Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 54, Illinois 35

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Nebraska’s alternate uniforms were a throwback to 1923, but the game in which the uniforms were worn was very much a creature of the 21st century, with Nebraska winning a shootout over Illinois, 54-35.

Nebraska’s offense was humming, notching 606 total yards, while the defense struggled some, surrendering 509 yards. But Nebraska was plus-three in turnover margin, which helped NU avoid any risk of an upset bid from the Illini.

So in reviewing Nebraska’s third win of the 2018 season …

THE GOOD

Divine Devine. Hey, remember when this dope looked at senior I-back Devine Ozigbo and just saw him and Mikale Wilbon as “returning with the most experience?”

Well, Ozigbo proved that dope wrong. He’s currently no. 25 nationally in rushing yards per game at 95.8. He’s been both the chain-mover and the homerun threat out of the backfield that Nebraska has been needing. He’s been a revelation and, as head coach Scott Frost said, looks very much like a Sunday kind of guy next year.

Nine-Tenths of the Law. One of the fears about Nebraska’s tempo spread attack is whether NU would be able to protect its struggling defense by possessing the ball. Early in the season, that was an active question when Nebraska was in position to win.

But in the last two games, Nebraska was able to execute clock-chewing drives. Against Ohio State, in the second quarter Nebraska had a 10-play, 64 yard drive taking 4:00, and an eight-play, 47 yard drive taking 3:54, both resulting in touchdowns. Against Illinois, in the third quarter Nebraska had a seventeen-play (!), 82 yard drive for a touchdown that took a full 7:48 (!!) off the clock – and included three fourth-down conversions.

Those time of possession numbers aren’t mind-boggling, but they are evidence that Nebraska’s offense does have the ability to keep its defense off the field for at least a little while, minimizing the stress being put on an already thin unit. Seeing this kind of complimentary football is both reassuring and encouraging going forward.

Special Teams. Against Bethune-Cookman, Nebraska returned a punt for a touchdown. This week, Nebraska blocked a punt. More importantly though, it looks like Nebraska has solved to a large degree its issue with kickoff return coverage. Against Illinois, Nebraska averaged 13.8 yards per return, and only 9.3 yards per return against Ohio State.

Against Troy? 25.5 yards per return.

THE BAD

Homecoming. Welcome home, AJ Bush. After a couple of stops, the Nebraska transfer started a game at quarterback in Memorial Stadium, but for Illinois. And he had himself a game, rushing for 187 (!) yards on 25 attempts with three (!!) touchdowns. He added in 126 yards through the air, but on an 11-for-25 day with two interceptions (although, in fairness, his receivers didn’t exactly help him out).

For Nebraska fans with a sentimental streak, it was the best of both worlds. A former Husker got to have his day in the sun and put up some numbers, while Nebraska was still able to notch a win. That, of course, is easier to say after the game as opposed to when Bush was running wild and answering Nebraska score-for-score.

Walking Wounded. Both receiver JD Spielman and I-back Maurice Washington appeared to suffer injuries against Illinois. Washington has struggled with staying on the field all year, which is not a huge surprise for a true freshman with a slight frame. But losing both – and losing Spielman, in particular – against a stout Michigan State defense would be a huge challenge for Nebraska.

AND THE NEW NORMAL

Blackshirts. Tradition of Toughness. Throw the Bones. In the nineties, much of Nebraska’s identity was defined by defensive prowess. If you play word-association with “Nebraska football,” one of the first images you’ll get is a gleeful Nebraska defender crossing his arms and screaming after a sack.

That’s not where Nebraska is now. Nebraska is currently no. nationally in scoring defense, no. 90 nationally in rushing defense, and no. 101 nationally in passing defense.

Sure, some of that is a transition year, and likely has to do with a talent deficit on the defensive side of the ball. But some of it is structural, too.

Take a look at the national rankings of UCF’s defensive performance last year, when the Knights went 13-0 (and won the national championship, amirite?)

Total defense 91
Rushing defense 59
Passing defense 49

That’s better than Nebraska’s rankings this year, of course. But it’s not elite. At best it’s middle-of-the-pack good. And that’s in a year where UCF went undefeated.

Ultimately, a football team reflects the nature of its coach. Under a defensive-minded coach like Bo Pelini, Nebraska would take its cues from its defense, and Nebraska’s 10-3 upset of Oklahoma should be looked at as a model for how Pelini’s teams would win.

Frost is, schematically, the opposite of Pelini. He’s an offensive mind who wants to outscore you – and is perfectly content to let you score a few points in the process. UCF’s 62-55 overtime win over Memphis in the American Athletic Conference title game might have been an extreme version of it, but it still fits into the template of how Frost’s teams win games.

This isn’t to say that Nebraska fans shouldn’t expect – shouldn’t demand – better defensive play. Overall, Nebraska’s defense has not been good enough and needs to be better both this year and going forward. But expectations need to be calibrated for the Blackshirts.

If defensive coordinator Erik Chinander can get his unit into the top-50 nationally defensively, in combination with what Frost’s offense, that should be enough for Nebraska to win a lot of games. But it’s going to look different from what winning Nebraska teams have looked in the recent past.

In other words, Husker Fan, get used to seeing a lot of points on the scoreboard – for both teams. My guess is that as long as Nebraska has more of those points most of the time, though, y’all should be fine.

GBR, baby.

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Nebraska Football: Predictions for the Cornhuskers’ 2018 Season

frostAs the first game of the Scott Frost era comes close, it’s time to make things official and predict how the 2018 season will unfold for Nebraska. At the Double Extra Point, we use a particular system to try and make season predictions less of a guessing game.

The system is to break the games on the schedule into four different categories. Better Win games are ones Nebraska should be able to win all the games in the category. Should Win games are games where Nebraska should win a majority (more than half) of the games in the category. Might Win games are games where Nebraska should win less than a majority (less than half) of the games in the category. And Won’t Win games are games where Nebraska shouldn’t win any in the category.

Once the games are categorized, we can then add up the expected wins from each category and get a season win total. Of course, I’ll also make a Fearless Forecast for each game, and rest assured I will take credit for whichever prediction ends up closer to reality.

(Kidding! The “system” prediction is the official season call from the DXP!)

