It’s been well-documented that the Nebraska football team has been dealt one of the most difficult schedules of any team in 2018. However, the reasoning for that statement goes well beyond the teams and where games will be played.
Let’s take a deeper look at the challenges that face Scott Frost and his first roster of Cornhuskers as he prepares to sweep away the fog that has hovered over Lincoln for decades now.
12. Sept. 1 vs. Akron
One of the best hands Nebraska was dealt in terms of scheduling is getting Akron right out of the gate. While the Zips did win their first MAC East division title under Terry Bowden and made a Boca Raton Bowl appearance in 2017, it’s highly unlikely they cause the same sort of problems for Scott Frost that BYU did for Mike Riley in his first game as Nebraska’s head coach.
Akron was plastered 52-0 at Penn State to kick off the season and squeaked by several teams in their seven wins. The bowl game featured another tilt where the opponent topped 50 points as Lane Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic Owls showed no mercy.
While the usual hiccups such as false starts and a little extra over pursuit on defense due to Erik Chinander’s scheme will be there, Nebraska should start the season with a convincing victory that sends the crowd home happy.
11. Nov. 10 vs. Illinois
The Illini shouldn’t be too difficult for the Big Red to take down, but they visit Lincoln following the Huskers’ trip to Columbus. Regardless of that game’s outcome, there will be a large physical and mental toll. This will be a big test to see how Frost can get this squad to rebound.
However, if it’s going to get done, Illinois offers the Huskers as good of a chance as any. Lovie Smith started as many as 19 underclassmen over the course of last season which played no small part in Nebraska getting one of its four wins. The Illini did gain valuable game experience, but Smith’s crew enters this season losers of 10 straight. It doesn’t help that there are depth problems throughout the offense.
If Illinois is going to have any success versus the Huskers, it will have to come by way of mistakes forced by a defense that lost only three of its top 25 tacklers from last year.
Barring injuries and a turnover-fest circa Iowa State 2009, Nebraska should win this one going away.
10. Sept. 8 vs. Colorado
Don’t be surprised if you see a similar level of animosity towards the Buffaloes that was apparent back in 2014 when the Miami Hurricanes visited Lincoln. The alleged rivalry that former Colorado head coach Bill McCartney attempted to stoke never really got off the ground, but that didn’t stop fans backing the black and gold from spewing venom.
Colorado had a tough go of things in 2017 as the Buffaloes fell back into the Pac-12 South cellar going 5-7 overall. They should provide a stiffer test than Akron or Illinois, but that’s not exactly a high bar to clear. Junior quarterback Steven Montez offers a nice challenge for the Big Red secondary as he’ll look to hook up with sophomore receiver Laviska Shenaul early and often.
The Buffaloes also operate a run-pass option system, so they’ll be facing a defense guided by Chinander that is familiar with a number of their cues. Montez has struggled about as often as he’s shined, throwing two interceptions to match his touchdown production in this year’s spring game.
The defense has nowhere to go but up following a season that saw Colorado ranked 110th nationally at 451 yards per game allowed.
9. Sept. 15 vs. Troy
Starting off 3-0 is a possibility for Frost’s first Nebraska team, but it’s not going to be a cakewalk. Head coach Neal Brown has done some impressive things, including following up a 4-8 debut season with a 21-5 run, two bowl wins and a 2017 Sun Belt championship.
It’s important to note that his teams aren’t intimidated by hostile road environments. The Trojans ventured into Death Valley and upset then-No. 25 LSU 24-21 in front of 99,879 last season.
An Air Raid disciple, Brown’s teams deal in up-tempo offense, so Nebraska’s conditioning will be tested. While the Trojans decided to line up and run at the Tigers 42 times versus 28 passing attempts last year, Nebraska’s secondary could be vulnerable, especially early on. We could very well see those numbers flip.
Whomever Troy’s quarterback is will likely give Louisville wide receiver transfer Traveon Samuel every opportunity to scorch the Husker defensive backs.
The Trojans aren’t unfamiliar with defensive success, either. They finished 11th and 24th nationally in total and scoring defense last season. Two first-team All-Sun Belt defenders return in end Hunter Reese and cornerback Blace Brown while cornerback/return specialist Marcus Jones was named Sun Belt Freshman of the Year.
8. Oct. 20 vs. Minnesota
P.J. Fleck had a front row seat when the wheels came off of the Riley era at Nebraska. A 33-point loss was punctuated with a seething Husker athletic director in his suite ready to make a change. This poured gasoline on a fire sparked by the loss to Northern Illinois and subsequent firing of then-athletic director Shawn Eichorst.
By the time the Golden Gophers visit for this year’s “Battle for the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy,” the script will be almost entirely flipped.
