Nebraska Football: ReView of the Cornhuskers’ 36-28 Win Over Southern Mississippi

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On Saturday, Nebraska survived a shaky fourth quarter to beat Southern Mississippi 36-28, and move to 2-2 on the season. Leading 29-7 after three quarters, Nebraska looked poised for a comfortable victory as non-conference play ended. But a 21-point fourth quarter from the Golden Eagles put them in position for a Hail Mary at the end of the game, snuffed out by a Freedom Akinmoladun sack. So, in looking back for Nebraska …

The Good

Freedom! Yeah, cue all the cheesy William Wallace references you want. But Akinmoladun’s sack of Nick Mullens avoided one last test of Nebraska’s shaky secondary – not to mention the coronary health of the Nebraska fanbase.

But Akinmoladun did more than just seal the game for Nebraska. He had four tackles, two tackles for loss, and two sacks in the game. While Nebraska’s struggles in the secondary are the talking point to be sure, his ability to perform at defensive end might be the brightest spot coming out of the contest defensively. A converted tight end seeing playing time due to Jack Gangwish’s injury, Akinmoladun’s growth into the position is crucial for the Blackshirts to right the ship.

A Fullback Sighting. If new head coach Mike Riley wanted to get Nebraska’s old-school fans on board with him, giving the ball to fullback Andy Janovich wasn’t a bad plan. Janovich had five carries for 68 yards (and would have had more absent a penalty), certainly a thrill to Nebraska fans who remember Cory Schlesinger rumbling through an exhausted Miami secondary in January of 1995.

But those runs were more than just an homage to the past. Riley’s offense this year uses a lot of misdirection, and those fullback were a part of the misdirection game. In addition to the jet sweep, opposing defenses now have tape of Nebraska’s tailback going in one direction and the fullback pounding up the middle the opposite way.

For a team still looking to establish a running game (particularly with questionable offensive line performance), adding in the fullback belly play is an important element to Nebraska’s offense.

Continued Excellence. The growth and maturation of Tommy Armstrong as a quarterback might be getting overlooked, or even taken for granted. It shouldn’t be. Armstrong put the ball up 35 times and had a 65.7 percent completion rate for 368 (!) yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. He also ran the ball seven times for 75 yards, meaning he accounted for 443 yards of total offense.

Armstrong is no. 10 nationally – nationally – in total offense after four games (according to cfbstats.com). Some, like this dope, thought that Armstrong was potentially a weakness for Nebraska coming into 2015. Instead, he’s put a team with a struggling defense on his back and willed it through a rough non-conference slate.

The Bad

The Bad Quarter Came Late. If there was a saving grace about the Blackshirts’ troubles earlier this year, it was that Nebraska was able to adjust and staunch the bleeding. While Nebraska avoided a bad quarter early, it almost picked a horrible time to be terrible as Southern Mississippi carved up the defense late.

Inexplicably, the Golden Eagles waited until the end of the game to test Nebraska deep, finding success in attacking the soft underbelly of the defense.

Lacking a Killer Instinct. Sure, the fourth quarter was scary for Nebraska fans. But it shouldn’t have been if Nebraska had done its job in the first half. Nebraska kicker Drew Brown hit five (!) field goals in the first half, and three of those five were inside 30 yards. That’s a shorter kick than the NFL’s current extra point (which, as an aside, is easily the stupidest rule change in modern professional sports history).

Had Nebraska cashed in just those three drives with touchdowns instead of point-blank field goals, the score would have been 34-0 at the half, and the game would have almost certainly looked more like the South Alabama game in the second half.

Yellow Rain. At this rate, this may become a permanent feature of the ReView. Here’s Nebraska’s penalty output in the first four games of 2015.

