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.

 

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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.

Nebraska Football: Worst-Case Scenario For the 2015 Season

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While Nebraska football fans can be forgiven for their optimism, deep down they know that disaster could be lurking around the corner. Coaching transitions are always difficult, and new head man Mike Riley is bringing in a new philosophy on offense and defense for Nebraska to absorb. And while a smart and particularly handsome analyst has already talked sunshine and unicorns about Nebraska’s run this year to the College Football Playoff, there’s also a scenario that goes far worse for the scarlet and cream.

A Brutal Start

If the wheels come off for Nebraska this year, it could be in large part based on the challenging first three games. Riley’s career at Nebraska starts by facing a BYU team led by potential Heisman darkhorse quarterback Taysom Hill. Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports is one of many pundits highlighting Hill’s size and athleticism as a reason why he could be a star in 2015.

Directional State, this ain’t, for a first game in charge for Riley and company. If the Blackshirts struggle with new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters scheme in their first live game, Nebraska could easily find itself 0-1 to start the season.

Then, after a bit of a breather with South Alabama (although the Jaguars did go to a bowl game last year), Nebraska heads to south Florida to face Miami. The Hurricanes will be led by sophomore quarterback Brad Kaaya, who went 28-42 against Nebraska last year for 359 yards and two touchdowns. Miami’s talent is better than Nebraska’s, according to the 2014 rankings from CFB Matrix, suggesting the Hurricanes will have an on-field advantage. And this will be Riley’s first road game in his Nebraska career.

Especially coming after an opening-game loss, it’s not at all inconceivable that Nebraska could get beaten by Miami and start the 2015 campaign 1-2.

Armstrong Doesn’t Progress

Although much has been made about Riley adapting his offense to meet his personnel, it’s hard to see how Nebraska has success on offense without quarterback Tommy Armstrong improving his completion percentage. Which is why this quote from BTN’s Tom Dienhart, after watching some fall practice, should be terrifying.

After watching two practices, I have concerns. Armstrong lacks consistent touch and accuracy. He has a rep for being sharper on long passes than he is on shorter ones. Not good in Riley’s pro-style/West Coast attack.

If Armstrong doesn’t progress from the career 52.9 completion percentage passer he’s been, Nebraska’s offense will struggle. And without a star like Ameer Abdullah in the backfield to bail him out, that could make Nebraska ripe for the picking as conference play unfolds.

The B1G Meat Grinder

Nebraska’s two toughest conference games, Wisconsin and Michigan State, are at home. But it’s not like Nebraska has enjoyed a great deal of success against either team recently. Last year, Nebraska lost to the Spartans in East Lansing in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the 27-22 score would indicate.

Sadly, Nebraska’s 59-24 loss to Wisconsin in Madison last year wasn’t as close as that score indicated, either.

So let’s say Nebraska falls to both Wisconsin and Michigan State. What else is on the schedule? Well, Minnesota holds a two-game winning streak over Nebraska, and gets NU in Minneapolis. While there are ample reasons to think Riley will make Nebraska a better matchup, history suggests the Gophers could well extend their streak to three.

How about Northwestern? Other than last year’s contest, every game Nebraska has played against the Purples has been a challenge. There’s a good argument to be made that, since Nebraska’s entry into the B1G, Northwestern should have been 3-0 against the scarlet and cream going into last year’s contest. So it’s not impossible to imagine the Purples coming to Lincoln and upsetting Nebraska in Riley’s first year.

And then there’s Iowa. While Nebraska fans would love nothing more than to dismiss the Hawkeyes, the fact remains that Iowa beat Nebraska last time the teams met in Memorial Stadium. And Nebraska needed a De’Mornay Pierson-El punt return (and criminally-negligent game management from Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz) to overcome a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit and win the game in overtime.

So there’s every reason to think Iowa can hang with – and ultimately beat – Nebraska at home on Black Friday in 2015.

Wisconsin. Michigan State. Minnesota. Northwestern. Iowa. Sure, it’s not likely that Nebraska would lose all of those games. But it’s certainly not impossible. And if Nebraska starts dropping games, momentum could make losing more games likely.

That would lead to Nebraska ending the 2015 season at 5-7, and providing disturbing flashbacks to the last time a new head coach with a West Coast offensive philosophy arrived in Lincoln. And while this dystopian view of 2015 is less likely than the rose-colored vision discussed earlier, fans should discount it at their peril.