Demry Croft – the signal-caller that sliced and diced the Nebraska defense in 2017 – left the program. This leaves junior college transfer Vic Viramontes, redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan and freshman Zack Annexstad battling for his spot. And it looks like this won’t be resolved until the Gophers kick their season off.
Despite Croft’s field day against the Huskers, Minnesota ranked 121st in passing offense last season, averaging 126 yards per contest. The Gophers also ranked last in the conference and 124th in the nation in passing completion (47 percent_. If Chinander’s back seven have settled in and Minnesota’s offense is still struggling to find a rhythm, the Blackshirts may feast.
If the Gophers want to win, they need to establish a ground game behind senior running back Rodney Smith, who tallied 977 yards and three touchdowns last season.
Nebraska’s success on offense will come on confusing the defensive front and making hay once getting to the second level. The Gophers likely don’t have any defensive linemen that can provide a major push as many are undersized. This plays into the Huskers’ hands if they can force Minnesota linebackers Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin to suck wind.
Interestingly, the Gophers have lost 13 straight when allowing at least 200 yards rushing. We may see all kinds of read option coupled with a heavy dose of power if that trend continues in 2018.
7. Sept. 29 vs. Purdue
Jeff Brohm’s first year as the Boilermakers’ head coach went well, as Purdue won seven games including a bowl victory over Arizona. His team was competitive in every loss, including ones to then-No. 16 Louisville (35-28), then-No. 8 Michigan (28-10) and then-No. 6 Wisconsin (17-9). Now, all Brohm has to do is capitalize on the team’s season-ending three-game winning streak to get 2018 off on the right foot and do it all over again, if not improve.
The question of who will take snaps is up in the air as of this writing with Elijah Sindelar being a stud, but any lingering effects of an ACL tear cloud his future. We’ve seen David Blough take command, but he’s recovering from a nasty ankle injury. True freshman Jack Plummer gives the Boilermakers a gunslinger for the future and Nick Sipe is no slouch. Suffice it to say we should expect Purdue to continue to aim for air supremacy.
The news gets slightly better as five of the top running backs return, but unfortunately, so does an inefficient offensive line that helped convert all of 33 percent of third down attempts.
Purdue’s biggest problem against Nebraska this year will be Frost’s offense versus Boilermaker defensive coordinators Anthony Poindexter and Nick Holt as seven of last year’s top tacklers aren’t around anymore. While All-Big Ten honorable mention defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal returns, the rest of the defensive line doesn’t.
There are some playmakers on defense such as linebacker Markus Bailey, but the second-worst Big Ten pass defense from last season lost its best cornerbacks.
6. Oct. 13 at Northwestern
Might Nebraska play against a first-round NFL quarterback when it travels to Evanston in mid-October? Some pundits would have you believe just that. On April 30, Stewart Mandel of The Athletic noted that Thorson’s name was popping up all over the place to be taken early in next year’s draft and he wasn’t alone.
Regardless, Thorson has been a pain in the Huskers’ side over the course of his career, but he doesn’t have running back Justin Jackson to play Captain America to his Iron Man (or whichever order you prefer) anymore.
While Northwestern figures out exactly who’s going to assist Thorson on offense, it can lean on a defense that is especially good on the edges with second-team All-Big Ten selection junior Joe Gaziano and sophomore Samdup Miller. With their help, the Wildcats managed to rank 20th and 34th in scoring and total defense last season, respectively.
5. Nov. 23 at Iowa
It’s no coincidence that these final five games are listed in the exact same order as when I reviewed Nebraska’s best chances of notching an upset this fall. If I was a betting man, I’d see Vegas naming the Huskers as underdogs in all of them, thus the “upset” potential.
The biggest thing the Hawkeyes have going for them against Nebraska is the mental aspect. It’s the last home game of the season, their current question marks will be figured out to the best of their abilities and Iowa has won the last three contests by a combined score of 124-44.
By this point in the season, they should have found an answer to the loss of running back Akrum Wadley, even if it’s not ideal. The four new starters on the offensive line should be gelling. Then again, those are some pretty big “shoulds.”
The one side of the ball that can be expected to rebound is on defense. Iowa can’t just replace Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann at linebacker any more than Nebraska could “just replace” Ndamukong Suh. However, Kirk Ferentz and his staff seemingly have the ability to coach the position up just as well as Penn State or Wisconsin.
Will Nebraska win and add evidence to the idea of a true rivalry? Maybe, but even if the Huskers don’t, they should improve on last year’s 56-14 showing.
