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.

Nebraska Football: 3 Startling Statistics through 6 Weeks

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans had a lot to digest after NU’s near-miss comeback against Michigan State, coming up on the wrong end of a 27-22 score. So they can be forgiven for not diving into the numbers as Nebraska reaches the midpoint of the 2014 season.

That’s what we’re here for, of course. So here are three numbers that you wouldn’t have expected to see, and how those numbers either explain where Nebraska is or help gauge where it is going in 2014.

All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

No. 8 Nationally in Rushing Offense

Many Nebraska fans turned last weekend’s game against Michigan State off as things got into the third quarter. While not laudible (and boy did they miss a show!), that decision was understandable given how anemic Nebraska’s offense looked. Coming into the game, Nebraska was no. 3 nationally in rushing offense, and NU was expected to pound Heisman candidate Ameer Abdullah and make their hay on the ground.

Nebraska ended the game—and that includes NU’s fierce comeback, remember—with 37 carries for 47 yards.

But it does give you an idea of how good Nebraska had been running the ball in the five weeks prior to Michigan State that even after such a dismal performance, Nebraska only dropped from no. 3 to no. 8 nationally. It suggests that Nebraska’s rushing attack is still formidable, even with the disastrous disappearing act it did against the Spartans on Saturday night.

No. 20 Nationally in Punt Returns

Hey, remember last year when Nebraska’s punt return game was a huge hindrance? Last year, Nebraska was no. 123 (out of 125) in punt returns, averaging 3.04 yards per return. Which, basically, represented Nebraska punt returner catching the ball and immediately falling forward.

With the discovery of true freshman Demornay Pierson-El, though, everything has changed. Nebraska is now no. 20 nationally in punt returns, averaging 14.95 yards per return. In addition to the obvious benefits of the additional 11-plus yards of field position with every punt, Nebraska has scored two touchdowns. The second, against Michigan State, was truly the turning point keying Nebraska’s near comeback.

In other words, Nebraska’s punt return game has gone from a liability to hide to a strength that can put NU in position to win a game it had no business making even close.

No. 21 in Both Polls

This might be the most remarkable statistic of all, particularly if you were one of those people who turned the Michigan State game off shortly after halftime. Nebraska came into the game ranked no. 17 in the AP poll and no. 19 in the Coaches’ Poll. When Nebraska was down 27-3 going into the fourth quarter, NU fans were primarily worried about the game becoming a complete blowout.

The fourth-quarter comeback made many Nebraska fans feel better, but certainly didn’t make up for how humbled NU’s offense was in the first three quarters. But apparently, the comeback also registered with poll voters, who only dropped Nebraska two and four spots respectively.

Is that relevant? Well, to an extent. Yes, the College Football Playoff committee is independent from the polls. But it’s hard to imagine that the perception of Nebraska as not falling too far—even with being held to only 47 yards rushing—won’t have some effect on the committee.

And before you write a comment reminding me that Nebraska looks miles away from a playoff team (which is a fair observation), remember that the committee also picks the rest of the “big six” bowls based on their rankings. Should Nebraska end the season at 10-2 or 11-1—not at all an unreasonable objective given NU’s remaining schedule—that cushion from the Michigan State loss could be crucial for Nebraska to make a big-time bowl game.

Nebraska Football: What The Cornhuskers Need To Do To Upset Michigan State

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans are gearing up for the biggest game of the 2014 season, a trip to East Lansing to face the defending Big Ten champion Michigan State Spartans. Last year, Michigan State beat Nebraska 41-28 in an ugly contest that saw NU lose the turnover battle by five (!) against the Spartans.

Most pundits think the Spartans will win on Saturday. But at least one smart and particularly handsome analyst thinks Nebraska will defy the odds and stay undefeated in 2014. Here’s what Nebraska must do to make that happen.

Stats from cfbstats.com.

Take the Ball Away

This is me giving up on a thread I have been pulling for the last two years. If Nebraska stops turning the ball over, it can be so much more successful. And while that is true because, duh, all the evidence before us suggests that such a phase change simply isn’t going to happen.