Akron, Sept. 1

The Zips are coming off a 7-7 record in 2017, but were ranked no. 112 nationally in S&P+, the analytical model used by Bill Connelly of SB Nation. They do return most of their defense, but are far behind Nebraska in terms of their five-year recruiting average (again from Connelly of SB Nation), meaning NU’s talent should be far superior.

After last year, nothing should be taken for granted, but Akron does provide as soft of an opening for Frost’s tenure in Lincoln as he could reasonably hope for.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Akron 17

Colorado, Sept. 9

If nothing else, the return of Colorado to Nebraska’s schedule has reignited the Nebraska-Colorado venom across social media.

One year removed from a Pac-12 title game, Colorado went 5-7 last year, and Connelly’s analytics have the Buffs doing one worse this season. Colorado does return a starting quarterback, but that’s about it offensively, with a lot of work to rebuild defensively as well.

So while Nebraska brings a number of advantages to the game, Colorado will be the first Power Five opponent Frost’s Huskers face.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 41, Colorado 31

Troy, Sept. 15

redalert

TRAP GAME WARNING!

If there’s a game early in the season that should scare the bejeezus out of Husker Fan, this is it. A trip to Ann Arbor is the following weekend. The opponent’s name is Troy, and I don’t care how dialed in a team is, I refuse to believe it’s not a challenge to get Nebraska athletes to one hundred percent buy in to an opponent named Troy. And the game is an 11:00 a.m. kickoff, games Nebraska traditionally struggles to perform well in.

Exhibit A: September 16, 2017, 11:00 a.m.: Northern Illinois 21, Nebraska 17

Exhibit B: September 6, 2014, 11:00 a.m.: Nebraska 31, McNeese State 24

Oh, by the way, Troy beat LSU last year, 24-21, in Death Valley. So the Trojans aren’t going to have any fear coming into Memorial Stadium.

Nebraska’s a better team than Troy, and should win this game. But this is a scary scenario for Frost’s first season.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 38, Troy 27

At Michigan, Sept. 22

Frost didn’t get any favors from the schedule makers with his first road trip. Michigan is loaded, particularly on defense. Nebraska has a true freshman quarterback making his first road trip, and two walk-ons (including one true freshman) behind him.

Yes, Michigan has been underwhelming under Jim Harbaugh. But that’s underwhelming for Michigan standards. That doesn’t mean it makes the task for Nebraska any easier in Ann Arbor.

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Michigan 38, Nebraska 24

Purdue, Sept. 29

The Boilermakers are a trendy sleeper pick in the B1G West, and head coach Jeff Brohm took remarkable strides in his first season. But keep in mind, Purdue was one of Nebraska’s four wins last year, and that was in East Lafayette. The Boilermakers do return both their quarterbacks, but still have enough of a talent deficiency to make this a game Nebraska should win at home.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 53, Purdue 38

At Wisconsin, Oct. 6

If there’s an acid test for Frost’s Year One at Nebraska, it’s the trip to Camp Randall. It’s easy to look back at 2017 and remember it as a tire fire. But don’t forget that going into the fourth quarter, Nebraska was tied with Wisconsin. It wasn’t until Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst took the ball out of quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s hands and let freshman phenom tailback Jonathan Taylor run wild on then-defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s defense that the Badgers pulled away in the fourth quarter.

Talent-wise, the teams are relatively equivalent, with Nebraska having a slight advantage in the five-year  recruiting average. But Wisconsin has a significant advantage in terms of scheme and culture. If the Frost Effect is going to push Nebraska to a conference competitor in 2018, this would be the game we would find out.

But that’s likely a bridge to far to ask Frost to bring his charges this season.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Wisconsin 38, Nebraska 24

At Northwestern, Oct. 13

The Battle for NU is a strange beast. Each team has an amazing record at their opponent’s field. Since joining the B1G, Nebraska is 3-0 in Evanston, and 1-3 in Lincoln. And the one Nebraska win was courtesy of the Kellogg-to-Westerkamp Hail Mary, otherwise Northwestern would be 4-0 in Memorial Stadium.

This year’s contest is in Evanston, so weirdly that’s good news for Nebraska. What’s better news for Nebraska is that Justin Jackson is now playing for the Los Angeles Chargers, and Clayton Thorson is still … Clayton Thorson. This sets up to be the best shot for Frost’s first road win as head Husker.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 40, Northwestern 21

Minnesota, Oct. 20

It was the Minnesota game when you knew it was over. In the three games prior to Nebraska, Goldie scored a total of 47 points.

Minnesota hung 54 against Nebraska on that cold November afternoon in Minneapolis.

Does that mean Minnesota should be a favorite to beat Nebraska this year? No. The talent differential between the two teams is still stark.

And Minnesota’s 54 points wasn’t a reflection of the talent level and fundamentals of the two squads. It was the result of a coaching failure by then-head man Mike Riley in his staff that broke the 2017 Nebraska squad. It’s unfair to say the team quit. But it’s very fair to say that the team was given more than it could bear, and against Minnesota the result of that failure became apparent.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 47, Minnesota 17

At Ohio State, Nov. 3

I don’t know who at the B1G scheduling office has it in for Nebraska, but fer cryin’ out loud there’s been a lot of Buckeyes on the slate recently.

  1. 2017. 2018. 2019. 2020. 2021. 2024.

At this point it kinda feels like Ohio State is getting a trial run in the B1G West. Sure, Ohio State has been embroiled in scandal lately. But because head coach Urban Meyer only got a three-game suspension for his mishandling assistant coach Zach Smith’s history of domestic violence (and that’s describing it mildly, although the story is still unfolding), it is unlikely that Ohio State will be anything less than the machine it has been under Meyer by the time Nebraska rolls into Columbus.

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Ohio State 49, Nebraska 21 (but Nebraska makes Brutus punt for the first time since 2012!)

Illinois, Nov. 10

It looked good on paper, didn’t it? Former NFL head coach – former Super Bowl head coach with the Bears – Lovie Smith comes to college to coach the team from whom the Bears copied their team colors.

Unfortunately for the Illini, it really hasn’t worked out. Illinois is 5-19 since Smith arrived in Champaign, and 2-16 against the B1G. Former Nebraska quarterback AJ Bush was named Illinois’ starter for the 2018 campaign. But Illinois’ recruiting under Smith gives little comfort to Illini faithful.