Opponent Penalties Yards
BYU 12 90
South Alabama 7 80
Miami 13 114
Southern Mississippi 12 98
Average 10.8 91.5
National Average 6.6 59

Stats from cfbstats.com

Sure, some of those penalties – like the Casey Martin flop that drew a pass interference penalty against Joshua Kalu in the fourth quarter and should stifle soccer critics forever – were soft. But Nebraska still is struggling with alignment and personnel fouls. Those penalties helped keep a team like Southern Mississippi in the game in Lincoln. They could prove Nebraska’s undoing against teams like Wisconsin and Michigan State.

And the Elephant in the Room

There’s plenty of ways to find rose-colored glasses about Nebraska’s non-conference performance. BYU and Miami are legitimately good teams with good talent. South Alabama and Southern Mississippi are not on the level of Nebraska’s talent overall, but both have enough playmakers on offense to cause trouble for Power Five teams (such as the Golden Eagles’ 311 yards passing against Mississippi State earlier this year).

But the fact remains that Nebraska is now no. 128 nationally – that’s dead last, Husker fan – in surrendering long pass plays. Take a look (although it might be wise to shield the eyes of young children) at how that breaks down.

Pass Play Yardage Number Number/Game
10+ yards 57 14.25
20+ yards 24 6
30+ yards 14 3.5
40+ yards 6 1.5
50+ yards 5 1.25

Stats from cfbstats.com

If that number/game statistic doesn’t scare you as a Nebraska fan, you’re made of stern stuff. next week, Nebraska faces Wes Lunt at quarterback for Illinois, who has an NFL-caliber arm. Connor Cook for Michigan State still awaits, C.J. Beathard for Iowa is looking good, and at this point even Wisconsin’s Joel Stave has to frighten the NU faithful.

What is even more disturbing is how the continued struggles in the secondary seem to be affecting the confidence of the squad. As Southern Mississippi continued its fourth-quarter comeback, the Nebraska secondary began to resemble a free throw shooter in basketball struggling at the line, or a golfer with the yips on the green.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst gave some suggestions on how the holes in Nebraska’s defense could be plugged. With Nebraska at 2-2 and a challenging – but still navigable – conference schedule approaching, now is the time for the Blackshirts to consider breaking that emergency glass to get things right in a hurry.

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Nebraska Football: Predictions for the Huskers’ 2015 Season

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With the new college football season finally upon us, it’s time to go on record for how the 2015 season will unfold. The arrival of new head coach Mike Riley, and the installation of an entirely new offensive and defensive structure, this year becomes even more challenging than most to call.

But we know, pretty much, as much as we’re going to know before the ball is teed up for real. So it’s time to make a call, and have something to look back on in January –either with pride or dread.

BYU

While quarterback Taysom Hill provides a stern test for the new-look Blackshirts, an overall talent gap and the Memorial Stadium crowd help Riley open his career in Lincoln with a win – or, perhaps more importantly, avoiding a loss

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 31, BYU 24 (1-0, 0-0 in conference)

South Alabama

Even coming off a bowl appearance, the Jaguars should be outmatched when they arrive in Lincoln. Assuming Nebraska is at some level ready to play, talent should prevail.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 41, South Alabama 17 (2-0, 0-0 in conference)

At Miami

If Riley’s first test was a big ask, his first game on the road is even bigger. Even with injury problems, a head coach in Al Golden who has yet to impress, and a less-than-intimidating home field, asking Nebraska for a win here in year one seems too much of a stretch.

Fearless forecast: Miami 27, Nebraska 23 (2-1, 0-0 in conference)

Southern Miss

The Golden Eagles may be on the road back to respectability, but there’s still a long way between that and being competitive with Nebraska in Lincoln. Any fears of a repeat performance from Southern Miss like in Bill Callahan’s first year should be unfounded.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 45, Southern Miss 13 (3-1, 0-0 in conference)

At Illinois

Firing head coach Tim Beckman less than two weeks before the season starts can’t be helpful for Illinois’ preparation. While it does remove the “dead man walking” element from the season, having an interim coach should make this season feel a bit lost for the Illini.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 35, Illinois 20 (4-1, 1-0 in conference)

Wisconsin

Time to get bold. Yeah, the Badgers have humiliated Nebraska in their last two meetings. But Melvin Gordon is now in the NFL. Joel Stave is still quarterback for Wisconsin. The Badgers are going through a coaching change, although nowhere near the kind of culture change as at Nebraska. And, perhaps most importantly, Nebraska’s new defensive scheme should be far better suited to stop Wisconsin’s rushing attack (as pointed out by a smart and particularly handsome analyst).

