season looking to be the worst team in the Big Ten. And at 3-5, the Boilermakers look to be fitting right into that prediction.

But Purdue’s record can be a little misleading.  The Boilermakers gave both Iowa and Michigan State a game, losing to the Hawkeyes 24-10 in a game that was closer than the score indicated and 45-31 to the Spartans.

Rutgers’ 5-2 record already suggests that the Knights could be more of a challenge than thought of at the start of the season. And with a win over Michigan, Rutgers showed it could beat a team with significantly better talent (albeit one in the midst of a total collapse).

The History

In some ways, 2014 feels like a different season for Nebraska. A comfortable win over Northwestern and a resilient (if ultimately unsuccessful) comeback on the road against a top opponent may be evidence that Bo Pelini’s squad this year is ready to shake off the doldrums of a four-loss season.

But that four-loss ceiling hasn’t been broken yet. And Pelini’s teams still have a track record of head-scratching losses to inferior teams. Both Rutgers and Purdue have inferior talent to Nebraska, and both games are in Lincoln. On paper, Nebraska should be prohibitive favorites against both teams.

But Pelini’s teams have in the past shown a propensity, or at least a vulnerability, to lose games they should win. Falling victim to that propensity could lead to an upset, and a real setback in Nebraska’s attempt to reclaim national relevance.

Will the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ Soft Non-Conference Schedule Come Back To Haunt Them?

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photo and article by Patrick Runge

Nebraska’s non-conference schedule for 2014 has worked out to be a little softer than first anticipated. Yes, Florida Atlantic and McNeese State aren’t going to impress anyone (although Nebraska’s struggles with the Cowboys on Saturday certainly put a damper on fans’ excitement for the balance of the season). Fresno State was 11-2 last year, but is currently sitting at 0-2 having been outscored by an aggregate 111-40 this year. Miami is a marquee name on a schedule, of course. But after the Hurricanes were outmatched by Louisville on the opening week of the season it doesn’t appear that Miami will be adding schedule strength to Nebraska’s resume for the selection committee.

So if we accept the premise that Nebraska’s non-conference schedule this year is pretty soft, what effect will it have on NU going forward?

Could it keep Nebraska out of the Playoff?

It’s possible.

There’s two scenarios where Nebraska could be a playoff contender. The first is if Nebraska runs the table and goes 13-0 with a win in the Big Ten Championship. In that circumstance, the only way Nebraska gets shunted out of the Playoff is if there are three undefeated conference champions with better schedules.

How’s that work? Well, check out the College Football Playoff’s selection protocol. The stated purpose of the committee is to select the “four best teams from among several with legitimate claims to participate.” The criteria for making those selections are purposefully loose, but there is one area where the criteria do provide some specifics.

“Strength of schedule, head-to-head competition and championships won must be specifically applied as tie-breakers between teams that look similar.” (emphasis added)

What does that mean? Well, we’re not entirely sure until we see it in action. But more than likely, it means that a 13-0 champion of the B1G would get a playoff berth over, say, an 11-1 Big 12 champion or a 12-1 ACC champion. The undefeated season in a Power Five conference should put a team like Nebraska on a different level than a team with one loss, meaning the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker should not come into play.

Now, if Nebraska is 12-1 and B1G champions, the calculus is very different. In that circumstance, Nebraska could be jostling elbows with a number of one-loss teams for a playoff spot. If we assume that the SEC and Pac-12 champions will get playoff berths (given the strength of their conferences), then we have two spots left in the inaugural field.

In that scenario, Nebraska would be fighting with the champions of the other Power Five conferences, the ACC and the Big 12. If either of those champions are undefeated (say, Florida State and Oklahoma), Nebraska’s out. And Nebraska would likely lose out to a one-loss Florida State or a one-loss Oklahoma in that scenario, given the relative strength of schedule as a tiebreaker.