But things are better this year, right? Nebraska’s turnover margin isn’t nearly as bad as it was last year, right?

Well, yes and no. Right now Nebraska is plus-one in turnover margin, which is certainly far better than the minus-11 NU ended with in 2013.

Where was Nebraska at this stage last year, though? Plus-five. So Nebraska is actually four behind its turnover margin pace from last year—the year that ended at a disastrous minus-11.

In 2014, Nebraska has had six total turnovers. In 2013 at this stage in the season, Nebraska had—you guessed it—six turnovers. And the sad thing is that 2013 marked an improvement for the first five games of the season from 2012 (13) and 2011 (9).

So, I give up. Until proven otherwise, it’s just not reasonable to expect Nebraska to stop turning the ball over. But having a turnover margin so cartoonishly underwater in and of itself will prevent Nebraska from winning games like this and competing for conference titles. If Nebraska gets more turnovers than it gives up (or at least keeps the numbers close), then Nebraska profligacy with the ball on offense will be neutralized.

This is my Doctor Strangelove moment, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Turnover.

Stop Jeremy Langford

The conventional wisdom is that the growth of Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook has been the key to the Spartans’ improved offensive attack. And there’s no doubt that Cook’s performance has sparked a revival that vaulted Michigan State to a conference title and national prominence.

But let’s take a look at this season. Michigan State is 3-1, with three wins over hopelessly outmatched opponents. The one loss was on the road, to Oregon.

Against the Ducks, Cook was 29-47 for 343 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He ended the game with a 128.53 quarterback rating, which is apparently very good according to those who have the foggiest notion of what a quarterback rating means.

So it looks like Cook played well in the Spartans’ loss. Sure, the defense had a lot to do with it, with the whole “giving up 47 points” thing. But how did the other part of Michigan State’s offense look?

Jeremy Langford had 86 yards and a touchdown against Oregon, his second-highest performance of the season. But he got those 86 yards on 24 carries, easily his biggest workload of the season. More importantly, Langford’s yards per carry average against Oregon was 3.58, almost two full yards less than his season average.

In other words, Oregon was able to beat Michigan State fairly convincingly by allowing Cook to play well but (in addition to scoring a lot of points) holding Langford’s yards per carry down. That’s the number to focus on. If the Blackshirts can corral Langford, keeping him under four yards per carry, Nebraska can make Michigan State’s offense one-dimensional and allow NU’s pass rush to work on Cook.

Be More Balanced On Offense

Nebraska fans of a more traditional bent have been thrilled to death with how NU’s offense has looked in the last two games. Against Miami, Nebraska ran the ball 80.5 percent of the time, and against Illinois its run percentage “dropped” to 76.9 percent. Proponents of things like “identity” and “mindset” loved Nebraska’s devotion to the run game, particularly as quarterback Tommy Armstrong has looked less than convincing.

And it does seem that offensive coordinator Tim Beck has undergone a bit of evolution, making sure to give the ball to his best player rather than attempt to achieve balance for its own sake. But just as “balance” on offense on its own is not a laudable goal, neither is having an over-reliance on the running game for its own sake smart strategy.

Michigan State is sixth in the nation in rushing defense, allowing opponents an average of 80.75 yards per game. While Nebraska’s run game is its strength (right now sitting third in the nation with an average of 354.8 yards per game), it’s a fair assumption that Michigan State will at least be able to slow down Abdullah and company.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Nebraska should sling the ball fifty times on Saturday (particularly given the dreadful weather forecast). Nebraska’s offense will need a healthy dose of Ameer Abdullah to be successful, sticking with him even if it is not successful early.

But there’s “sticking with him” and there’s “80/20 run/pass balance.” Michigan State is simply too good defensively for Nebraska to be that one-dimensional. To win this game, Armstrong simply must make some plays with his arm, either in the short game to get the ball to playmakers in space or taking the lid off the defense with the deep ball.