Add to that mix the fact that the game is in Lincoln, where Nebraska is 1-0 against Wisconsin (take that, Bucky!), and it’s time to risk being called a homer.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 21, Wisconsin 20 (5-1, 2-0 in conference)

At Minnesota

Yes, Goldie has a two-game winning streak over Nebraska. Yes, Minnesota’s program is flourishing under head coach Jerry Kill. But I still can’t buy the Gophers as a contender to make it three over Nebraska, even in Minneapolis.

As with Wisconsin, Nebraska’s struggles with the Gophers over the last couple of years have come in large part because of a self-imposed mismatch due to former head coach Bo Pelini’s defensive structure. Add to that Minnesota losing three top-flight players to the NFL in the last two years (defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman, running back David Cobb, and tight end Maxx Williams), and the Gopher run of good fortune should end in 2015.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 27, Minnesota 13 (6-1, 3-0 in conference)

Northwestern

It really is amazing how the 2013 game against Ohio State in Evanston seems to be a high-water mark for Northwestern. Going into that game, the Purples were nationally ranked and had ESPN’s Gameday on campus. But after Ohio State did the business against them, the program has been on a downward trajectory.

Northwestern’s trajectory against Nebraska is on a similar arc. After winning in Lincoln in 2011, the Purples lost two straight heartbreakers. But last year, Nebraska was able to pull away and win convincingly, in Evanston. There’s little reason to think that trend line should change this season.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 38, Northwestern 21 (7-1, 4-0 in conference)

At Purdue

Illinois’ dismissal of Tim Beckman probably helps to ensure that Purdue won’t finish in last place this season in the B1G West. But even with a road trip, the talent disparity should help Nebraska to a comfortable win on Halloween.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 44, Purdue 10 (8-1, 5-0 in conference)

Michigan State

Having Nebraska at 8-1 at this stage of the season may seem like irrational exuberance about NU’s 2015 season. But any such exuberance would end with the Spartans roll into town. With a veteran returning quarterback in Connor Cook, a talent level equal to if not surpassing Nebraska, and a stingy defense, NU’s fairy-tale start to the season looks to end.

Fearless forecast: Michigan State 27, Nebraska 13 (8-2, 5-1 in conference)

At Rutgers

It’s tempting to see this game as a trap game, particularly coming off of what is likely to be a physical and emotional beat-down for Nebraska the week before. A long trip against an improving Rutgers team in that scenario is a recipe for disaster. But given how late in the season this game is and the kind of experience Riley and his staff have, Nebraska should be prepared enough to survive a closer-than-expected contest.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 20, Rutgers 16 (9-2, 6-1 in conference)

Iowa

The Heroes Game hasn’t quite grown into the rivalry that the B1G hoped it would when Nebraska joined the league. But the games have been competitive (if not necessarily watchable, other than last year’s overtime contest in Lincoln).

Iowa looks on track to another middle-of-the-pack conference season under head coach Kirk Ferentz. If that’s the case, and Nebraska has a chance to clinch the division in Lincoln, the game could have an energy it has been hoping for. Look for Nebraska to shade a close one.

Fearless forecast: Nebraska 24, Iowa 21 (10-2, 7-1 in conference)

B1G Championship

So, Riley gets a trip to Indianapolis in his first year. Safe money has Nebraska facing off against Ohio State, the first ever unanimous pre-season no. 1 in the Associated Press. But don’t be surprised if it’s Michigan State, not Ohio State, that represents the B1G East in Indianapolis. Yes, the Buckeyes were dominant in the postseason last year. But don’t forget, that same Buckeye squad lost to Virginia Tech and were outplayed for large swaths of the game against Minnesota.

