Nebraska Football: Predicting the Cornhuskers’ 2015 Win-Loss Record

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

When Nebraska hired Mike Riley as its new head football coach, some were perplexed. How could Nebraska fire Bo Pelini after another nine-win season, something he had achieved in each of his seven years in charge?

While the reasons for Pelini’s dismissal were legion (and discussed by a smart and particularly handsome analyst), the fact remains that the bar has been set high for Riley in year one. Win fewer than nine game—heck, maybe win fewer than ten games—and some fans will be baying at the moon about how Nebraska was better off under Pelini.

So, will that happen? Of course, it’s far too early to be making definitive projections about a college football season still months away. But there’s still plenty we do know to make at least some educated guesses about how 2015 will unfold for Nebraska.

BYU (Sep. 5)

Nebraska fans should be terrified of this game. BYU comes to town with (at least at this point) a healthy Taysom Hill at quarterback. He’s adequate as a passer and dynamic as a runner, and that combination has given Nebraska defenses fits in the past.

As for the Cougars’ defense, according to CFBStats.com it’s good against the run (no. 20 nationally) and not so good against the pass (no. 114). So in game one of the Riley era, Nebraska will face an opponent that will push it away from what it does well offensively and towards what it doesn’t do well.

The difference in talent level (as of 2014, Nebraska’s talent ranking was no. 24 and BYU’s was no. 71, according to the incredibly-useful CFBMatrix) should be enough for Nebraska to win. But don’t be at all shocked if Riley starts his career in Lincoln at 0-1.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 28, BYU 24 (NU 1-0 overall, 0-0 in conference)

South Alabama (Sep. 12)

South Alabama isn’t exactly a paycheck game. The USA Jaguars did go to a bowl game last year, and did absorb a number of players from the now-defunct UAB Blazers football program. But even with that influx, the gap in quality between the two teams should be more than enough for Nebraska to comfortably expect a victory.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, South Alabama 13 (NU 2-0 overall, 0-0 in conference)

At Miami (Sep. 19)

In 2014, Nebraska won a bare-knuckle street fight of a contest in Lincoln. In 2015, both star tailbacks (Ameer Abdullah for Nebraska, Duke Johnson for Miami) are now on NFL rosters.

But Miami will have the benefit of a settled head coach in Al Golden, think what you will of him. Sophomore quarterback Brad Kayaa will be settled in to his offensive duties. And Miami will easily be the most talent team Nebraska will face in the non-conference season.

Particularly if Nebraska gets by BYU in the lid-lifter, a win over Miami could give Riley fantastic momentum and buzz. But given the travel (even though Miami is hardly an intimidating road game) and talent level of the Hurricanes, that’s an awfully big ask as Nebraska transitions to life under Riley.

Fearless Forecast: Miami 31, Nebraska 24 (NU 2-1 overall, 0-0 in conference)

Southern Mississippi (Sep. 26)

It’s really remarkable what’s happened to the Golden Eagles. In 2011, Southern Miss was 12-2, and looking like a non-power-conference team on the rise.

In the next three years, Southern Miss has gone 4-32.

Yes, the Golden Eagles will likely be better under head coach Todd Monken’s third year in charge. And yes, it was Southern Miss who delivered a stunning upset to Nebraska in Bill Callahan’s first year in charge.

But that was a different Southern Miss team in 2004. The Golden Eagles’ appearance on the schedule may be coincidental, but a similar outcome to what happened in 2004 is unlikely.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 51, Southern Miss 10 (NU 3-1 overall, 0-0 in conference)

At Illinois (Oct. 3)

Illini head coach Tim Beckman has been busy defending himself against allegations that he mistreated his players. According to the Chicago Tribune, Darrius Millines added his voice to Simon Cvijanovic as former players critical of Beckman’s handling of injuries.

For a team that snuck into a bowl game last year at 6-6 and desperately trying to turn a corner, this type of controversy is exactly what the Illini don’t need. How much of a story this will be—or if Beckman is still in charge in Champaign on October 3—is yet to be determined.