Nebraska Football: Game-by-Game Predictions for the Month of October

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

“Wake me up when September ends.”

– Wake Me Up When September Ends, Green Day

Nebraska football fans are quite pleased to see NU putting September in the rear-view mirror with the team sitting at 5-0, including a cathartic 41-31 win over Miami in Lincoln. For the first time since 2010, Nebraska is undefeated through five games and, much like that 2010 season, has a monster national showdown coming up in week six.

(Although, in fairness, Michigan State has no shot to replace Texas and the disastrous “Red Out Around The World” game from 2010).

Getting through September is a prerequisite for having a special season. But that doesn’t mean much if Nebraska can’t take care of business in October. So let’s look ahead and see what Nebraska faces as the calendar turns.

All stats from cfbstats.com.

October 04: at Michigan State

Without question, this Saturday’s game in East Lansing is the marquee game in the Big Ten to date. Michigan State comes into the game ranked no. 10 in the AP poll, and Nebraska comes in at no. 19. The Spartans have only one loss, a 46-27 defeat in Oregon where Michigan State held a lead in the third quarter. Michigan State’s other wins have been gigantic blowouts against overmatched opponents.

Nebraska comes into the contest at 5-0, with the most impressive win against a talented Miami team in Lincoln. Nebraska has also blown out three overmatched opponents, and had an ugly win against FCS McNeese State, needing an “Ameeracle” with 20 seconds remaining to avoid overtime.

In many ways, this game has an “immovable object/unstoppable force” vibe going. Michigan State has the no. 6 rushing defense in the nation, allowing only 80.75 yards per game. Nebraska has the no. 3 rushing offense in the nation, gaining an average of 354.8 yards per game.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst picked before the season that Nebraska would beat Michigan State, and the rationale for that pick holds up. Last year, Nebraska lost to Michigan State not because of superior Spartan talent, but because of a minus-five turnover margin. When Nebraska wasn’t giving the ball away, it was going blow-for-blow with Michigan State.

Add in to the mix this year Ameer Abdullah’s raised level of game play and a healthy Randy Gregory, and the setting for an upset. That guy at the start of the season might have been on to something.

Nebraska 28, Michigan State 24.

October 18: at Northwestern

Yes, Northwestern got a huge conference win last week, going into Happy Valley and knocking off Penn State. But that win doesn’t really change the underlying dynamic—that with the departure of Venric Mark and the loss of Christian Jones to injury, the Purples are devoid of true game-changing playmakers on offense. Combine that with a baseline of talent level that is below Nebraska’s, and ultimately this game becomes less frightening than previous contests.

Sure, Northwestern will play hard, and play smart. And going to Northwestern is a challenging trip, although having a week to prepare after Michigan State will be a big help. Look for Nebraska to take care of business in the windy city.

Nebraska 35, Northwestern 17

October 25: Rutgers

At the start of the season, Rutgers looked to be a few years away from being competitive. Don’t look now, but the Scarlet Knights may have hit the fast-forward button on their development.

Rutgers is 4-1, and really should be 5-0 with a tough-luck three-point loss at Penn State. The Knights have wins on the road at Washington State and Navy, two teams that may not be world-beaters but are challenging foes to face.

The knock on Rutgers coming into the Nebraska contest before the season was that it was going to go through a gauntlet beforehand, getting Michigan at home and away to Ohio State before arriving in Lincoln.

Well, things have changed a bit. Michigan looks like a gimmie, and Ohio State has not looked to be the national powerhouse expected by many. At this point, Rutgers coming into Lincoln anything less than 4-2 would be a disappointment, and it’s not impossible to imagine the Knights pulling off an upset in Columbus. After all, Virginia Tech already has.

This year feels a little different from years past, so maybe this is the year Nebraska puts the four-loss hoodoo behind it. So no call for an upset yet on this one, but watch this space.