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.

Nebraska Football: Five Toughest Quarterbacks Cornhuskers Will Face in 2015

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that the quarterback is the most important part of an offense, so the teams with the best quarterbacks will be the hardest to beat. Next season, Nebraska will face a number of talented signal-callers as new head coach Mike Riley learns the ropes of his position.

Here are the five quarterbacks Nebraska is likely to have the most trouble with next season.

All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

No. 5: Mitch Leidner, Minnesota

It seems odd to think of a quarterback from the offensively-challenged Gophers to make this list. But Leidner led Minnesota into Lincoln last year and beat Nebraska, so NU fans should think twice before dismissing his ability.

Leidner’s statistics aren’t jaw-dropping (51.5 percent completion rate, 11/8 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2014). But in Jerry Kill’s smash-mouth offense the quarterback does not need to be the primary weapon. Instead, the quarterback merely directs the offense and makes plays when necessary.

Which is exactly what Leidner did last year against Nebraska, going 8-of-17 for 135 yards through the air, and carrying the ball 22 times for 111 yards on the ground. If Leidner is able to match those numbers against Nebraska this year, NU will struggle to avoid a third straight defeat.

No. 4: Wes Lunt, Illinois

Injuries derailed Lunt’s 2014 season at Illinois after transferring from Oklahoma State. Even in the eight games he played last year, though, Lunt amassed a 63.5 percent completion rate and a 14/3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those numbers are enough to make any defensive coordinator nervous.

Although Illinois’ weapons are certainly limited, a healthy Lunt will be able to get the best out of them, and provide a challenge for Nebraska’s new-look defense.

No. 3: Taysom Hill, BYU

Much like Illinois’ Lunt, injuries robbed Hill of what could have been a darkhorse Heisman candidacy last year. Hill’s primary threat is with his legs, having rushed for 463 yards on 86 carries and scoring 8 touchdowns in only seven games last year.

But Hill is also effective as a passer, with a 66.7 completion rate and a 7/3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Hill’s dual-threat skill set represents a huge challenge for opposing defenses, and the fact that he is the first quarterback Nebraska will face under Riley’s leadership makes him all the more dangerous.

No. 2: Brad Kaaya, Miami

It’s not like Kaaya had a bad game against Nebraska last year. As a true freshman in a hostile atmosphere, Kaaya went 28-of-42 for 359 yards passing and three touchdowns. But he also threw two interceptions, and that in combination with Miami’s inability to stop Ameer Abdullah helped Nebraska to a ten-point victory.

But in 2015, the game will be in Miami. Abdullah will not be wearing scarlet and cream, and Nebraska will be taking its first road trip under Riley. Kaaya will have a full year of experience under his belt, while Nebraska will be in only the third game learning a new defensive scheme. And Miami will be looking for payback after a chippy game in Lincoln last year.

No. 1: Connor Cook, Michigan State

Cook probably doesn’t get the respect he deserves. He’s not flashy or gaudy, and Michigan State is much more known for its defense than its offense.

But NFL scouts have their eyes on Cook. CBS Sports has Cook as the no. 1 quarterback prospect for 2016, and Walter Football projects Cook as the no. 6 overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

Between those lofty projections, and the salty defense he will have protecting him, Cook will provide Nebraska with the sternest challenge as a signal-caller in 2015.

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)

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.

Nebraska Football: Early Odds for the Cornhuskers’ Team MVP

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Seven games into the season, Nebraska football fans have taken a good look at the roster and have an idea of the team’s most valuable players. Some are established stars, some are newcomers making a name for themselves, and others are unexpected contributors. But here are five Cornhuskers who are staking a claim as this year’s MVP, along with those players’ odds of actually getting that accolade at the end of the year.

Sam Foltz: 20-1

I know, I know, he’s a punter. But hear me out.

Field position is a huge, and frequently ignored, factor in winning football games. And in games where Nebraska has struggled, Foltz’s punting has gone a long way towards keeping Nebraska in the game.

Take McNeese State for example. In the second half, as Nebraska labored to beat the FCS Cowboys, NU had to punt five times. The Cowboys’ starting field position after those punts? Their own 22, own 2, own 33, own 5, and own 10. Those are long fields, which made it harder for the Cowboys to score and put a real scare into Nebraska.