Either way, this won’t help an Illini squad already overmatched against Nebraska.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 35, Illinois 10 (NU 4-1 overall, 1-0 in conference)

Wisconsin (Oct. 10)

The second incarnation of the Freedom Trophy will be played in Lincoln, with Nebraska coming off a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Badgers last season—a loss that likely contributed in large part to the firing of Pelini as head coach.

Both teams will be breaking in new head coaches, with Paul Chryst taking the helm in Madison. But Chryst has deep ties with Wisconsin, and his arrival is nowhere near the culture shock that Riley is in Lincoln.

This game may well be the de facto Big Ten West championship game, and should be fascinating to watch. But given how Wisconsin has played against Nebraska in their last two encounters, it’s hard not to lean towards the Badgers.

Fearless Forecast: Wisconsin 24, Nebraska 20 (NU 4-2 overall, 1-1 in conference)

At Minnesota (Oct. 17)

They couldn’t make it three straight, could they?

It’s hard for Nebraska fans to wrap their collective heads around this, but the Golden Gophers hold a two-game winning streak over Nebraska. In 2015, though, Nebraska will not be trying to massage a clearly-injured Taylor Martinez through a game at quarterback like it did the last time the two met in Minneapolis, and Minnesota will not have David Cobb running the ball.

Combine that with the talent disparity (Nebraska at no. 24, Minnesota at no. 64 in 2014, according to CFBMatrix), and 2015 should be the year Nebraska breaks the Gopher jinx.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Minnesota 16 (NU 5-2 overall, 2-1 in conference)

Northwestern (Oct. 24)

In 2012 and 2013, the Purples had Nebraska dead to rights, but couldn’t land the knockout blow. After a win in 2011, Northwestern could easily have been 3-0 against Nebraska going into last year’s game in Evanston.

But Nebraska pulled away in that game, winning 38-17. Northwestern slipped quite a bit last season, finishing at 5-7. There’s little to suggest that the Purples will be able to right the ship in 2015.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 41, Northwestern 14 (NU 6-2 overall, 3-1 in conference)

At Purdue (Oct. 31)

Purdue’s last bowl appearance was after the 2012 season, where the Boilermakers lost to Oklahoma State in the Heart of Texas Bowl, 58-17. Since then, Purdue went 1-11 in 2013 and 3-9 in 2014.

So, yes, there’s progress. But there’s also quite a ways to go. And even with the game being at home (and on Halloween, no less), the disparity between Purdue and Nebraska should be on display.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 35, Purdue 13 (NU 7-2 overall, 4-1 in conference)

Michigan State (Nov. 7)

Say goodbye to former Legends Division rival Michigan State, as the Spartans fall off Nebraska’s schedule with their relocation to the B1G East division last season. And given how Michigan State has fared against Nebraska recently (winning two straight), Nebraska fans might not be sad to see them fall off the schedule.

But Michigan State returns the most experienced and effective quarterback of Nebraska’s 2015 opponents in Connor Cook. And while the Spartans do lose receiver Tony Lippett and running back Jeremy Langford to the NFL, head coach Mark D’Antonio’s defense should still be a stern test for Riley’s pro-style offense in its first year in Lincoln.

Fearless Forecast: Michigan State 21, Nebraska 17 (NU 7-3 overall, 4-2 in conference)

At Rutgers (Nov. 14)

For a time, Rutgers looked like it might have a sneaky good 2014 football season. The Scarlet Knights started out 5-1, with their only loss a 13-10 heartbreaker against Penn State.