Nebraska 30, Rutgers 27 

Five Bold Predictions for Nebraska’s 2014 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

The long wait is over, and Nebraska’s 2014 season is about to begin. As Nebraska prepares to face Florida Atlantic for this year’s lid-lifter, it’s time to get crazy and think about what might happen as the season unfolds. So here are five bold, but mostly plausible bold predictions for the upcoming campaign.

(Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are from cfbstats.com)

Randy Gregory breaks Nebraska’s sack record

Nebraska’s current sack record for a season is 15, held jointly by Jim Skow (from 1985) and Trev Alberts (from 1993). Last year, Gregory had 9.5 sacks in 13 games. But that was with Gregory arriving in Lincoln just before camp started, having almost no time to learn a new system, and less than a year off of a horrific injury.

The numbers show that it took a little while for Gregory to get into the swing of things. Nine of his 9.5 sacks last year came in the last eight games of the 2013 season (including the Gator Bowl). Assuming that Gregory is able to start strong in 2014 and have the benefit of a full offseason’s work in the training room and with the playbook, a sixteen-plus sack season is not at all unlikely.

Nebraska goes to East Lansing and wins

Everyone loves Michigan State. Especially with the season-ending injury to Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, the Spartans have now become the consensus pick to win the Big Ten (as evidenced by a re-vote of B1G media reported by Cleveland.com).

But Nebraska has enjoyed particularly good success against Sparty since joining the B1G. Nebraska registered a comfortable win against Michigan State in Lincoln three years ago, and won a nailbiter in East Lansing the following year.

Yes, the Spartans beat Nebraska 41-24 in Lincoln last year. But in that game, Nebraska was minus-five in turnovers, and provided Michigan State with countless short fields to score. Absent the turnovers, Nebraska was at least the equal of Michigan State on the field.

Look for Nebraska to get what is likely to be considered an upset win over the defending B1G champion.

Kickers will cost Nebraska an otherwise-winnable game

Nebraska fans were not happy at the end of an 8-4 campaign last year. How much worse would it have been, though, if Nebraska ended 2013 at 7-5 instead of 8-4? Would head coach Bo Pelini, who barely kept his job at 8-4, have survived with a 7-5 mark?

Well, you can thank a reliable kicker for getting Nebraska to 8-4 last year. In between the Michigan State and Iowa games was an overtime win over Penn State on the road, where transfer kicker Pat Smith had to hit a clutch field goal twice (due to a penalty on Nebraska) to seal the victory.

This year, Nebraska’s placekicking battle is between junior Mauro Bondi, who has never inspired enough confidence from the coaches to give him the job outright, and true freshman Drew Brown. And long-snapper Gabe Miller has been out the entire fall camp with injury (although is working hard at a comeback, according to Mike Schaefer of 247 Sports.)

Nebraska has been living on the edge for some time, going 9-1 in games decided by three points or less. With questions in the kicking game, this is the year those numbers bite Nebraska.

Cethan Carter will have at least 10 touchdown receptions

I’ve made references before to Nebraska’s coaches falling victim to “Mike McNeil syndrome,” where a talented and dangerous tight end emerges, and then quickly evaporates from the offense. It happened with McNeil, and with Kyler Reed the year after his eight-touchdown performance in 2010.

Sophomore tight end Cethan Carter looks to have as much, if not more, athletic ability than McNeil and Reed. Couple that with a quarterback in Tommy Armstrong still looking to find his feet as a passer, and an expansion of Carter’s role (especially taking advantage of mismatches in either size or speed, depending on the defensive matchup) looks to be on the cards.

We know that Nebraska’s offense can generate an eight-touchdown season from a tight end. Carter looks to be the type of talent that could break out and snag ten this year.

Zaire Anderson will lead the team in tackles

It’s not a stretch to think that a linebacker will lead the team in tackles. In the last five years, a linebacker has been either first or second in tackles on the team.

And this year looks like Anderson’s time to shine. As a senior amongst a group of almost entirely underclassmen, Anderson will be the most experience linebacker of the crew likely to see playing time. And according to Grant Muessel of Hail Varsity, Anderson could be a “surprise” in blitz packages.