And a 12-1 Nebraska would also have to contend with a one-loss SEC team that didn’t win the conference title. Let’s say LSU goes undefeated and loses to Georgia in the SEC title game. We could be looking at a musical chairs game of four teams for two spots, between an 11-1 Oklahoma Big 12 champion, a 12-1 Florida State ACC champion, a 12-1 LSU that did not win a championship, and a 12-1 Nebraska B1G champion.

Picking between those first three would not be an enviable task for the two remaining spots. But eliminating Nebraska from that conversation would be pretty simple.

Could it keep Nebraska out of a New Year’s Six bowl?

Probably not, but cannot predict now.

In addition to the four-team Playoff field, the selection committee will be deciding the participants for the “New Year’s Six” bowl games (the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta, Rose, Peach, and Cotton Bowls). Two of those four bowls each year will be the Playoff semi-finals, and the participants for the other four will be chosen by the committee.

Different rules apply, though, for New Year’s Six bowl selection. Many have conference ties (unless the conference-tied bowl is a semi-final). But for the bowl slots without conference ties, it will be the selection committee and not the bowl representatives in their brightly-colored blazers picking the teams.

However, the criteria for selecting bowl teams is different than for selecting the Playoff participants. Instead, the committee will be picking from the “displaced conference champions” (meaning conference champions without a bowl tie in, like when the B1G champion can’t go to the Rose Bowl because it is a semi-final) and the highest ranked “non-contract conference champion” (meaning a non-Power Five conference champion) to fill the non-mandatory slots. The selection committee will fill the at-large berths in “rank order” from the final selection committee rankings. So how would this affect Nebraska?

Well, if Nebraska wins the B1G but gets squeezed out of the Playoff, it is still guaranteed a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl as a conference champion. The only way Nebraska’s strength of schedule could hurt its chances as a New Year’s Six bowl is if it doesn’t win the conference and is positioning for an at-large berth. In that circumstance, Nebraska would have to rank high enough to warrant one of those at-large bids—and Nebraska’s soft non-conference schedule could be a drag on its ranking, making it harder to land one of those berths.

Could it hurt Nebraska in the conference season?

Probably not.

There’s a cliché about steel sharpening steel which could have Nebraska fans worried. It is possible that a cushy non-conference schedule could make Nebraska fat and lazy, and unready for a challenge from a truly talented opponent.

In some ways, then, the near-miss to McNeese State might have been a good thing. Had Nebraska rolled through its non-conference, then overconfidence could have been a problem in preparation for games like Michigan State and Wisconsin.

But after Nebraska needed an “Ameer-acle” to knock of an FCS opponent in Lincoln, no one in scarlet and cream should be overconfident. Ever, or at the very least for the rest of this season.

Nebraska Football: Final Game-By-Game Schedule Predictions

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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)

Power Ranking Nebraska’s 2014 Schedule From Easiest to Toughest

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photo and article by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have already spent months digesting and analyzing the 2014 schedule. Which games will be the toughest? Which will be the most exciting? Which can I plan to have the in-laws over because the game won’t be close?

Well, never let it be said we don’t provide a public service. Here, ranked from easiest to most difficult, is a power ranking of Nebraska’s 2014 schedule.

No. 12: McNeese State

Once the Big Ten moves to a nine-game conference schedule, FCS opponents like McNeese State will be a thing of the past for Nebraska. McNeese State did beat South Florida last year (and in convincing fashion, 53-21) and make it to the second round of the FCS playoff. But still, the Cowboys look to provide little more than a schedule-filler and a tune-up game.

No. 11: Florida Atlantic

The Owls come to Lincoln after a disappointing 2013 (and some off-the-field controversy) season saw the dismissal of head coach Carl Pelini. Brian Wright has a pretty big rebuilding job to do after a 6-6 record last year, and his visit to Lincoln probably won’t help.