Yes, Illinois was one of Riley’s ugly losses in 2015. And as we’ve seen before <cough Northern Illinois cough> nothing should be taken for granted. But this should be Nebraska’s second-softest game on the 2018 slate.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 55, Illinois 28

Michigan State, Nov. 17

Sparty and Nebraska are right next to each other in terms of five-year recruiting averages, meaning the talent level on the field should be very even. And Michigan State did what Nebraska faithful are hoping from Frost’s crew, jumping from a dreadful 3-9 in 2016 to 10-3 in 2017.

With the game being in Lincoln, many are marking this game as Frost’s best chance to get a quality win. It’s fair analysis, Sparty under head coach Mike D’Antonio looks to be a tall order for Nebraska at the back end of a grueling schedule.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Michigan State 31, Nebraska 28

At Iowa, Nov. 23

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, this thing is now a rivalry. Losing two straight to the Hawkeyes by a combined score of 96-24 will do that.

The five-year recruiting averages would suggest that Nebraska’s on-field talent is better than Iowa’s. Results on the field would suggest that Iowa has a significant leg up on Nebraska.

Nebraska fans are certainly hoping that Frost will be able to restore what they perceive to be order in the universe by regularly beating Iowa. Maybe that will happen, as coaching and scheme in Lincoln come to equal the recruiting rankings.

But for the last game of a grinding season, in Iowa City, it will be tough sledding for Nebraska to break the trend of the Heroes Game over the last few years.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Iowa 28, Nebraska 24

Conclusion

So let’s see what the system suggests Nebraska’s win total should be for 2018

Category Number Expected Wins
Better Win 2 2
Should Win 5 3
Might Win 3 1
Won’t Win 2 0
  Total Expected Wins 6

So the system pegs Nebraska at 6-6 for 2018, whereas the Fearless Forecasts have NU going (checks notes) 7-5 on the campaign. That’s right in line with what the investors in Las Vegas, with Nebraska’s win total (according to oddsshark.com) at 6.5 for 2018.

However, both Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald and Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star have called an 8-4 campaign for Frost’s inaugural season. Sure, this dope said that there’s reason to believe in an 8-4 season.

But there’s also a real risk that if expectations run too high in 2018 and Nebraska fails to deliver – and don’t kid yourself, the path to 5-7 or worse for this season with a first-year head coach and a threadbare quarterback depth chart is there for all to see – then there is a real risk that the giddy optimism of this season could turn into the cynical backbiting that has plagued Nebraska’s fanbase since the firing of Frank Solich.

And, as that smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, a poisoned fanbase is the biggest risk to Frost’s ability to succeed in Lincoln. So enjoy your football, Husker Fan, Lord knows the wait has been long this year. But please please please please please, don’t let your excitement run away with you this year.

GBR, baby.

 

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 28, Illinois 6

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On what is hopefully not the last Friday game Nebraska plays for a while, NU rolled into Champaign and won a comfortable 28-6 win over Illinois. Even though the Illini held the ball for almost the entire first quarter, Nebraska was efficient on offense and built a comfortable lead that it never relinquished.

The Good

O-Line Optimism. Yes, quarterback Tanner Lee deserves significant praise for an efficient and turnover-free performance. But a significant portion of Lee’s success against Illinois came because the offensive line really performed well (particularly in the first half) protecting their signal-caller and giving him the time to go through his progressions.

Sure, Illinois isn’t very good, and Nebraska’s performance has to be taken in context. But Northern Illinois isn’t very good either, and – well, we all remember what happened there. So getting that good performance has to be nothing but encouraging.

Stanley Morgan. Welcome back, Stan. Wide receiver Stanley Morgan was a game-time decision with a neck injury, but dressed and played. He led Nebraska in receptions (8) and yards (96), including a stiff-arm touchdown and a remarkably physical first down catch to help keep a drive alive and help put the game out of reach early.

The Blackshirts are Back? Yes, this is the soft part of the schedule. But if you take the second half of the Oregon game and extrapolate it to a full game, Nebraska is now averaging allowing 190.8 yards and 5.7 points per game.

I know, I know, Husker Fan, you can’t get visions of Arkansas State bubble screens or Oregon’s 42-point first half out of your mind. I get it. And with Wisconsin and Ohio State coming to town, those averages are sure to go up pretty soon.

But defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s Blackshirts have put enough good performances down to have some degree of confidence in the defense as the meat of the schedule arrives in Lincoln.

The Bad

Corner Questions. If there was one glaring weakness of Nebraska’s performance against Illinois, it was at cornerback. Eric Lee drew pass interference calls on the first two deep balls he was asked to defend. Lamar Jackson struggled both in coverage and in tackling throughout the night. Against a poor and young offense like Illinois, Nebraska was able to overcome the poor play from the cornerback position.

That won’t be the case as the sharp end of the schedule, namely Wisconsin and Ohio State, comes up.

Stanley Morgan. Yes, Morgan was great against Illinois. But when he wasn’t great, he was kinda terrible. He had at least four drops and a fumble to compliment his offensive production – meaning his game could have been significantly better than it was. Almost assuredly, Morgan wasn’t fully healthy and played hurt. The extra day to prepare for Wisconsin next week might end up being very important for Nebraska.

Not All Sunshine and Roses. Lee’s performance against Illinois looked a lot like the guy Nebraska fans thought they were getting at the start of the 2017 campaign. But when your name starts trending on Twitter after you’ve thrown your third pick-six interception in two games, you know things aren’t going the way you want.

And while Lee’s game against the Illini was cause for hope, there was at least one throw that had to give Nebraska fans flashbacks. In the third quarter, Lee was rolling to his left and pressured. Off his back foot, he put up a wounded duck in the vicinity of tight end Tyler Hoppes, which looked to be an easy interception. Hoppes made a brilliant defensive play to keep the ball in Nebraska’s hands and Lee from going double digits in interceptions.

And The Resumption of Normal Service

Wrap your head around this. Nebraska’s game against Illinois – the fifth of the campaign – was the first game this year where Nebraska didn’t trail at some point in the first quarter. Before this game, Nebraska’s biggest lead at any point in a game this year had been a 10-point advantage in the first half against Arkansas State.