Last year, 36 of Anderson’s 52 tackles came in the second half of the season and the bowl game. Look for him to continue the strong finish to the season he showed last year.

Nebraska Football: Final Game-By-Game Schedule Predictions

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that the season is now achingly close. Fall camp is just about finished, and fans throughout the state have been anxiously reviewing Nebraska’s schedule to imagine how the 2014 campaign will unfold.

So now that we’re just about ready to kick a football in anger, let’s take one final game-by-game look to see how Nebraska’s 2014 season will unfold.

Aug. 30: Florida Atlantic

When this game was first put on the schedule, it looked to be a reunion of the brothers Pelini. But with Carl losing his job as head coach of the Owls, and Bo potentially losing his job after his post-Iowa meltdown, there was a chance that neither Pelini would be prowling the sidelines on Aug. 30.

As we know, Bo survived, but Carl did not. And given that the Owls are breaking in a new coach and have a pretty significant talent. As a result, Nebraska’s 2014 lid-lifter should be comfortable.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 42, Florida Atlantic 13 (1-0 overall, 0-0 in conference)

Sep. 6: McNeese State

An FCS opponent for Nebraska looks to be a thing of the past, with the Big Ten going to a nine-game conference schedule, a B1G edict to remove FCS opponents, and a strength of schedule component to the new College Football Playoff selection committee. The Cowboys may very well be the last FCS opponent to make the paycheck-driven trip to Lincoln.

McNeese State did upset FBS South Florida last year, 53-21, in Tampa. So the Cowboys could be dangerous if not taken seriously. But Nebraska is better than South Florida, both in terms of talent and coaching. An upset here would be a stunner.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 56, McNeese State 10 (2-0 overall, 0-0 in conference)

Sep. 13: at Fresno State

On paper, this looks like a dangerous game for Nebraska. And there are some reasons to be concerned. The game is on the road, at a very weird starting time (9:30 p.m. central time), and playing a team that was a BCS-buster threat a year ago.

But that was a year ago, when the Bulldogs had Derek Carr at quarterback. Carr is gone now, a second-round pick by the Oakland Raiders, and there is not an NFL-ready quarterback waiting to take his place. The time and the road trip might make things challenging to start, but this game should not be a major threat for Nebraska

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 38, Fresno State 17 (3-0 overall, 0-0 in conference)

Sep. 20: Miami

For long-time Nebraska fans, this game is a dream come true. The Hurricanes made their name on the national scene by beating Nebraska in their home stadium of the Orange Bowl, time and again. Just once, Nebraska fans thought when watching Miami run circles around the Big Red on those New Years’ nights, it would be great to see the Hurricanes have to play a game in Lincoln.

Well, now is your chance. While it is unlikely there will be snow on September 20, Miami will still have to face the Sea of Red at long last.

But at least as of right now, we still don’t know who will be Miami’s quarterback when the Hurricanes arrive in Lincoln. According to the Miami Herald, the quarterback race is still between fifth-year transfer Jake Heaps and freshman phenom Brad Kaaya. While Duke Johnson will be the best tailback to face Nebraska in Lincoln (and second only to Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin overall), the unsettled quarterback situation (along with head coach Al Golden having a -1 coach rating, meaning he’ll be responsible for at least one loss per year, according to the incomparable CFB Matrix), suggests an opportunity for a marquee win in September.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Miami 20 (4-0 overall, 0-0 in conference)

Sep. 27: Illinois

Nebraska’s game against the Illini will be unique for a couple of different reasons. First, the game will kick off at 8:00 p.m., incredibly late for a home game, to accommodate television. Second, the game will feature this year’s alternate uniform for Nebraska, the “Red Rising” outfit from adidas.