Then, the Knights were drubbed by Ohio State, 56-17, and proceeded to lose four of their last six games. Rutgers did finish last season at 8-5, with a win over North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl. But Nebraska handled Rutgers comfortably last year, 42-24, and there is little about a trip to Piscataway that suggests a different outcome in 2015.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 35, Rutgers 21 (NU 8-3 overall, 5-2 in conference)

Iowa (Nov. 27)

Hawkeye fans were amazed at how Iowa stumbled to the finish line in 2014, losing three of its last four games (including blowing a 17-point lead to Nebraska before losing in overtime), and yet seeing Nebraska and not Iowa make a change at head coach.

Iowa has now handed the keys at quarterback to C.J. Beatherd, a move many Hawkeye fans had been clamoring for throughout much of 2014. Neither team has won a home Heroes Game trophy since the inauguration of the anodyne monument in 2011.

But given Iowa’s struggles to find traction over the last few years, look for Nebraska to break that streak in 2015.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 27, Iowa 20 (NU 9-3 overall, 6-2 in conference)

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Nebraska Football: Reasonable Expectations for the Huskers’ 2015 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans do have the capacity for being reasonable (evidence sometimes notwithstanding). So as we settle in for the off-season, let’s take some time to look ahead and think about what we can reasonably expect from Nebraska under new head coach Mike Riley.

Nebraska Will Improve on Turnovers, not Penalties

A smart and particularly handsome analyst has used this table before, but what it reveals about Nebraska under former head coach Bo Pelini is striking. Take a look at where Nebraska ranked under Pelini nationally in terms of penalty yards per game and turnover margin (stats courtesy of CFBStats.com)

Year Penalty yds/game, nat’l ranking Turnover margin, nat’l ranking
2008 99 108
2009 102 33
2010 115 61
2011 73 67
2012 95 108
2013 82 119
2014 56 75

The bold italic numbers, as a refresher, are the times when Nebraska finished in the top half nationally in those statistical categories. In other words, if the number isn’t in bold italics, it means Nebraska was (put charitably) below average.

Put less charitably—especially when the national rankings were in triple digits—it means Nebraska was regularly atrocious.

How did those numbers look in the same time period under Riley at Oregon State? In comparison, it’s a mixed bag.

Year Penalty yds/game, nat’l ranking Turnover margin, nat’l ranking
2008 83 56
2009 87 31
2010 80 35
2011 118 100
2012 78 29
2013 78 42
2014 123 41

With regards to penalties, you could argue that Riley’s Beavers were worse than Pelini’s Cornhuskers. But with regards to turnover margin, Riley’s teams were far better than Pelini’s.

So you can stop expecting Nebraska to commit fewer penalties just because Riley is such a soft touch in comparison to Pelini. But you can expect Nebraska under Pelini to do a much better job in protecting the football.

True Freshmen Will Make An Impact

A combination of talent and lack of depth will likely push a number of true freshmen onto the field in 2015. The clearest path to the field is probably possessed by linebacker Dedrick Young, given that Nebraska only has five non-freshmen scholarship linebackers on the roster (you can see a class-by-class breakdown of NU’s roster competition here, courtesy of the Omaha World-Herald).

Eric Lee and Avery Anderson, two of Nebraska’s highest-rated recruits (according to 247Sports), should be in the mix for playing time even in NU’s crowded and talented secondary. Matt Snyder, a talented offensive weapon at tight end, could be pressed into earlier service if the spring injury to Cethan Carter lingers into the fall. And Jordan Ober looks to come in right away and start for Nebraska at long snapper after losing scholarship snapper Gabriel Miller to injury last year.

Nebraska’s Record Will Be About The Same As 2014

Cue the “then why did we fire a coach who never won fewer than nine games” shrieking in three, two, one …

Nebraska’s 2015 schedule isn’t the most difficult, but it’s got some pitfalls. The season opener against BYU is a big challenge, given that Nebraska will be installing a new offense and a new defense. Riley’s first test of his new-look Cornhusker squad will be against a program with a national championship in its locker, not an FCS directional school coming to Lincoln for a paycheck.