So it was more than a little comforting to see Nebraska up 21-3 over Illinois as the first half expired. Moreover, given how well Nebraska’s defense was playing, at no point was there ever a real concern that Illinois was going to mount a serious comeback. At the start of the season, this dope thought that the combination of a Friday game and Illinois having an extra week to prepare made this game a recipe for a shocker.

Instead, Nebraska flashed back to a more pleasant time for its fans, dominating a less talented team and never really being in danger of losing. Given how the schedule tightens up, this will likely be the last opportunity for Nebraska fans to see such a comfortable win. But it’s certainly good to see Nebraska still remembers how to cruise to a win.

GBR, baby.

Image courtesy of wellbelove.files.wordpress.com.

Nebraska Football: Prediction for the Cornhuskers’ 2017 Season

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There’s nothing quite like leaving things late, but a season prediction on the morning of Nebraska’s first game still counts as getting your shot called. First, a caveat. With a new quarterback, a functionally new offense, an entirely new defensive scheme, and a new special teams coach, there’s only one honest answer about what to expect for this season.

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Unfortunately, that’s not enough content for a site like this. So let’s go through the exercise and look through Nebraska’s 2017 schedule game by game. In an effort to make this more than just guesswork, for a season prediction I break the games down into four categories:

Better Win: Given the disparity in talent, Nebraska should be expected to win all of the games in this category.

Should Win: Nebraska should be a favorite in this game, but the opponent is strong enough to win even without a total NU meltdown. Nebraska should win a majority of these games.

Might Win: Nebraska should be an underdog in this game, but close enough in talent to win without needing a miraculous performance. Nebraska should win a minority of these games.

Won’t Win: Nebraska is outclassed from a talent standpoint and would need the stars to align for a victory. Nebraska should not expect to win any of these games.

By breaking the games down into these categories, the idea is to take the guesswork out of predicting a final record. Of course, I’ll also give a Fearless Forecast guess of the result, meaning I get two bites at the apple in terms of a final record prognostication.

Arkansas State (Sep. 2)

The Red Wolves come into Lincoln with some talent, including a likely NFL draft pick on the defensive line in Ja’Von Rolland-Jones. Nebraska’s depth should ultimately win out, but with all of the new schemes NU is breaking in don’t be surprised to see this contest tight in the fourth quarter.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Arkansas State 17

at Oregon (Sep. 9)

The Ducks have a new coach in Willie Taggart, so Oregon will be in a full-on year-one scenario when Nebraska comes to Eugene. But Oregon should have at least equal, if not greater talent than Nebraska on the field. And while Nebraska did knock the Ducks off in Lincoln last year, the metrics (as well as Oregon’s bizarre aversion to extra points) suggest NU was pretty fortunate to get that win. A Nebraska win would be quite a springboard for 2017, but it looks an uphill climb.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Oregon 27, Nebraska 20

Northern Illinois (Sep. 16)

Another Group of Five school that has some degree of talent, but not to the level of Nebraska. With two games in the books, Nebraska’s transition should be a little more solid and ready to handle what the Huskies have to offer.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Northern Illinois 10

Rutgers (Sep. 23)

Although the Scarlet Knights gave Washington a scare for a half, eventually the Huskies were able to pull away in Piscataway. Second year head coach Chris Ash is laying the foundation for Rutgers to climb out of the B1G cellar, but there’s still a ways to go.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 38, Rutgers 13

at Illinois (Sep. 29)

This has trap game written all over it. Nebraska goes to Champaign on a Friday night, to what is likely a half-empty stadium, playing a struggling Illini squad ahead of a brutal two-game stretch. Riley’s last trip to Illinois ended poorly, and last year Nebraska seemed to put an end to its head-scratching losses. But if there were ever a time for a shocker, this is it.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Illinois 9

Wisconsin (Oct. 7)

Here’s where the rubber hits the road for Nebraska. While Wisconsin has had Nebraska’s number since NU joined the B1G, keep in mind that the last two games between these squads have been coin-flips. With the game in Lincoln, and the transition well underway, look for Nebraska to finally get over a Wisconsin-sized hump.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Wisconsin 21

Ohio State (Oct. 14)

If Wisconsin is a measuring stick for where Nebraska stands in the B1G West, the Buckeyes will give Nebraska a good look at where it stacks up against the elite. Ohio State, along with Alabama, might be the most talented team in the country. A combination of the game being in Lincoln and a functioning offense should make things closer than last year (an admittedly low bar), but Nebraska is still quite a ways from competing head to head with Ohio State.

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Ohio State 41, Nebraska 21

at Purdue (Oct. 28)

Nebraska returns to the house of horrors that inflicted the program’s worst loss since Iowa State in 2009. But a week’s rest after Wisconsin and Ohio State should help Nebraska focus and get its season back on track.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 51, Purdue 13

Northwestern (Nov. 4)

The Purples have a history of hanging tough in Memorial Stadium, pulling off an upset two years ago and losing only on a Hail Mary two years before that. Nebraska should be on more stable footing this time around, though, and allow the talent differential between the to squads to show through.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 37, Northwestern 17

at Minnesota (Nov. 11)

P.J. Fleck was quite a hire for Minnesota, but will be a huge culture shift from the program Jerry Kill built in his years up north. The Gophers look to be dangerous in the next few seasons, but it’s a big ask for them to be ready in year one to compete.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 21, Minnesota 13

at Penn State (Nov. 18)

Ooh, I so want to be bold on this game. Penn State looked like world-beaters at the end of last season, with a legitimate argument to get into the College Football Playoff. But at the start of last year, the Nittany Lions were decidedly average, and much of their late-season success was down to YOLO balls from quarterback Trace McSorley. Still, the Lions have elite talent (including Saquon Barkley, the best tailback in the B1G), and the game is in Happy Valley. At best, Nebraska would have to be well ahead of schedule to pull off this upset.

Won’t Win

Fearless Forecast: Penn State 45, Nebraska 31

Iowa (Nov. 24)

It was last year’s 40-10 (!) loss to Iowa that likely ended Mark Banker’s tenure as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator, so this year’s Heroes Game will be a good marker to see how far the Blackshirts have come. If Nebraska is able to present more of an offensive threat than a hobbled Tommy Armstrong did last year, look for Nebraska to get back on track in this rivalry.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 27, Iowa 17

Season Summary

Under the category system, Nebraska has five Better Win games (meaning five wins), three Should Win games (meaning two wins), two Might Win games (meaning one win) and two Won’t Win games (meaning no wins). That comes out to a 9-3 campaign for Nebraska.