Regardless of whether it’s Ohio State or Michigan State, though, neither team is a good matchup for Nebraska. Making it to Indianapolis will be a great accomplishment for Riley in Year One, but asking for a number to be added next to the lonely “1999” on the East Stadium façade for conference championships is a step too far.

Nebraska Football: Games That Could Ruin Cornhuskers’ 2015 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

At one point in history, any loss would be considered catastrophic for Nebraska football fans, something to be agonized over throughout the year. But Nebraska fans have endured enough multiple-loss seasons under Frank Solich and Bill Callahan, and enough comically-bad losses under Bo Pelini, to be a little numbed to the pain of an individual defeat.

But even if Nebraska fans have become (somewhat) accustomed to losses, there are still a number of games on the schedule that could ruin Nebraska’s 2015 season. Here they are, and why those individual losses would be so catastrophic.

South Alabama or Southern Mississippi

No, we’re not going to list every game on Nebraska’s schedule, even though some fans would consider any loss disastrous. But if Nebraska would drop a game to one of its two paycheck opponents, it would color the rest of the 2015 season. Even a 9-3 or 10-2 final result would be tainted with a “yes, but” from a loss to a clearly inferior opponent.

It’s not unprecedented. In 2013, Oregon State got beat at home in a season opener by Eastern Washington. And in 2011, the Beavers dropped their season opener at home to Sacramento State. So Riley’s teams certainly have a history of shocking losses to sub-par opposition.

Let’s be clear. It is unlikely in the extreme that Nebraska will drop either of these games. But it was unlikely that McNeese State would outplay Nebraska last year in Memorial Stadium, as well. And if the worst does befall Nebraska against either of these opponents, it will be the story of the 2015 season.

BYU

There’s an argument to be made that the BYU season opener isn’t as critical for Nebraska as some other games on the schedule. It’s a non-conference game, and unless Nebraska is going to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff this season, how NU does in conference is the only real gauge of success.

But let’s face it. Nebraska is starting a season with a new head coach, after firing a guy who never won fewer than nine games in seven years. Yes, Riley is a great guy whom just about everyone loves. But if Nebraska opens the season 0-1 – especially if the loss is ugly, which is not impossible to imagine given that NU is breaking in a new offense and a new defense – then the good feelings of this offseason could evaporate quickly.

Miami

I hesitated to include this game, as there’s only one real scenario where a loss to Miami could ruin Nebraska’s season. If Nebraska ends the non-conference season 3-1 with a loss to the Hurricanes, then there will be very few complaints.

But if Nebraska drops the opener to BYU, and then loses to Miami, Nebraska will (with all due respect to the Jaguars and Golden Eagles) be 2-2 starting conference play. Losing one non-conference game will likely be accepted by most of the Nebraska fanbase. But losing two of its first three games could throw a fanbase into a panic.

Minnesota

The Minnesota Golden Gophers have a two-game winning streak over Nebraska. In football. Raise your hand if you thought that sentence would ever be written.

You, in the back. Put your hand down, you liar.

Minnesota under Jerry Kill, though, was almost like a laboratory experiment designed to beat Nebraska even though it was thoroughly out-manned in talent. According to Dave Bartoo’s College Football Matrix, in 2014 Nebraska’s talent ranking was no. 24, while Minnesota’s was 64. With that big of a disparity, a two-game winning streak for Minnesota is an amazing accomplishment. And a remarkable failure on Nebraska’s part.

With a smash-mouth running attack, Kill’s Gophers were perfectly suited to attack former head coach Bo Pelini’s defense that focused primarily on stopping the pass and would drop an eighth defender into the box only reluctantly. Combine that with smart and disciplined play, along with NFL-level talent (running back David Cobb, tight end Maxx Williams, and defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman), and you have the recipe for a winning streak.