Nebraska also has to travel to Miami to face a Hurricanes squad with more talent on paper than the Cornhuskers. In conference, Nebraska also has to go to Minneapolis to face a Golden Gopher team with a two-game winning streak over NU (I know, I had to read that a couple of times to let it truly sink in). Games against Wisconsin and Michigan State (and, to a lesser extent, Iowa and Northwestern) will challenge Nebraska, but they are at Memorial Stadium.

Last year Nebraska went 9-3 in the regular season. Given the two challenges in the non-conference and the five in-conference, combined with the difficulties of transitioning to a new coach and a new system, besting a 9-3 record would be a challenge. It would take a big step up in quarterback play, or a big step back from a number of Nebraska’s conference foes, to comfortably predict a step up from NU’s 2014 record.

We’ll have a discussion later about whether or not that can represent progress for Nebraska. Be patient, it’s a long off-season.

Nebraska Football: Ranking the Hardest Games of the 2015 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans will be watching spring practice reports, imagining what the roster will look like when NU takes the field in 2015. So it’s not at all too early to be looking at next year’s schedule and imagining which games will be the most challenging.

So here, power ranked from easiest to hardest, is what Nebraska will be facing in new head coach Mike Riley’s first year in charge in Lincoln.

No. 12: South Alabama (Sep. 12)

A newer entry into FBS football, the Jaguars are still struggling to get up to speed. South Alabama did finish the regular season at 6-6 last year, earning a trip to the inaugural Camellia Bowl where it lost to Bowling Green, 33-28.

While a bowl appearance this early in their FBS existence is admirable, the Jaguars should prove to be little more than a paycheck game for Nebraska.

No. 11: Southern Mississippi (Sep. 26)

Nebraska finally is able to finish up its series with the Golden Eagles in 2015, with the added bonus of having the game in Lincoln as opposed to a neutral site. Southern Miss ended 2014 at 3-9, which actually was an improvement on its 1-11 record in 2013.

So while the Eagles may be moving in the right direction, it’s unlikely that movement will be fast enough to challenge Nebraska in Lincoln.

No. 10: at Purdue (Oct. 31)

Purdue is one of the schools in the Big Ten that has a systemic disadvantage, given its size relative to the other schools in the conference. So pulling out of a slide, especially in a sport like football, is a big challenge for the Boilermakers.

Coming off a 3-9 season puts Purdue a long way from challenging. While the Boilermakers will have B1G-caliber talent sufficient to be more of a challenge than Nebraska’s non-conference paycheck opponents, NU should have little to fear on its trip to West Lafayette.

No. 9: at Illinois (Oct. 3)

Illinois is a case study of a football program that should be better than it is. While the Illini might not be poised to compete with Ohio State and Penn State, its location, size, and history should make it able to get out of the cellar of the B1G.

The Illini were able to put on a two-game run at the end of 2014 (including a win over Penn State) to become bowl eligible at 6-6. Although the Illini lost the Heart of Dallas Bowl to Louisiana Tech, it did show some progress for Illinois.

No. 8: at Rutgers (Nov. 14)

Rutgers ended its inaugural B1G season at 8-5, including a win over North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl. None of Rutgers’ wins last year, though, were particularly impressive—other than its win over Washington State in the first week of the season being notable as the “best” non-conference win by a B1G school well into the non-conference season.

Still, eight wins is eight wins, and a trip to New Jersey for Riley and his new staff could prove a tricky contest.

No. 7: Northwestern (Oct. 24)

It’s hard to think of a Nebraska game against Northwestern being in the bottom half in terms of difficult games. After all, Nebraska’s contests with Northwestern have been nail-biters the last three years. It’s not at all hard to imagine Nebraska being 0-4 against the Purples since NU joined the B1G, not the 3-1 advantage Nebraska currently enjoys.

But Northwestern’s talent level has been slipping in the past two years, and 2015 does not appear to arrest that slide. Couple that with the Purples’ trip to Lincoln, and perhaps this is Nebraska’s best chance for a comfortable victory.