Looking at the Fearless Forecasts, Nebraska also comes out with a 9-3 season, losing to Oregon, Ohio State, and Penn State. A 7-2 B1G record might be enough for Nebraska to earn a trip to Indianapolis, unless Wisconsin can win out the rest of its conference slate.

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.

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: How the Cornhuskers Get to Ten Wins in 2016

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Earlier this week, the sports gambling site Five Dimes set Nebraska’s over-under total at 9.5 for wins in 2016. For the non-gamblers among you, the bet is just what the name of it suggests – you put your money down as to whether you think Nebraska’s win total will be over or under the number selected, in this case nine-and-a-half.

That means this particular sports book thinks the most likely scenario for Nebraska in 2016 is to win between nine and ten games. That’s a pretty bold statement for a team coming off a 6-7 season in 2015.

So, is Five Dimes just counting on rabid Nebraska fans making irrationally exuberant investment decisions? Maybe to an extent, although “souvenir” bets like that are usually on tickets to win a national title put down by chumps like me on trips to Las Vegas. An over-under line set too high will be pounced on by sharks, and could end up costing a sports book lots of money.

That means the book makers at Five Dimes must have some confidence that Nebraska can get to ten wins in 2016 – besides just listening to this smart and particularly handsome analyst who picked Nebraska as the B1G West favorite next season. Here’s what has to happen for Nebraska to get ten wins next season.

Beat Oregon

A ten-win season almost certainly would require knocking off Oregon in Lincoln on September 16. Given where the two programs have been over the last few years, that sounds like a tall order for Nebraska.

But Oregon isn’t quite what it has been in years past. Quarterback is a huge question mark for the Ducks, hoping FCS transfer Dakota Prukop will be the heir to Heisman trophy winner Marcus Mariota.  Former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke will be taking over Oregon’s defense, bringing his skill set to Eugene but asking the Ducks to learn a new scheme next season.

Nebraska will likely come into this game as an underdog. But with the game in Lincoln, and Nebraska being Oregon’s first big test of 2016 (with no disrespect to UC Davis or Virginia), a win over the Ducks could help put NU on the map. And if the over ticket for Nebraska is to be cashed, NU will almost certainly have to pull the upset.

Avoid the Toe-Stubber

Yeah, a 5-7 regular season was pretty dreadful for Nebraska last season. But that record includes two head-scratching losses to Illinois and Purdue, both on the road.

The two upsets were very different. Nebraska’s loss to Illinois involved asking Tommy Armstrong to make 31 passes in high winds, while the loss to Purdue had much to do with tossing backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe into the fire due to Armstrong’s injury.

Either way, though, those two games were inexplicable losses when comparing the relative talent levels of the two teams. If Nebraska wins those games, even with everything else that went wrong in 2015, the season would have ended at 8-4. The distance between 8-4 and 10-2 seems far more manageable than the actual records earned last year.

Win on the Road

If Nebraska is going to win ten games, it’s going to have to get work done on the road in conference. Trips to Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Iowa will likely determine Nebraska’s fate in the B1G West. Last year, Nebraska had its contests against those divisional rivals in Lincoln, and lost all three in excruciating fashion.

In 2016, the schedule flips and Nebraska will have to face those teams on the road. And if Nebraska is to reach the ten-win plateau, it will have to do better on the road in 2016 than it did at home in 2015.

Get the Bounces

Nebraska’s struggles in close games could not have been more well documented. And it would be falling prey to the Gambler’s Fallacy to think that Nebraska was due a run of good luck to make up for all the bad bounces it got in 2015.

Instead, perhaps it’s more reasonable to think that Nebraska’s secondary won’t be quite as vulnerable to the deep ball as it was throughout much of 2015 – a weakness that clearly cost it games against BYU, Miami, Illinois, Wisconsin, and (exhausted deep breath) Northwestern. Add to that a second year in an offense to help Armstrong avoid at least some of the turnovers that doomed Nebraska (such as against Iowa), and you have a recipe to turn those close losses into wins.

If Nebraska is to win ten games in 2016, it will have to find ways to convert those close losses into victories.

Agony Analyzed: How Close Is Nebraska Football to Being 6-0?

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Nebraska football fans have endured the most challenging – and surreal – first half of a season in 2015. Under new head coach Mike Riley, Nebraska through six games is 2-4 and 0-2 in conference. But how close is that 2-4 to 6-0 – and what difference does that make to how fans perceive the status of the program under Riley?

First, let’s take a closer look at Nebraska’s losses. Part of what we are going to use is the Agony Clock, a little like the Doomsday Clock from Cold War days, to get an overall impression of just how close Nebraska is to an unblemished regular season record. But we’re also going to look at some of the decisions from Riley and his staff that may have led to the close losses.

BYU

With one second remaining in the game, Nebraska led 28-27. BYU had the ball on Nebraska’s 42, and hit a Hail Mary pass to win the game.

Agony Clock – 0:01

Coaching Mistakes: There’s a good argument to be made that the decision to rush three on the Hail Mary play was overly conservative. But don’t forget that defensive end Jack Gangwish got hurt on the play, meaning Nebraska really only had two pass rushers, and a harder time keeping quarterback Tanner Magnum in the pocket. And even with that, it was a technique breakdown not having anyone in front of the ball in the secondary.

If you want to point at one questionable call within the staff’s control that put Nebraska in a bad position, then you could look at the third-and-two call when Nebraska had the ball on the BYU 22, trying to close out the game. A jet sweep to Jamal Turner was called, losing two yards, and forcing Drew Brown (who had already missed from 40 yards) into a 41-yard attempt.

Miami

With 11:14 left to go in the game, Nebraska was down 33-10. But Nebraska went on a remarkable comeback, getting a two-point conversion after a touchdown with 33 seconds remaining in the game to tie the score.

But in overtime, quarterback Tommy Armstrong threw an interception on Nebraska’s first possession, allowing Miami to set up a game-winning field goal. The overtime issue makes the Agony Clock a little harder to judge, but we’re going to leave it set where it was after BYU.