Under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker, Nebraska will likely play more three-linebacker sets with a safety playing closer to the line of scrimmage, offering an eight-man (or even nine-man) front against the run. Instead of meeting strength with weakness, the Blackshirts should go into this matchup against Minnesota meeting strength on strength.

So this is a game that Nebraska should win, regardless of the Gophers’ two-game win streak. That means a loss to Minnesota, in conference and in division, would seriously threaten Nebraska’s goal of a return trip to Indianapolis in December.

Wisconsin

Admit it, Husker fan. You want this one. You want it more than any other game on the schedule.

You remember the feeling of being up 17-3 (!) in the second quarter last year, in Camp Randall. You remember thinking that this might, finally, be the metaphorical corner for Nebraska to turn.

And then you saw a corner turn, all right. A whole bunch of corners, actually, turned by Melvin Gordon on the way to rushing for 408 yards against the Blackshirts. Gordon shattered the previous NCAA record for rushing yards in a game (in three quarters, and on only 25 carries) and led Wisconsin to a 59-24 demolition of Nebraska, likely securing Pelini’s dismissal at the end of the season.

Nebraska may end up an underdog to Wisconsin, even at home. A loss to Wisconsin may not derail any of Nebraska’s reasonable expectations in Riley’s first year.

But a loss to Wisconsin means you, Husker fan, have to deal with Bucky owning you for another year.

(On the plus side, though, a loss to Wisconsin would mean this ridiculous thing won’t be cluttering up the trophy cabinet in Memorial Stadium. Seriously, it looks like someone is trying to make a giant sailboat out of the two stadium facades.)

Iowa

I know, I know. Nebraska fans really don’t take Iowa seriously as a rival. If Nebraska has to have an in-division rival, most Nebraska fans would pick Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes aren’t that big of a deal to most Nebraska fans.

But Iowa fans don’t feel that way about Nebraska. Doubt me? Check out here, here, here, and here.

There’s one of two things that could happen on the day after Thanksgiving. Either Nebraska could be on the verge of a division title, with a loss to Iowa preventing that return trip to Indianapolis. Or, Nebraska could be out of contention for the division, and a loss to the Hawkeyes in Memorial Stadium would end a disappointing season on a sour note.

Either way, ending the regular season by watching Nebraska’s black-and-gold neighbors charge across the field as time expires to grab the Heroes Game trophy and parade it back to Iowa City in triumph will leave a lasting impression on the Nebraska fanbase throughout the offseason. That’s not the way Riley wants to see his first season in charge end.

Power Ranking Nebraska’s 2015 Schedule from Easiest to Toughest

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

As the calendar turns to July, Nebraska football fans can start to see the 2015 season take shape. So as they wonder what the first season under new head coach Mike Riley will be like, it’s a good time to look at the schedule game-by-game and figure out which contests look to be the toughest.

Sure, there’s a long time between now and when a football is kicked in anger this September. But given what we know now, here’s how Nebraska’s schedule looks in terms of its degree of difficulty from game to game.

No. 12: Southern Mississippi (home, Sep. 26)

Yes, you read that right. The Golden Eagles, not a South Alabama program which was born in 2009 and transitioned to the FBS in 2013, are Nebraska’s softest opponent this season. After spending years as a solid program, Southern Miss fell on hard times, going 4-32 (!) since 2012.

While the Golden Eagles have improved from last year (1-11 in 2013, 3-9 in 2014), there’s still a long way between here and respectability for Southern Miss. Cashing a check for a visit to Lincoln this season may help in the long run, but it won’t make what gets put out on the field in 2015 any prettier.

No. 11: South Alabama (home, Sep. 12)

Sure, the Jaguars are only in their sixth season of existence overall, and second in the FBS. But South Alabama went 6-6 last season and made a bowl game. And this year’s squad has eleven transfers, including seven from UAB after the school dropped football (and then un-dropped football six months later, in what might be the weirdest college athletics story of the season).