Foltz did the same against Michigan State, as Nebraska punted seven (!) times in the first half. The Spartans’ starting field position was their own 20, own 20, own 13, Nebraska 31, own 19, own 16, and own 23. Other than one big return, the Spartans had a long field to cover, making it harder for them to score. Had they not, Michigan State could well have been ahead at halftime far more than “just” 17-0, making Nebraska’s near-miracle comeback a non-entity.

Foltz won’t be Nebraska’s MVP this year. But given his contributions, he should be in the conversation.

Tommy Armstrong : 10-1

It is hard to know just what to think of Armstrong. On the one hand, Armstrong has struggled to take the reins of Nebraska’s offense. His completion percentage of 53.5 percent is problematic, almost to the point of being a liability. And whether it is Armstrong’s decision-making or offensive game planning, he has not (at least prior to Northwestern) run the ball enough to take attention away from Ameer Abdullah. In essence, the argument against Armstrong would go, at best Nebraska is succeeding with Armstrong as a passenger—and at worst, in spite of Armstrong.

But the fact remains that Nebraska is 13-2 with Armstrong as a starter, and both of those losses came to Michigan State. And while “he’s young” falls a little flat as a defense of a quarterback with 15 starts, it is fair to say that Armstrong is improving. His completion percentage against Northwestern (62.1) may be signs of things to come. And the toughness and leadership he’s shown at the end of games, leading Nebraska to a near-Lazarus moment in East Lansing and helping to put a pesky Northwestern team away in the second half, certainly suggests Armstrong’s intangibles are critical to NU’s toughness and resiliency.

De’Mornay Pierson-El: 8-1

Can a guy who touches the ball less than 15 times in a game truly be a difference-maker? True freshman Pierson-El may be providing us an answer. After his coming out party against Fresno State, Pierson-El’s electric punt return game has turned a huge liability for Nebraska into a huge asset. Pierson-El’s punt return against Michigan State was the crucial element in Nebraska’s oh-so-close comeback. And the fear of Pierson-El led Northwestern to kick away from him on punts—and even kickoffs—ceding field position to Nebraska without any risk of turnover or injury.

And now Pierson-El’s role on offense is growing, including a reprise of the Black 41 Flash Reverse where Pierson-El threw a touchdown to Armstrong last week. Given Nebraska’s struggles with injuries at receiver, combined with Pierson-El’s playmaking ability (and, at least to Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, his ability to intimidate), he could end up making a remarkable difference.

Randy Gregory: 9-2

Gregory has missed nearly two full games out of seven for Nebraska. He draws cut blocks and ends up being taken out many times. Fair questions can be raised about his motor and ability to give maximum effort throughout a game.

And yet Gregory, with his combination of size and speed, is the most disruptive defensive force Nebraska has seen since Ndamukong Suh. He has six tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks this season, even after missing nearly two of the seven contests. He can chase down opposing ball carriers from the back side of a play. He can, almost single-handedly, collapse his side of an offensive line.

Nebraska’s defensive line as a whole has performed well this season. But at least some of the credit to that performance has to be the extra attention a weapon like Gregory gets from opposing game plans.

Ameer Abdullah: 3-1

It would be tempting to be a contrarian and try to find a way not to pick Abdullah. After all, Abdullah was a non-factor against Michigan State, with only 45 yards of rushing. He had gaudy numbers against Northwestern (146 yards rushing and four touchdowns), but almost all of that came in the second half against an overmatched defense. Even against McNeese State, Abdullah was held to just 54 yards rushing and one touchdown.

But he had a receiving touchdown at the end of the game against the Cowboys, too, and that one was pretty good. That play single-handedly saved Nebraska from the prospect of overtime against an FCS team, and the possibility of a hugely embarrassing home loss. It was reminiscent of Abdullah’s fourth down conversion against Northwestern in 2013 which set up the Hail Mary victory. That run by Abdullah, I will maintain, is the most impressive demonstration of individual brilliance I have ever seen on a football field.

Yeah, Abdullah has been held quiet when Nebraska struggles. But in some ways, that’s the definition of a team’s most valuable player. So with five weeks left to go in the season, Abdullah is the odds-on favorite to be the 2014 team MVP.

Stats from CFBStats.com.

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

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

The First Defensive Series

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

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

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

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

The Sneaky-Good Opponents

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

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

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

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

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

The History

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

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

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