Agony Clock – 0:01

Coaching Mistakes: Very little about the fourth quarter or overtime was a coaching issue. Armstrong was brilliant in leading Nebraska’s comeback, and putting the ball in his hands for the overtime was the only decision that made sense. Ultimately, the game was lost in the first quarter, and it’s hard not to look at the decision to start Daniel Davie at corner as one of the key factors in the loss. After being torched for 17 points in the first quarter (and being fortunate it was only 17), Davie was substituted and Nebraska only surrendered one touchdown the rest of the game.

Illinois

With 51 seconds remaining, Nebraska led Illinois 13-7 with the Illini having the ball at its own 27 yard line. Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt hit Malik Turner for a 50-yard strike, giving the Illini a first down at the Nebraska 7 yard line. Penalties ended up giving Illinois six (!) shots at the end zone, which the Illini finally converted with a one-yard pass from Lunt to Geronimo Allison to take the lead with ten seconds remaining.

Agony Clock – 0:11

Coaching Mistakes: The decision on third-and-seven to roll Armstrong out will live in infamy for Nebraska fans.  Both coach and player (according to Brent Yarina of the Big Ten Network) agree that the play should have been a run only, but Armstrong attempted a pass which fell incomplete, stopping the clock and preserving Illinois’ chance at a comeback.

Riley took responsibility for the call, which is exactly what he should have done. But the decision – put the ball in the hands of your best playmaker, on the edge where he is most effective – ultimately was the right one. The execution of the decision, and the preparation of the player to be in that circumstance, failed Nebraska. But as we would see a week later, the results of that failure of execution and preparation haunted Nebraska a second time.

Wisconsin

Nebraska led Wisconsin 21-20, and Badgers’ kicker Rafael Gaglione missed a 39-yard field goal with 1:26 remaining. But Nebraska was unable to get a first down and Wisconsin had all three time outs remaining, so the Badgers got the ball back on their own 30 with 1:03 left in the game. Wisconsin drove the ball to the Nebraska 28, and Gaglione redeemed himself by making a 48-yard field goal with 0:04 left to play.

Agony Clock – 0:15

Coaching Mistakes: If there was one game where coaching decisions directly cost Nebraska in the clutch, it was Wisconsin. Nebraska had the ball with 1:26 left to go, and needed one first down to ice the contest. Nebraska chose to bring in Imani Cross, the biggest – and least elusive – of its running backs. Three running plays were called, directly into the middle of an 11-man (!) front from Wisconsin. The play calls almost guaranteed a three-and-out, putting Nebraska’s secondary into a horrific déjà vu scenario.

And this is where the Illinois game comes back. Again, the decision to put Armstrong on the edge to get that necessary first down was the right decision. The failure against Illinois was one of execution and communication, not in play-call. So why did Nebraska instead choose to run three plays into the teeth of the Wisconsin defense, with no chance of success? We’ll never know for sure, but it’s hard not to conclude Riley felt so stung by the third-and-seven at Illinois that he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

Which, ironically, led to the overall coaching mistake that cost Nebraska a chance to win.

So What?

Much of the narrative around Riley’s detractors centers around his decision-making costing Nebraska games this year. And there’s plenty of broader-narrative coaching decisions to question about Riley. Game plan questions, like why Nebraska had a game plan to throw the ball 31 times in a tight game against Illinois when it was getting 5.5 yards per carry. Penalty questions, specifically why Nebraska is no. 120 nationally in penalties committed, according to cfbstats.com. And most frustrating, why Nebraska is a national worst no. 128 in pass defense allowing 348.5 yards per game – although the lack of a pass rush, while still a coach’s responsibility, goes a long way to explain those gory numbers.

So this isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for Riley and his staff. There’s plenty of mistakes he’s made.

But the narrative of Nebraska being 2-4 because of immediate late-game decisions by Riley isn’t fair. It’s a reaction by fans hurting and angry – and justifiably so – seeing their team lose four of its first six games in comically-painful ways.

Nebraska Football: Predictions for the Huskers’ 2015 Season

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With the new college football season finally upon us, it’s time to go on record for how the 2015 season will unfold. The arrival of new head coach Mike Riley, and the installation of an entirely new offensive and defensive structure, this year becomes even more challenging than most to call.

But we know, pretty much, as much as we’re going to know before the ball is teed up for real. So it’s time to make a call, and have something to look back on in January –either with pride or dread.

BYU

While quarterback Taysom Hill provides a stern test for the new-look Blackshirts, an overall talent gap and the Memorial Stadium crowd help Riley open his career in Lincoln with a win – or, perhaps more importantly, avoiding a loss

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 31, BYU 24 (1-0, 0-0 in conference)

South Alabama

Even coming off a bowl appearance, the Jaguars should be outmatched when they arrive in Lincoln. Assuming Nebraska is at some level ready to play, talent should prevail.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 41, South Alabama 17 (2-0, 0-0 in conference)

At Miami

If Riley’s first test was a big ask, his first game on the road is even bigger. Even with injury problems, a head coach in Al Golden who has yet to impress, and a less-than-intimidating home field, asking Nebraska for a win here in year one seems too much of a stretch.

Fearless forecast: Miami 27, Nebraska 23 (2-1, 0-0 in conference)

Southern Miss

The Golden Eagles may be on the road back to respectability, but there’s still a long way between that and being competitive with Nebraska in Lincoln. Any fears of a repeat performance from Southern Miss like in Bill Callahan’s first year should be unfounded.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 45, Southern Miss 13 (3-1, 0-0 in conference)

At Illinois

Firing head coach Tim Beckman less than two weeks before the season starts can’t be helpful for Illinois’ preparation. While it does remove the “dead man walking” element from the season, having an interim coach should make this season feel a bit lost for the Illini.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 35, Illinois 20 (4-1, 1-0 in conference)

Wisconsin

Time to get bold. Yeah, the Badgers have humiliated Nebraska in their last two meetings. But Melvin Gordon is now in the NFL. Joel Stave is still quarterback for Wisconsin. The Badgers are going through a coaching change, although nowhere near the kind of culture change as at Nebraska. And, perhaps most importantly, Nebraska’s new defensive scheme should be far better suited to stop Wisconsin’s rushing attack (as pointed out by a smart and particularly handsome analyst).