But that influx of FBS talent should help to improve an already-feisty Jaguar program. Couple that influx with South Alabama being a quintessential trap game, nestled between BYU and Miami on Nebraska’s schedule, and the Jaguars are at least enough of a challenge to avoid being tabbed as NU’s easiest contest of 2015.

No. 10: Purdue (away, Oct. 31)

I’ll save you the jokes about fearing a trip to West Lafayette on Halloween. While the first half of 2014 signaled at least some signs of life from the Boilermakers, injuries mounted and the second half of the season was a disaster. Purdue scored in the 30s in respectable losses to Michigan State and Minnesota, then limped through its last four games without topping 16 on the scoreboard.

Absent a dramatic turnaround—without the recruiting evidence to suggest such a feat given Purdue’s 5-year recruiting rank of 61, according to SB Nation—the Boilermakers look to be Nebraska’s softest conference opponent next season.

No. 9: Illinois (away, Oct. 3)

It was very tempting to put Illinois, not Purdue, in the bottom spot in terms of Nebraska’s conference opponents. The Illini haven’t been very good for a while now, needing a late-season surge to make a bowl last season. And head coach Tim Beckman has been dogged by stories (such as from Tom Fornelli of CBS Sports) that he has mistreated players under his care.

That’s not good for any coach. But for a coach in his fourth season with a 12-25 record, it sets up a dead-man-walking scenario for Beckman that can be a huge distraction. Still, the Illini have a talented backfield with Wes Lunt at quarterback and Josh Ferguson at tailback. That alone is enough to move Illinois up the list, at least a little bit.

No. 8: Rutgers (away, Nov. 14)

Yep, Nebraska’s going to New Jersey for a conference game. Conference realignment, ladies and gentlemen.

Last year, the Scarlet Knights looked salty, going 5-1 with a win over Michigan and Washington State. But then Rutgers hit a murderer’s row of a three-game portion of its schedule, losing to Ohio State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin by a combined 135-41.

Still, Rutgers has some talent, evidenced by a no. 48 5-year talent ranking from SB Nation. Combine that with a long trip to an unfamiliar destination and coming off a slugfest against Michigan State the week before, and Rutgers becomes a little more challenging.

No. 7: Northwestern (home, Oct. 24)

October 5, 2013, wasn’t that long ago. Northwestern was no. 16 in the country, and ESPN’s College Gameday was in Evanston to see the Purples face off against no. 4 Ohio State. It was Northwestern’s chance to really seize the moment and stake a claim as Chicago’s Big Ten Team and a player in the conference.

Ohio State won the game, 40-30. Since then, Northwestern has gone 6-13.

Prior to last year, Northwestern had a history of giving Nebraska fits, beating them in 2011 and losing heartbreakers in 2012 and 2013. But last year, Nebraska comfortably beat the Purples in Evanston, 38-17. Look for that trend to continue when Northwestern arrives in Lincoln this year.

No. 6: Iowa (home, Nov. 27)

Fans of both schools were left scratching their heads after Nebraska beat Iowa in double overtime last year, and it was the scarlet and cream that fired its head coach. After 13 (!) seasons in charge in Iowa City, the seat under Kirk Ferentz might finally be starting to warm a little after a lackluster 2014 campaign.

Iowa will be turning the reins over to sophomore quarterback C.J. Beathard, and trying to shore up an offensive line after the departure of both tackles, including Brandon Sherff. Running behind that line will be two-star running backs (according to 247 Sports) Jordan Canzeri and Akrum Wadley.

Unless Iowa can put together a surprise campaign like 2013, it’s likely that the Hawkeyes will come to Lincoln with a great deal more pressure on Ferentz. That does not bode well for a team to repeat its defeat of Nebraska at Memorial Stadium.

No. 5: Minnesota (away, Oct. 17)

Say this for the Golden Gophers under head coach Jerry Kill. They know who they are, they know what they’re good at, and they stick with it. For two years in a row, Minnesota has translated a bruising ground game and a stifling defense into a two-game winning streak over Nebraska.