And Illinois will be bringing Wes Lunt, an Oklahoma State transfer, at quarterback. Lunt was tapped to be Brandon Weeden’s successor, and does have at least bring a big-time athlete to the Illini sideline. But with a deficit of talent around him, Nebraska’s 2014 alternate uniforms should have a better result.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 48, Illinois 14 (5-0 overall, 1-0 in conference)

Oct. 4: at Michigan State

At first blush, this looks like an easy game to pick a loss for Nebraska. The Spartans handled NU last year in Lincoln, and would have gotten a home win in East Lansing the year before without a dramatic last-second touchdown catch by Jamal Turner. Plus, Michigan State is the defending B1G champion, and has all the momentum, while Nebraska seems stuck in a four-loss rut.

But Michigan State is a uniquely good matchup for Nebraska. Even with a horrific minus-five turnover ratio, Nebraska outplayed the Spartans last year. Of Michigan State’s 41 points, 24 came on drives starting in Nebraska’s territory after turnovers.

The easy pick would be for Nebraska to drop this game on its trip to East Lansing. But a Nebraska team on a five-game roll, with a marquee win against Miami under its belt, should come into the game with confidence. And if it can muster even a few fewer turnovers, this could be a season—and career—defining win for Bo Pelini

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 28, Michigan State 24 (6-0 overall, 2-0 in conference)

Oct. 18: at Northwestern

When the 2014 schedule came out, this game screamed danger for Nebraska. Northwestern was 5-7 last year, sure, but they lost some achingly-close games (including, of course, on a Hail Mary to Nebraska in Lincoln). Plus, the Purples were getting a healthy Venric Mark back, one of the most dynamic and dangerous offensive weapons in the B1G.

But then Mark decided to leave the program. And Christian Jones, Northwestern’s leading receiver, has also been lost to a knee injury (Both according to Tom Fornelli of CBS Sports). While the Purples’ defense should still be stout, it’s hard to see how Northwestern will score enough to compete in this contest.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 27, Northwestern 17 (7-0 overall, 3-0 in conference)

Oct. 25: Rutgers

Welcome to the club, State University of New Jersey! The Scarlet Knights make their first trip to Lincoln, coming off a 6-7 campaign in 2013, but making a big step up in class from the American Athletic Conference to the B1G. It does look like senior Gary Nova has won the starting quarterback position (according to Keith Sargent of NJ.com) which will help the Knights gain some continuity in fall camp.

But the talent level overall is still a question, and Rutgers’ schedule is simply brutal. Before facing Nebraska, the Knights travel to Washington State, get Penn State at home, and then have back-to-back contests with Michigan and at Ohio State before coming to Lincoln. Any chance of an upset by Rutgers will likely have been beaten out of the Knights prior to their arrival at Memorial Stadium.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 41, Rutgers 20 (8-0 overall, 4-0 in conference)

Nov. 1: Purdue

When a team goes 1-11 in the previous year, there’s no place to go but up. And while Purdue may have won the divisional realignment lottery for the Hoosier State, getting placed in the West instead of the East like in-state rival Indiana, that doesn’t mean the Boilermakers are looking to compete anytime soon. Whether Darrell Hazell is the right man to turn Purdue around is open for debate. But it ain’t going to happen in 2014.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 49, Purdue 10 (9-0 overall, 5-0 in conference)

Nov. 15: at Wisconsin

Let’s stop to take a breath. In this preview, we’ve now got Nebraska at 9-0, with wins over Miami and at defending B1G champion Michigan State. Nebraska at this point would likely be in the top ten and a serious contender for making the initial College Football Playoff. Can Nebraska keep the magic going with a trip to Camp Randall in November?

It’s a big ask. Assuming Joel Stave wins the quarterback position, it’s true that he’s not going to scare anyone. Wisconsin has lost almost all of its returning receiving corps to graduation, as well as its entire front seven on defense.

But the Badgers still have Melvin Gordon, who would still be my pick as the conference’s best running back. They still have an offensive line that would rival an NFL squad’s in terms of size and power. And they still have Gary Andersen, whose teams tend to not beat themselves with turnovers and penalties. And the game is in Madison, in the notoriously difficult Camp Randall, in mid-November (and likely with a prime time kickoff, especially if Nebraska is undefeated coming into the game).