4. Nov. 17 vs. Michigan State
The Spartans’ visit sets up nicely for any Nebraska upset hopes as the Huskers should be able to handle Illinois the week prior without having to exert too much energy. Mark Dantonio’s teams are known for giving the opposition all it can handle and then some. It did just that in 2017 as the Spartans finished No. 15 in the final AP poll with a 10-3 record.
Look for Brian Lewerke to lead the offense following a 2017 season that saw him throw for 2,793 yards and 20 touchdowns. Life will become even more difficult for defenses with running back LJ Scott returning as well. If Scott has trouble, the Spartans feature a rich wide receiver corps in Felton Davis, Darrell Stewart and Cody White who combined for 140 catches and 1,767 yards last year.
Lewerke and his skill players will have four returning offensive linemen to work with, but Michigan State loses All-Big Ten center Brian Allen.
The Spartan defense should prove a challenge for Nebraska with pass rush specialist Kenny Willekes and linebacker Joe Bachie leading the way for a unit that could potentially developing into one of the conference’s best. The Spartans ranked second nationally in rush defense last season and considering much of that experience returns, there’s no reason to think that production will dip much.
If Nebraska wants a shot at besting the Spartans, using its deep receiver corps looks to be the key. Michigan State’s secondary was very green last year (no pun intended), but while experience should bump the group’s game up a notch, the back end may be vulnerable from time to time.
3. Sept. 22 at Michigan
The Nebraska Way versus The Michigan Man. If the Big Red is 3-0 heading into this contest, it may very well be a contender for an ESPN “GameDay” appearance. Should Frost’s offense be humming on all cylinders and have clocked its first three opponents in the jaw, that would only increase potential ratings.
Michigan may be able to produce one of the best defenses in the country this season after putting up performances that left the Wolverines ranked third nationally in total defense and sixth nationally in yards per play allowed in 2017. Defensive lineman Maurice Hurst departs, but former five-star recruit Aubrey Solomon should be ready to fill his shoes. You may not find a better pass-rushing tandem in the nation than Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich.
Khaleke Hudson and Devin Bush are two of the nation’s top linebackers that may emerge as All-America candidates. To make matters worse for offenses, cornerbacks Lavert Hill and David Long are insanely talented.
With Ole Miss transfer quarterback Shea Patterson granted immediate eligibility, the Wolverines have solid depth at the position behind him in Brandon Peters and Dylan McCaffrey. While Michigan figures out any and all problems on offense, the defense should be absolutely suffocating.
2. Oct. 6 at Wisconsin
Camp Randall hasn’t been kind to Nebraska. Well, the entire series between the Huskers and Badgers hasn’t been since the Big Red joined its new conference. The last time Nebraska visited, Wisconsin managed to crush the Huskers’ hopes expertly with a 23-17 overtime win.
While the Badgers bested the Huskers again last year, we may see the same X-factor come into play in regards to what ultimately sealed the Big Red’s fate.
Wisconsin led 17-10 at halftime before coming out and grating the Husker defense into the Memorial Stadium FieldTurf. It was something out of an old-school Big Eight highlight tape. The lack of conditioning was apparent.
Much like with the aforementioned Troy game, we’re going to see just how well Nebraska can stack up after all of one offseason. However, rather than hustling to the line, the Huskers will be expected to crack pads and get leverage against a team with that mindset ingrained into its culture.
Alex Hornibrook isn’t an elite quarterback by any means, but Jonathan Taylor is another in a long line of annoyingly-good Badger running backs. Wisconsin loses do-it-all tight end Troy Fumagalli, but four of the top five receivers from last season return. Of course, the key to it all is the offensive line and this group is going to be extremely salty, as usual.
The Badgers’ secondary is currently a question mark, but whether or not that remains the case by the time Nebraska visits will play a major role. Add in that this game’s in Madison and the difficulty gets cranked up a notch. Heaven help Nebraska if it’s played at night.
1. Nov. 3 at Ohio State
Wow, let’s see. Where to begin?
Again, it’s necessary to bring up the whole “Ohio State hasn’t punted against Nebraska since October 2012” stat much in the same way one brings up the fact that Texas lost to Kansas for the first time in 78 years back in 2016. It’s just that silly of a statistic.
To be honest, the best that Nebraska can probably hope for during this contest is to simply not give up and remain competitive. I don’t think anyone actually expects the Huskers to pull out a victory against the Buckeyes in Frost’s first attempt, let alone in Columbus. Fighting from the first whistle to the last is a solid goal. Well, that and causing OSU’s punter to do more than just warm up.
You might expect the fact that this game comes after a Nebraska bye week to be some manner of great news. The problem with that is Ohio State gets the same courtesy. However, despite having four- and five-stars across the board, the Buckeyes are only human which means Nebraska at least has a chance... right?
(Scott Frost photo courtesy of Nebraska Athletics)