But this year, Minnesota will be without tailback David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams, both playing in the NFL. And Nebraska’s defense has transitioned from former head coach Bo Pelini’s stop-the-pass-first philosophy to new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s nine-in-the-box quarters scheme.

The Gophers will still be a tough out for any opponent. But a combination of Minnesota’s likely regression (particularly on offense) and a Nebraska defensive scheme that presents a better matchup makes this game more manageable for NU, even in Minneapolis.

No. 4: BYU (home, Sep. 5)

Welcome to Nebraska, Coach Riley. Here’s a darkhorse Heisman contender and a matchup nightmare for you to handle in your first game. Have fun.

Cougars’ quarterback Taysom Hill is a beast running the ball. He averages 7.4 yards per carry if you eliminate sacks from consideration, according to SB Nation. And before his injury last year, Hill was completing passes at a 66.7 percent clip, with a 7/3 touchdown-to-interception ration (according to CFB Stats).

That’s a big ask for a defense playing its first game under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s tutelage. And while BYU’s defense isn’t exactly a world-beater (no. 58 nationally in total defense and no. 73 in scoring defense, according to CFB Stats), drawing the Cougars as an opening act for Nebraska is a huge challenge.

No. 3: Miami (away, Sep. 19)

If Nebraska’s first home game is a big challenge in 2015, its first road game is a bigger one. Miami is an immensely talented program (no. 17 nationally in the CFBMatrix talent ranking, the best of any Nebraska opponent this year). At quarterback for the Hurricanes will be sophomore Brad Kaaya, who gave Nebraska fits last year as a true freshman in Lincoln.

Yes, Miami might be under-coached. Al Golden has a -1.00 coach effect from the CFBMatrix, meaning he can be expected to cost his team a full game (!) per season. But Miami is still the most talented team Nebraska will be facing in 2015, and as the first road game of Riley’s tenure.

No. 2: Wisconsin (home, Oct. 10)

There’s no sugar-coating this fact for Nebraska fans. Wisconsin has owned Nebraska since NU arrived in the conference. Wisconsin has gone 3-1 against Nebraska in that span, outscoring NU 204-102. In the last two games, the Badgers have outscored Nebraska 129-55.

Ouch.

There is room for optimism for Nebraska fans this time around against the Badgers, though. The game is in Lincoln, home of Nebraska’s only win in the series. Melvin Gordon will be in San Diego (at least this year) playing for the Chargers. Nebraska’s defensive scheme under new coordinator Mark Banker should be far better structured to stop Wisconsin’s power rushing attack. And Wisconsin, like Nebraska, will be adjusting to a new head coach.

Still, Nebraska fans can be forgiven for waiting to see NU succeed against the Badgers before they believe it.

No. 1: Michigan State (home, Nov. 7)

The Spartans are still the class of Nebraska’s 2015 schedule, even after NU nearly pulled off an improbably comeback in East Lansing last season. Although tailback Jeremy Langford is gone, returning is quarterback Connor Cook to guide the surprisingly-lively Spartan offense. And under head coach Mark D’Antonio, the Spartans defense has been its calling card (no. 1 in rushing defense and no. 8 in total defense last year, according to CFB Stats).

With an experienced quarterback and a top-flight defense coming to Lincoln, Michigan State looks to pose Nebraska’s toughest challenge in 2015.

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

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

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

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

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

BYU (Sep. 5)

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

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

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

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

South Alabama (Sep. 12)

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

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

At Miami (Sep. 19)

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

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

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

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

Southern Mississippi (Sep. 26)

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

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

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

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

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

At Illinois (Oct. 3)

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

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

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

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

Wisconsin (Oct. 10)

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

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

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

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

At Minnesota (Oct. 17)

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

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

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

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

Northwestern (Oct. 24)

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

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

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

At Purdue (Oct. 31)

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

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

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

Michigan State (Nov. 7)

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

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

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

At Rutgers (Nov. 14)

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

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

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

Iowa (Nov. 27)

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

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

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

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

Nebraska Football: 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.