And we won’t get into the B1G title game in 2012, the last meeting between the two schools, where Gordon torched the Blackshirts for 216 yards on nine—yes, nine—carries en route to a 70-31 demolition of Nebraska.

The upshot? This is a game Nebraska can win—on paper, Nebraska is at least equal if not superior to Wisconsin. But it’s hard to see Nebraska under Pelini being able to pull a string of results together sufficient to escape Madison with a win.

Fearless Forecast: Wisconsin 24, Nebraska 20 (9-1 overall, 5-1 in conference)

Nov. 22: Minnesota

Nebraska’s loss to Minnesota was, in some ways, the most distressing of the four. Nebraska had a big lead against UCLA and collapsed with a young defense. Turnovers doomed Nebraska against Iowa and Michigan State.

But against Minnesota? In Minneapolis, Goldie simply out-muscled a Nebraska squad, grinding out a thoroughly-deserved victory. Can the Gophers repeat that upset in Lincoln?

Unlikely. Minnesota will be breaking in a new quarterback, and will have lost defensive back Brock Vereen and Ra’Shede Hageman to the NFL. Minnesota’s talent level is not what it was in 2013.

More importantly, Nebraska will not be trotting out a clearly injured Taylor Martinez at quarterback, which hamstrung NU’s offense and forced the Blackshirts on the field even longer, to be worn down by a punishing Minnesota ground attack.

Head coach Jerry Kill is very good at getting the most out of his players. But with the memory of last year’s upset fresh in the minds, look for a focused Nebraska to stay on track in Lincoln.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Minnesota 17 (10-1 overall, 6-1 in conference)

Nov. 28: at Iowa

Who says the Heroes Game doesn’t mean anything? Nebraska fans should already have burned into their memory the image of the entire Iowa sideline rushing across the field the moment the clock hit zero last year to take the trophy from the Nebraska sideline in Memorial Stadium, giving this year’s day-after-Thanksgiving contest extra venom.

Plus, the stakes really couldn’t be higher. In this scenario, Nebraska is 10-1 and 6-1 in conference. Look at Iowa’s schedule. Go ahead, take a look. Iowa has the most settled quarterback situation in the B1G West, a stable of talented running backs, and the best offensive line in the division. If the Hawkeyes have more than one loss coming into this game (absent catastrophic injuries), serious questions about Kirk Ferentz’s leadership of the Iowa program need to be asked. Quite simply, between returning talent and schedule, Iowa has the best chance to win a division title it will have in the next decade.

So can the Hawkeyes retain the trophy? Iowa’s talent on the offensive line is better, going squarely against Nebraska’s strength on the defensive line. And this will be an end-of season game where Nebraska has just finished playing two brutally physical teams in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Add into the mix that the game is in Iowa City, against a Hawkeye squad not prone to beating itself, and the trends point black and gold.

Iowa was tapped as Nebraska’s natural rival coming into the B1G. Last year’s loss in Lincoln didn’t kick start the rivalry, likely because of all the drama surrounding Pelini’s job status. But Iowa denying Nebraska a shot at a conference title, and a possible entry into the College Football Playoff? That’s the stuff rivalries are made of.

Fearless Forecast: Iowa 17, Nebraska 14 (10-2 overall, 6-2 in conference)

Power Ranking Nebraska’s 2014 Schedule From Easiest to Toughest

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photo and article by Patrick Runge

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

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

No. 12: McNeese State

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

No. 11: Florida Atlantic

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

No. 10: Purdue

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

No. 9: Illinois

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

No. 8: Rutgers

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

No. 7:  at Fresno State

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

No. 6: Minnesota

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

No. 5: Miami

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

No. 4: at Northwestern

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

No. 3: at Iowa

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

No. 2: at Wisconsin

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

No. 1: at Michigan State

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

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

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

No. 5: Michigan State

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

No. 4: Fresno State

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

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

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

No. 3: Wisconsin

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

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

No. 2: Iowa

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

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

No. 1: Northwestern

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

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

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