Add to that mix the fact that the game is in Lincoln, where Nebraska is 1-0 against Wisconsin (take that, Bucky!), and it’s time to risk being called a homer.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 21, Wisconsin 20 (5-1, 2-0 in conference)

At Minnesota

Yes, Goldie has a two-game winning streak over Nebraska. Yes, Minnesota’s program is flourishing under head coach Jerry Kill. But I still can’t buy the Gophers as a contender to make it three over Nebraska, even in Minneapolis.

As with Wisconsin, Nebraska’s struggles with the Gophers over the last couple of years have come in large part because of a self-imposed mismatch due to former head coach Bo Pelini’s defensive structure. Add to that Minnesota losing three top-flight players to the NFL in the last two years (defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman, running back David Cobb, and tight end Maxx Williams), and the Gopher run of good fortune should end in 2015.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 27, Minnesota 13 (6-1, 3-0 in conference)

Northwestern

It really is amazing how the 2013 game against Ohio State in Evanston seems to be a high-water mark for Northwestern. Going into that game, the Purples were nationally ranked and had ESPN’s Gameday on campus. But after Ohio State did the business against them, the program has been on a downward trajectory.

Northwestern’s trajectory against Nebraska is on a similar arc. After winning in Lincoln in 2011, the Purples lost two straight heartbreakers. But last year, Nebraska was able to pull away and win convincingly, in Evanston. There’s little reason to think that trend line should change this season.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 38, Northwestern 21 (7-1, 4-0 in conference)

At Purdue

Illinois’ dismissal of Tim Beckman probably helps to ensure that Purdue won’t finish in last place this season in the B1G West. But even with a road trip, the talent disparity should help Nebraska to a comfortable win on Halloween.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 44, Purdue 10 (8-1, 5-0 in conference)

Michigan State

Having Nebraska at 8-1 at this stage of the season may seem like irrational exuberance about NU’s 2015 season. But any such exuberance would end with the Spartans roll into town. With a veteran returning quarterback in Connor Cook, a talent level equal to if not surpassing Nebraska, and a stingy defense, NU’s fairy-tale start to the season looks to end.

Fearless forecast: Michigan State 27, Nebraska 13 (8-2, 5-1 in conference)

At Rutgers

It’s tempting to see this game as a trap game, particularly coming off of what is likely to be a physical and emotional beat-down for Nebraska the week before. A long trip against an improving Rutgers team in that scenario is a recipe for disaster. But given how late in the season this game is and the kind of experience Riley and his staff have, Nebraska should be prepared enough to survive a closer-than-expected contest.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 20, Rutgers 16 (9-2, 6-1 in conference)

Iowa

The Heroes Game hasn’t quite grown into the rivalry that the B1G hoped it would when Nebraska joined the league. But the games have been competitive (if not necessarily watchable, other than last year’s overtime contest in Lincoln).

Iowa looks on track to another middle-of-the-pack conference season under head coach Kirk Ferentz. If that’s the case, and Nebraska has a chance to clinch the division in Lincoln, the game could have an energy it has been hoping for. Look for Nebraska to shade a close one.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 24, Iowa 21 (10-2, 7-1 in conference)

B1G Championship

So, Riley gets a trip to Indianapolis in his first year. Safe money has Nebraska facing off against Ohio State, the first ever unanimous pre-season no. 1 in the Associated Press. But don’t be surprised if it’s Michigan State, not Ohio State, that represents the B1G East in Indianapolis. Yes, the Buckeyes were dominant in the postseason last year. But don’t forget, that same Buckeye squad lost to Virginia Tech and were outplayed for large swaths of the game against Minnesota.

Regardless of whether it’s Ohio State or Michigan State, though, neither team is a good matchup for Nebraska. Making it to Indianapolis will be a great accomplishment for Riley in Year One, but asking for a number to be added next to the lonely “1999” on the East Stadium façade for conference championships is a step too far.

Power Ranking Nebraska’s 2015 Schedule from Easiest to Toughest

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

As the calendar turns to July, Nebraska football fans can start to see the 2015 season take shape. So as they wonder what the first season under new head coach Mike Riley will be like, it’s a good time to look at the schedule game-by-game and figure out which contests look to be the toughest.

Sure, there’s a long time between now and when a football is kicked in anger this September. But given what we know now, here’s how Nebraska’s schedule looks in terms of its degree of difficulty from game to game.

No. 12: Southern Mississippi (home, Sep. 26)

Yes, you read that right. The Golden Eagles, not a South Alabama program which was born in 2009 and transitioned to the FBS in 2013, are Nebraska’s softest opponent this season. After spending years as a solid program, Southern Miss fell on hard times, going 4-32 (!) since 2012.

While the Golden Eagles have improved from last year (1-11 in 2013, 3-9 in 2014), there’s still a long way between here and respectability for Southern Miss. Cashing a check for a visit to Lincoln this season may help in the long run, but it won’t make what gets put out on the field in 2015 any prettier.

No. 11: South Alabama (home, Sep. 12)

Sure, the Jaguars are only in their sixth season of existence overall, and second in the FBS. But South Alabama went 6-6 last season and made a bowl game. And this year’s squad has eleven transfers, including seven from UAB after the school dropped football (and then un-dropped football six months later, in what might be the weirdest college athletics story of the season).

But that influx of FBS talent should help to improve an already-feisty Jaguar program. Couple that influx with South Alabama being a quintessential trap game, nestled between BYU and Miami on Nebraska’s schedule, and the Jaguars are at least enough of a challenge to avoid being tabbed as NU’s easiest contest of 2015.

No. 10: Purdue (away, Oct. 31)

I’ll save you the jokes about fearing a trip to West Lafayette on Halloween. While the first half of 2014 signaled at least some signs of life from the Boilermakers, injuries mounted and the second half of the season was a disaster. Purdue scored in the 30s in respectable losses to Michigan State and Minnesota, then limped through its last four games without topping 16 on the scoreboard.

Absent a dramatic turnaround—without the recruiting evidence to suggest such a feat given Purdue’s 5-year recruiting rank of 61, according to SB Nation—the Boilermakers look to be Nebraska’s softest conference opponent next season.