No. 10: Purdue

Darrell Hazell had a big job on his hands when he took over at Purdue last year. And while the Boilermakers probably won’t be 1-11 as they were in 2013, it’s unlikely they will be much better in 2014. Add to the fact that the game is in Lincoln, and Nebraska should win comfortably.

No. 9: Illinois

Illinois is very much the Missouri of the B1G—a team that should be consistently much better than it is, given its location and resources. In Tim Beckman’s third year in charge, the Illini look to improve on a 4-8 record in 2013. The talent level in Champaign is improving. But the B1G schedule makers did Illinois no favors by sending the Illini to Lincoln for a second straight year.

No. 8: Rutgers

Welcome to the club, Rutgers. While the school’s athletic department may be a hot mess, on the field the Scarlet Knights might have more talent than you would expect. The question is, whether that talent can be translated into anything more than its 6-7 season last year under third-year coach Kyle Flood. Coming into a new conference, and having a trip to Memorial Stadium, won’t help that transition in 2014.

No. 7:  at Fresno State

If Nebraska is going to have a road non-conference game, Fresno State might almost be the perfect opponent. The Bulldogs are coming off a BCS-busting 2013 campaign, which should remain fresh in the memory of college football observers. But gone is quarterback Derek Carr, a big reason for Fresno State’s success last year. While a road trip is never easy, Nebraska should be able to navigate the contest.

No. 6: Minnesota

I suspect that 2013 might have been the high-water mark for Minnesota football, including a marquee and well-deserved upset of Nebraska in Minneapolis. In his fourth year, Jerry Kill has done a remarkable job of steadying the ship and making Minnesota a solid, respectable football program. But this year’s Gopher crew is no more talented than last year’s, and with the game in Lincoln and Nebraska with payback on its mind, success in Lincoln would be a big ask for Minnesota.

No. 5: Miami

Having the Hurricanes come to Lincoln has been a fantasy for Nebraska fans who grew up watching speedy Miami players run rings around Cornhuskers in “neutral site” Orange Bowl games. Snow and a bitter north wind are probably too much to ask for, and with quarterback Jake Heaps transferring from Kansas to Miami and able to play this year the Hurricanes look more dangerous.

No. 4: at Northwestern

Last year’s end-of-season slide may make some Nebraska fans less wary of the Purples. That would be foolish. In the last two years, Nebraska has needed miracle finishes to beat Northwestern. Absent those miracle finishes, Nebraska would be 0-3 against the Purples as a conference foe and this game would look much different. Nebraska should have its hands well and truly full in Evanston.

No. 3: at Iowa

This game is a little hard to rank simply because of Iowa’s schedule. The Hawkeyes won the scheduling lottery in 2014, avoiding Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State from the B1G East. Additionally, all of Iowa’s likely rivals for the division will be coming to Iowa City, with Nebraska being the final game of the season. If Iowa has dropped a game or two and is out of contention, the game will still be challenging. But if Iowa is playing for a divisional title—or to keep an undefeated season alive, which given the schedule is not impossible to imagine—then this game could become much more challenging for Nebraska.

No. 2: at Wisconsin

Gary Andersen looks to have picked up right where Bret Bielema left off in Madison. This game will feature the B1G’s two best running backs facing off between Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah. But Wisconsin will have more experience returning than Nebraska, and have the advantage of Camp Randall, which could make this trip a daunting one for NU.

No. 1: at Michigan State

Have the Spartans turned a corner? Is Sparty now the alpha dog in the Wolverine State? Are the defending B1G champs the favorites again? All of those are legitimate questions, and Spartan fans will be loaded for bear after Nebraska came to East Lansing and stole a win in 2012. Nebraska’s trip to East Lansing is easily NU’s most difficult contest of the 2014 season.

Nebraska Football: Power Ranking The Road Trips for Cornhusker Fans in 2014

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

With the Memorial Day weekend just past, Nebraska football fans may very well have travel on their minds, and be looking to plan their road trips to follow the Cornhuskers next season. Nebraska hits the road for five contests in 2014.