No. 6: Iowa (Nov. 27)

Much like Northwestern, Iowa always gives Nebraska fits. Last year, Nebraska needed overtime to knock off the Hawkeyes in Iowa City, and were quite fortunate to escape with the win.

But much like Northwestern, Iowa’s trajectory does not look to be moving in the right direction. Last year’s 7-5 was a step down from Iowa’s 8-4 mark a year prior, and with a schedule that was much more manageable. This year, with a more difficult schedule, and little momentum, Iowa should struggle to match its production from a year ago.

No. 5: BYU (Sep. 5)

This ranking isn’t so much about the status of BYU as a whole, although the Cougars are coming off an 8-5 mark from 2014, including a double-overtime loss to Memphis in the Miami Beach Bowl. The ranking is more about BYU being the first opponent for Riley’s new-look Nebraska squad. Nebraska did not have the good fortune of easing its new head coach in, but instead will be opening with a solid and well-coached team for its first opponent.

Riley will have to be ready to hit the ground running against the Cougars when the lid gets lifted on the 2015 season.

No. 4: at Minnesota (Oct. 17)

It seems like a strange world where the Golden Gophers hold a two-game winning streak over Nebraska. But that’s where we find ourselves. And while Minnesota’s dogged, ground-based attack may have been uniquely suited to match up against former head coach Bo Pelini’s two-high safety defense, there can be little doubt that the Gophers will post a stern test for Riley as Nebraska treks to Minneapolis.

No. 3: Wisconsin (Oct. 10)

Yes, this is the same Wisconsin team that humiliated Nebraska 59-24 last year, and still only ranked no. 3 on the list. Keep in mind that Melvin Gordon is gone. Wisconsin, like Nebraska, will be adjusting to a new head coach. And the game is in Lincoln, as opposed to Madison.

Most importantly, perhaps, is that Nebraska will be shifting from a defensive scheme that insists on playing the run without help from the safeties to one that will focus primarily on stopping the run. More than anything, the change in defensive philosophies may be crucial in changing Nebraska’s fortunes against Wisconsin and in NU winning back the Freedom Trophy.

(Yes, that’s a thing.)

No. 2: at Miami (Sep. 19)

Duke Johnson may be gone, but the Hurricanes still have loads of talent. And Brad Kayaa will have another year of experience, coming into the game as Miami’s sophomore signal-caller. Add on top of that Nebraska taking its first road trip under Riley’s direction—admittedly, Miami is not the most dangerous of road trips, but it is still a challenge—and the trip to South Beach looks to be one of Nebraska’s sternest tests of the season.

No. 1: Michigan State (Nov. 7)

With Connor Cook’s decision to return for his senior season, Michigan State became Nebraska’s most formidable opponent on the 2015 schedule. Cook’s experience and leadership, coupled with his accuracy and athletic ability, give Michigan State’s offense a multi-dimensional threat. Couple that with the Spartans’ always-stingy defense, and Michigan State will provide Nebraska with its toughest contest in 2015.

Ranking the Five Best Moments in the Nebraska-Miami Rivalry

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

For most fans of a certain age, the Nebraska-Miami rivalry holds a very special place in history. Nebraska helped put Miami on the national stage with the Hurricanes’ amazing 31-30 victory in the 1984 Orange Bowl. Nebraska’s humblings at the hands of Miami in Orange Bowls of 1989 (23-3) and 1992 (22-0) led Tom Osborne to a wholesale change in his recruiting and defensive schemes. And that, as a result, led to Osborne’s first national championship—fittingly, against Miami in the Orange Bowl—in 1994.

Overall, Miami and Nebraska have split, playing each other ten times with each team winning five. So in looking back through history, here are the five best moments (from a scarlet and cream perspective) of the Nebraska-Miami rivalry.

No. 5: A First Bowl Victory

Nebraska’s first two bowl trips ended in defeat, to Stanford in the 1941 Rose Bowl and to Duke in the 1955 Orange Bowl. Nebraska would not get another bowl invite until 1962, when NU headed to Yankee Stadium to face Miami in the Gotham Bowl.