No. 9: Illinois (away, Oct. 3)

It was very tempting to put Illinois, not Purdue, in the bottom spot in terms of Nebraska’s conference opponents. The Illini haven’t been very good for a while now, needing a late-season surge to make a bowl last season. And head coach Tim Beckman has been dogged by stories (such as from Tom Fornelli of CBS Sports) that he has mistreated players under his care.

That’s not good for any coach. But for a coach in his fourth season with a 12-25 record, it sets up a dead-man-walking scenario for Beckman that can be a huge distraction. Still, the Illini have a talented backfield with Wes Lunt at quarterback and Josh Ferguson at tailback. That alone is enough to move Illinois up the list, at least a little bit.

No. 8: Rutgers (away, Nov. 14)

Yep, Nebraska’s going to New Jersey for a conference game. Conference realignment, ladies and gentlemen.

Last year, the Scarlet Knights looked salty, going 5-1 with a win over Michigan and Washington State. But then Rutgers hit a murderer’s row of a three-game portion of its schedule, losing to Ohio State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin by a combined 135-41.

Still, Rutgers has some talent, evidenced by a no. 48 5-year talent ranking from SB Nation. Combine that with a long trip to an unfamiliar destination and coming off a slugfest against Michigan State the week before, and Rutgers becomes a little more challenging.

No. 7: Northwestern (home, Oct. 24)

October 5, 2013, wasn’t that long ago. Northwestern was no. 16 in the country, and ESPN’s College Gameday was in Evanston to see the Purples face off against no. 4 Ohio State. It was Northwestern’s chance to really seize the moment and stake a claim as Chicago’s Big Ten Team and a player in the conference.

Ohio State won the game, 40-30. Since then, Northwestern has gone 6-13.

Prior to last year, Northwestern had a history of giving Nebraska fits, beating them in 2011 and losing heartbreakers in 2012 and 2013. But last year, Nebraska comfortably beat the Purples in Evanston, 38-17. Look for that trend to continue when Northwestern arrives in Lincoln this year.

No. 6: Iowa (home, Nov. 27)

Fans of both schools were left scratching their heads after Nebraska beat Iowa in double overtime last year, and it was the scarlet and cream that fired its head coach. After 13 (!) seasons in charge in Iowa City, the seat under Kirk Ferentz might finally be starting to warm a little after a lackluster 2014 campaign.

Iowa will be turning the reins over to sophomore quarterback C.J. Beathard, and trying to shore up an offensive line after the departure of both tackles, including Brandon Sherff. Running behind that line will be two-star running backs (according to 247 Sports) Jordan Canzeri and Akrum Wadley.

Unless Iowa can put together a surprise campaign like 2013, it’s likely that the Hawkeyes will come to Lincoln with a great deal more pressure on Ferentz. That does not bode well for a team to repeat its defeat of Nebraska at Memorial Stadium.

No. 5: Minnesota (away, Oct. 17)

Say this for the Golden Gophers under head coach Jerry Kill. They know who they are, they know what they’re good at, and they stick with it. For two years in a row, Minnesota has translated a bruising ground game and a stifling defense into a two-game winning streak over Nebraska.

But this year, Minnesota will be without tailback David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams, both playing in the NFL. And Nebraska’s defense has transitioned from former head coach Bo Pelini’s stop-the-pass-first philosophy to new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s nine-in-the-box quarters scheme.

The Gophers will still be a tough out for any opponent. But a combination of Minnesota’s likely regression (particularly on offense) and a Nebraska defensive scheme that presents a better matchup makes this game more manageable for NU, even in Minneapolis.

No. 4: BYU (home, Sep. 5)

Welcome to Nebraska, Coach Riley. Here’s a darkhorse Heisman contender and a matchup nightmare for you to handle in your first game. Have fun.

Cougars’ quarterback Taysom Hill is a beast running the ball. He averages 7.4 yards per carry if you eliminate sacks from consideration, according to SB Nation. And before his injury last year, Hill was completing passes at a 66.7 percent clip, with a 7/3 touchdown-to-interception ration (according to CFB Stats).

That’s a big ask for a defense playing its first game under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s tutelage. And while BYU’s defense isn’t exactly a world-beater (no. 58 nationally in total defense and no. 73 in scoring defense, according to CFB Stats), drawing the Cougars as an opening act for Nebraska is a huge challenge.

No. 3: Miami (away, Sep. 19)

If Nebraska’s first home game is a big challenge in 2015, its first road game is a bigger one. Miami is an immensely talented program (no. 17 nationally in the CFBMatrix talent ranking, the best of any Nebraska opponent this year). At quarterback for the Hurricanes will be sophomore Brad Kaaya, who gave Nebraska fits last year as a true freshman in Lincoln.

Yes, Miami might be under-coached. Al Golden has a -1.00 coach effect from the CFBMatrix, meaning he can be expected to cost his team a full game (!) per season. But Miami is still the most talented team Nebraska will be facing in 2015, and as the first road game of Riley’s tenure.

No. 2: Wisconsin (home, Oct. 10)

There’s no sugar-coating this fact for Nebraska fans. Wisconsin has owned Nebraska since NU arrived in the conference. Wisconsin has gone 3-1 against Nebraska in that span, outscoring NU 204-102. In the last two games, the Badgers have outscored Nebraska 129-55.

Ouch.

There is room for optimism for Nebraska fans this time around against the Badgers, though. The game is in Lincoln, home of Nebraska’s only win in the series. Melvin Gordon will be in San Diego (at least this year) playing for the Chargers. Nebraska’s defensive scheme under new coordinator Mark Banker should be far better structured to stop Wisconsin’s power rushing attack. And Wisconsin, like Nebraska, will be adjusting to a new head coach.

Still, Nebraska fans can be forgiven for waiting to see NU succeed against the Badgers before they believe it.

No. 1: Michigan State (home, Nov. 7)

The Spartans are still the class of Nebraska’s 2015 schedule, even after NU nearly pulled off an improbably comeback in East Lansing last season. Although tailback Jeremy Langford is gone, returning is quarterback Connor Cook to guide the surprisingly-lively Spartan offense. And under head coach Mark D’Antonio, the Spartans defense has been its calling card (no. 1 in rushing defense and no. 8 in total defense last year, according to CFB Stats).

With an experienced quarterback and a top-flight defense coming to Lincoln, Michigan State looks to pose Nebraska’s toughest challenge in 2015.