So let’s take a look at those five road trips, not in terms of how the game will be, but in terms of how the travel experience will be for the Nebraska faithful following the Scarlet and Cream.

No. 5: Michigan State

Remember, this isn’t about the game itself, as the Spartans-Cornhuskers rematch could very well be one of the most compelling contests of the season. But East Lansing, Michigan, is not high on the tourist destinations of anyone who doesn’t have relatives living in East Lansing, Michigan. And Spartan Stadium, while certainly a respectable home for the Big Ten champions, is not an iconic cathedral of college football that would inspire a visit on its own.

No. 4: Fresno State

A trip to California, that’s a no-brainer for a Nebraska fan, right?

Well, maybe not. When a Nebraskan pictures California, Fresno is probably not the first image that comes to mind. Set inland, Fresno doesn’t offer beaches and ocean-side views like many Nebraskans would think of when California dreaming. And the “Best Little City In the U.S.A.” is quite removed from both San Francisco and Los Angeles, making adding those tourist attractions challenging for a Fresno visit.

And Bulldog Stadium, while fine for a Mountain West team, is hardly the iconic football location Nebraska fans would travel to see (although it did host the California Raisin Bowl, so there!) Plus, if you don’t have a ticket already, you’re looking to pay over $160 a seat on the secondary market to get into the former home of the California Raisin Bowl. Between that and airfare, Nebraska fans will likely not see great value in a road trip to Fresno.

No. 3: Wisconsin

Madison, Wisconsin, is an under-rated venue for a college football game. Camp Randall stadium is iconic, much more so with the history surrounding the site. The in-game atmosphere is intense, although sometimes not exactly family-friendly, and the Jump Around in the fourth quarter is an experience to be had.

But the city of Madison has plenty to offer as well. Between the campus itself, the lakeside attractions from the two lakes (Mendota and Monona), and a visit to Mickies Dairy Bar across the street from the stadium, a trip to Madison has enough to make a road trip worth considering for Nebraska fans.

No. 2: Iowa

Iowa City has one huge advantage over any other road trip destination for Nebraska fans, and that is geography. Iowa remains the one fixture on Nebraska schedule that remains feasible as a day trip, albeit one that might require an energy drink on the ride home.

But a stay in Iowa City for the game has its advantages, including the Ped Mall in downtown Iowa City. And newly refurbished Kinnick Stadium certainly holds its own amongst B1G football venues. Between the attractions of the city and its proximity, Iowa City remains an attractive destination for Nebraska fans.

No. 1: Northwestern

I’ll make no bones about it, Northwestern has become my favorite road trip on Nebraska’s B1G schedule. In many ways, going to see Nebraska play the Purples is the best of both worlds for NU. Evanston, Illinois, is an idyllic college town environment, the closest thing I have seen to replace a regular trip to Lawrence, Kansas. Ryan Field fits in the Evanston environment perfectly and is a great place to see a college football game (especially if Nebraska fans kind of take over the joint, as they did in 2012).

But Evanston is a suburb of Chicago. That means Nebraska visitors for the Northwestern game get all the benefits of the City of Broad Shoulders, the third largest metropolis in the country, then get to travel to a suburb of the city and get the intimate, college town atmosphere of Evanston.

Big-city attractions and a college town environment in one trip, combined with reasonable air fare from Omaha to Chicago, make Northwestern a must-add for Nebraska fans looking at their travel plans for 2014.

Nebraska Football: Four Trap Games for Cornhuskers in 2014

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photo and article by Patrick Runge

Trap game (colloq.): A game where a team is favored to win, but whose chances to lose are increased due to external factors.

Nebraska football fans know that every year there are pitfalls on the schedule, traps where a team can stumble where it otherwise wouldn’t. Under Bo Pelini, Nebraska has seemed particularly vulnerable to trap games, so it is not unreasonable to scope out where the potential hazards lie in the 2014 schedule. Here are four potential stumbling blocks for the upcoming season.