Played in sub-zero temperatures before a meager crowd, the 1962 Gotham Bowl was an amazing contest, with Nebraska taking a 36-27 lead in the fourth quarter, holding off a Miami rally, and sealing its first bowl win with a Bob Brown interception.

No. 4: The Fumblerooski

Nebraska was losing to upstart Miami 17-0 in the 1984 Orange Bowl, and needed a spark to turn the game around.  So the trick play was called where quarterback Turner Gill put the ball on the ground, making it a live ball, and ran off to the right.

It was then picked up by guard Dean Steinkuhler who, while the defense followed Gill to the right, ran left and rumbled into the end zone. The touchdown sparked Nebraska’s comeback, which was thwarted only by a deflected two-point conversion.

But the play, now outlawed, became a permanent part of Nebraska lore.

No. 3: Cory Schlesinger’s Second Touchdown

Most of the best Nebraska moments from this rivalry will come from Nebraska’s 24-17 win in 1994, so picking one moment from that game is tricky. But Nebraska fans should remember that Miami led most of this contest, going up 10-0 in the first quarter, leading 10-7 at the half, and leading 17-9 going into the fourth quarter.

Nebraska tied the game with 7:38 remaining on a Schlesinger trap play and a two-point conversion. But remember, college football didn’t embrace overtime until 1996—and we all remember what a tie in the Orange Bowl meant for Nebraska in years past.

So it was Schlesinger’s second touchdown, with 2:46 left to play (and with Schlesinger’s cleat firmly implanted in Warren Sapp’s chest as he rumbled into the end zone) that sealed the win and the shiny crystal football for Nebraska.

No. 2: Ken Calhoun’s Deflection

This may not be the happiest moment in Nebraska history, but it is likely the most iconic. In 1984, Nebraska was considered the best team in college football, and needed to knock off an upstart Miami team to get the monkey off Tom Osborne’s back and win a national title. The “Scoring Explosion” of Turner Gill, Mike Rozier, and Irving Fryar was ready to stake its claim to glory.

The game didn’t quite turn out according to script, though. Miami took a 17-0 lead in the first quarter and led Nebraska 31-17 going into the fourth. Nebraska scored on a one-yard Jeff Smith run to get within seven, and Smith scored again with under a minute to play.

31-30. An extra point would give Nebraska a tie, and almost certainly a vote as national champion.

Osborne would have none of a tie though, sending his offense back on to the field for a two-point conversion and the win. Gill took the snap, rolled to his right, and threw the ball to Smith. But Miami safety Ken Calhoun got a finger on the pass, tipping it away, and establishing the Hurricanes as a force in college football for the next decade.

How that decision looks in retrospect is, without question, changed by the three national titles Osborne won in the mid-nineties. But there can be no doubt that the courage of the decision, and the result, helped to define Osborne’s legacy.

No. 1: Kareem Moss’ Interception

Be honest. If you’re talking best moments of the rivalry, Kareem Moss’ interception of a wobbly Frank Costa pass on fourth down, clinching a win in the 1994 Orange Bowl and securing Tom Osborne’s first national title is the moment.

If you’re a Nebraska fan, and you’re old enough, you remember with vivid clarity that moment. The moment when the Miami dragon had finally been slain in its own lair. The moment where all those doubts, all those questions, all those near-misses were put away. The moment where, finally, you got to witness the scarlet and cream raise the national championship trophy, reaching the pinnacle of glory in college football.

At that moment, you had no idea that the next three years would see two more shiny crystal footballs on their way to the trophy cabinet in Lincoln. And it didn’t matter. On that warm Miami night, and on the cold streets at 72nd and Dodge in Omaha where ecstatic fans gathered to celebrate, the Cornhuskers could finally—finally—stand astride the college football world in triumph.

And there’s no better moment than that.

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.