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.

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

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

“And it’s hard to hold a candle

In the cold November rain.”

– Guns ‘n Roses, “November Rain”

Nebraska football fans will be putting away their Halloween candy (in more ways than one) and preparing for the November end-of-season stretch run that will define whether 2014 was a success or a failure. Trips to Wisconsin and Iowa highlight the challenges of the month, but four potential pitfalls await Nebraska as it tries to find a way back to Indianapolis.

So let’s take a look at how we should expect Nebraska to fare in its final four games of the regular season.

Nov. 1: Purdue

Nebraska’s November is no picnic, but at least it has a bit of a soft start to the month. Purdue has been struggling to rebuild under Darrell Hazell, but currently sit at 3-5 overall and 1-2 in the Big Ten. The Boilermakers have shown some fight in the last few weeks, knocking off Illinois in Champaign and putting up game efforts in close losses to Michigan State and Minnesota.

So Purdue may not be the automatic win that Nebraska fans anticipated at the start of the season. But anything less than a comfortable win—particularly off the back of a sloppy performance against Rutgers—should make for an uncomfortable bye week.

But Nebraska’s sloppy play against Rutgers is bad news for Purdue, as Bo Pelini should have his teams full attention in practice this week. A sharp Nebraska should be more than enough to comfortably handle Purdue

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Purdue 13

Nov. 15: at Wisconsin

Reports of the Badgers’ demise may have been a bit premature. After B1G fans were ready to write off Wisconsin as a legitimate conference title contender, the Badgers undress Maryland in Madison, 52-7, in a game that might not have been as close as the score indicated.

Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon is the nation’s no. 2 rusher (one spot better than Ameer Abdullah), and if the Badgers can get any kind of a passing attack going they can be dangerous. Couple that with a stingy defense and the house of horrors that is Camp Randall, and Nebraska looks to have a tall order facing it.

But Wisconsin does too. For its offense to work, Wisconsin must have some semblance of a passing attack, and Nebraska’s defensive line should be effective enough to pressure the Badgers’ quarterback (whichever one they roll out) into mistakes. Look for Nebraska, with the advantage of an off week to prepare, to take advantage of a Wisconsin team in transition and notch an important road win.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 27, Wisconsin 20

Nov. 22: Minnesota

The Gophers know who they are and, more importantly, who they are not. Minnesota will come to Lincoln with a ground-and-pound attack and hope to shorten the game and wear the Blackshirts out, like it did in Minneapolis last year.

But Nebraska has more going, both on offense and on defense, than it did a year previously. A clearly hampered Taylor Martinez will not be the albatross around Nebraska’s offense this time around, and the memory of last year’s upset should be more than enough to keep NU focused and ready.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Minnesota 17

Nov. 28: at Iowa

Before the season started, this dope thought that Iowa would beat Nebraska on its way to a B1G West division title. Then came losses to Iowa State (!) and Maryland, along with less-than-convincing wins against the rest of its schedule. Laboring to beat Northern Iowa, Ball State, and Purdue does little to inspire confidence that the Hawkeyes are even close to a team ready for a division title.

Add into the mix an unsettled situation at quarterback and a rushing attack that is far less potent than imagined, and Iowa looks to be a far cry from what it was expected to be at the start of the season. With games against Minnesota and Wisconsin before facing Nebraska, it’s hard to guess what Iowa’s record will be on the day after Thanksgiving. But a more complete Nebraska team, with a trophy to win back, should be enough to get the job done for NU.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Iowa 14

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: 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.