Minnesota (Nov. 22)

After losing in Minneapolis last year, you would think that Nebraska’s attention would be fully focused on Goldie’s return to Lincoln. Minnesota’s 34-23 defeat of Nebraska was certainly a shock, but had much to do with the play of a clearly-hampered Taylor Martinez at quarterback. And the 2014 Gophers will be arriving in Lincoln without either quarterback Phillip Nelson or star defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman. So, easy sailing, right?

As Lee Corso would say, not so fast, my friend. The Gophers are in perfect position to be a classic trap game, wedged between Nebraska’s trips to play Wisconsin and Iowa. A depleted Minnesota team, which may well struggle in 2014, could easily be overlooked by a Nebraska team potentially chasing a conference title with two marquee road contests surrounding the game. And that, my friend, is the textbook definition of a trap game.

Rutgers (Oct. 25)

Bear with me on this one for a bit. Yes, I know that Rutgers was 6-6 last year. Yes, I know that Minnesota transfer quarterback Phillip Nelson has been dismissed from the team after an assault arrest. So there’s plenty of reason to think that the Scarlet Knights will be a soft target for Nebraska in 2014.

But keep in mind that Rutgers is a new opponent for Nebraska, with NU winning the only other game in the series 28-0. In 1920. At the Polo Grounds.

So there may be some unfamiliarity with the opponent. More importantly, though, is that Rutgers was really young last year. With a bulk of that talent returning, Rutgers could pose a greater challenge to Nebraska than most anticipate. And with Nebraska under Bo Pelini being dogged by inexplicable home losses in the past, it’s hard not to put the Scarlet Knights in the category of at least a potential trap game opponent.

At Fresno State (Sep. 13)

Many are pointing to Nebraska’s game against the Bulldogs as a real challenge for NU, which would almost by definition mean the contest is not a “trap game.” But that analysis comes largely from looking at Fresno’s stellar 2013 campaign, where the Bulldogs spent almost the entire year in the top 25 and were a BCS threat until the final weeks of the season.

Gone from the Bulldogs squad, however, is quarterback Derek Carr, and with Carr goes a great deal of Fresno’s threat. Comparing roster to roster, Nebraska should beat Fresno State comfortably.

So why is this a trap game? Because it is on the road, Nebraska’s first road game of the season, and bizarrely scheduled for a 9:30 p.m. central time kickoff.  Those factors, combined with what looks to be a marquee matchup at home against Miami the following week, make the game at least potentially hazardous for Nebraska.

At Northwestern (Oct. 18)

The Purples are another team that is hard to put in the “trap game” category for Nebraska. Yes, Northwestern fell apart at the end of 2013, and looked pretty bad in doing so. And yes, Nebraska is 2-1 against Northwestern as a conference opponent.

But keep in mind that Nebraska could be—indeed, probably should be—0-3 against Northwestern. Last year, Nebraska needed the “RK III to 1” Hail Mary from Ron Kellogg to Jordan Westerkamp as time expired to win. And in 2012, Nebraska was down 28-16 with 8:31 left to play, and looked absolutely dead to rights. An improbable 13-point comeback in the final minutes of the game was needed for Nebraska to pull out a 29-28 victory.

So from a talent standpoint, the Purples may not match up well against Nebraska. But on the road, against a team with the kind of track record that Northwestern has against Nebraska, this game has all the makings of problems for NU.

Extra Points 04/24/14

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Some of the best info about Nebraska football from around the web.

Husker legend Ralph Brown says some ex-Huskers haven’t felt welcome in the program under Bo Pelini (Big Red Report)

How much will extra night games for Nebraska actually increase viewership? (Hail Varsity)

Nebraska cornerback Josh Mitchell says his lack of size doesn’t dent his confidence. (ESPN)

Five obstacles for Nebraska to win a B1G championship. (Bleacher Report)