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: Four Trap Games for Cornhuskers in 2014

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photo and article by Patrick Runge

Trap game (colloq.): A game where a team is favored to win, but whose chances to lose are increased due to external factors.

Nebraska football fans know that every year there are pitfalls on the schedule, traps where a team can stumble where it otherwise wouldn’t. Under Bo Pelini, Nebraska has seemed particularly vulnerable to trap games, so it is not unreasonable to scope out where the potential hazards lie in the 2014 schedule. Here are four potential stumbling blocks for the upcoming season.

Minnesota (Nov. 22)

After losing in Minneapolis last year, you would think that Nebraska’s attention would be fully focused on Goldie’s return to Lincoln. Minnesota’s 34-23 defeat of Nebraska was certainly a shock, but had much to do with the play of a clearly-hampered Taylor Martinez at quarterback. And the 2014 Gophers will be arriving in Lincoln without either quarterback Phillip Nelson or star defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman. So, easy sailing, right?

As Lee Corso would say, not so fast, my friend. The Gophers are in perfect position to be a classic trap game, wedged between Nebraska’s trips to play Wisconsin and Iowa. A depleted Minnesota team, which may well struggle in 2014, could easily be overlooked by a Nebraska team potentially chasing a conference title with two marquee road contests surrounding the game. And that, my friend, is the textbook definition of a trap game.

Rutgers (Oct. 25)

Bear with me on this one for a bit. Yes, I know that Rutgers was 6-6 last year. Yes, I know that Minnesota transfer quarterback Phillip Nelson has been dismissed from the team after an assault arrest. So there’s plenty of reason to think that the Scarlet Knights will be a soft target for Nebraska in 2014.

But keep in mind that Rutgers is a new opponent for Nebraska, with NU winning the only other game in the series 28-0. In 1920. At the Polo Grounds.

So there may be some unfamiliarity with the opponent. More importantly, though, is that Rutgers was really young last year. With a bulk of that talent returning, Rutgers could pose a greater challenge to Nebraska than most anticipate. And with Nebraska under Bo Pelini being dogged by inexplicable home losses in the past, it’s hard not to put the Scarlet Knights in the category of at least a potential trap game opponent.

At Fresno State (Sep. 13)

Many are pointing to Nebraska’s game against the Bulldogs as a real challenge for NU, which would almost by definition mean the contest is not a “trap game.” But that analysis comes largely from looking at Fresno’s stellar 2013 campaign, where the Bulldogs spent almost the entire year in the top 25 and were a BCS threat until the final weeks of the season.

Gone from the Bulldogs squad, however, is quarterback Derek Carr, and with Carr goes a great deal of Fresno’s threat. Comparing roster to roster, Nebraska should beat Fresno State comfortably.

So why is this a trap game? Because it is on the road, Nebraska’s first road game of the season, and bizarrely scheduled for a 9:30 p.m. central time kickoff.  Those factors, combined with what looks to be a marquee matchup at home against Miami the following week, make the game at least potentially hazardous for Nebraska.

At Northwestern (Oct. 18)

The Purples are another team that is hard to put in the “trap game” category for Nebraska. Yes, Northwestern fell apart at the end of 2013, and looked pretty bad in doing so. And yes, Nebraska is 2-1 against Northwestern as a conference opponent.

But keep in mind that Nebraska could be—indeed, probably should be—0-3 against Northwestern. Last year, Nebraska needed the “RK III to 1” Hail Mary from Ron Kellogg to Jordan Westerkamp as time expired to win. And in 2012, Nebraska was down 28-16 with 8:31 left to play, and looked absolutely dead to rights. An improbable 13-point comeback in the final minutes of the game was needed for Nebraska to pull out a 29-28 victory.

So from a talent standpoint, the Purples may not match up well against Nebraska. But on the road, against a team with the kind of track record that Northwestern has against Nebraska, this game has all the makings of problems for NU.