The Huskers' slate features difficult Big Ten road games against Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa
So much hype is building around new Nebraska Cornhuskers head coach Scott Frost and his high-octane offense moving to Lincoln from Orlando that some fans can’t help but guzzle the Kool-Aid. That’s understandable considering the drink did originate in Hastings, Neb., but the brakes should be pumped on Frost’s first-year success.
The scheduling gods were very unkind to the Huskers when drawing up this year’s slate with three Big Ten teams that finished in last year's final AP Top 25 lined up as road trips. The good news for Big Red fans is that Frost and company actually have a puncher’s chance of showing a respectable effort in every game, which was not the case with the previous regime.
Let’s review the gauntlet set up for Nebraska to navigate.
Bye: Week 9
Week 1 – Sept. 1 vs. Akron (Lincoln, Neb.)
The Terry Bowden era hasn’t given the Zips much to cheer about. They did win their first MAC East title under Bowden last year, but went on to be pasted 50-3 by Florida Atlantic in the Boca Raton Bowl. This appears to be a perfect tune-up game.
Week 2 – Sept. 8 vs. Colorado (Lincoln, Neb.)
Good old-fashioned hate returns as former Colorado head coach Bill McCartney’s bloodlust for beating Nebraska still runs deep in the Buffaloes’ program. Colorado has largely been a Pac-12 cellar-dweller since their arrival except for a 10-4 2016 season that included a division title and a No. 17 ranking in the final AP poll. Look back to when the Miami Hurricanes visited in 2014 for the amount of animosity to expect from those Husker fans in attendance.
Week 3 – Sept. 15 vs. Troy (Lincoln, Neb.)
While the Huskers do have a legitimate chance to start the season 3-0 and get some much-needed momentum headed into Big Ten play, Troy has proven it’s a Group of 5 program that’s simply not going to show up and roll over.
Trojans head coach Neal Brown took a 2015 4-8 squad and has since flipped the script, going a combined 21-5 the past two seasons. Included in this run is the first Top 25 ranking by a Sun Belt team in 2016 and an eventual conference title to go with it. The Trojans also went into Baton Rouge last year and beat LSU on its own turf.
Week 4 – Sept. 22 at Michigan (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
Frost’s first Big Ten opener as Nebraska’s head coach is an impressive one as he’ll be going up against another coach leading his alma mater in Jim Harbaugh.
This game likely comes down to Michigan’s offense versus new Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s defense. The Wolverines hope to have Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson at quarterback, as the offense accounted for a total of nine touchdown passes last season. That’s the fewest for the program since 1975.
The good news for Nebraska is that the pressure on each head coach couldn’t be any more different. Frost is in the process of overhauling the entire program while many in and out of Ann Arbor are wondering if Harbaugh is the savior he was intended to be and the whispers regarding his future at Michigan are getting louder and louder with each disappointing result.
Week 5 – Sept. 29 vs. Purdue (Lincoln, Neb.)
The Boilermakers have shown flashes of returning to a respectable program under Jeff Brohm. After a 7-6 campaign which included a win over Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl, Purdue will no doubt be looking for payback against Nebraska after the Huskers’ come-from-behind victory on the road last year.
Can Brohm take advantage of what may be a very emotional day for the Huskers due to their visit to the Big House one week prior? He’s shown he can do quite a bit in a short period of time.
Week 6 – Oct. 6 at Wisconsin (Madison, Wis.)
Always an important matchup in the Big Ten West Division race, Wisconsin has had Nebraska’s number since the Huskers joined the conference in 2011, winning six of the seven head-to-head meetings. To make matters worse, Nebraska has lost by an average of 43-19 in Madison, including a heart-breaking 23-17 overtime defeat the last time the Huskers visited in 2016.
Wisconsin will no doubt be looked at as the favorite to win the division yet again and with good reason. Running back James Taylor, who set the FBS freshman rushing record with 1,977 yards returns and quarterback Alex Hornibrook has another year of experience under his belt.
The good news for Nebraska is that the Badgers did lose some key pieces from the nation’s second-ranked defense, including three starters in the secondary. This may be the first time we see the Huskers in a shootout-style game under Frost a la those from his UCF days.
Week 7 – Oct. 13 at Northwestern (Evanston, Ill.)
Pat Fitzgerald always has his Wildcats lined up to be an upset special and coming off of a 10-3 season punctuated with a Music City Bowl win and final No. 17 ranking in the polls, that doesn’t look to be stopping any time soon.
However, the Huskers had to worry about running back Justin Jackson last year. He’s gone, leaving Fitzgerald with adjustments to make on offense. A process that is complicated by quarterback Clayton Thorson sitting out this spring due to his recovery from a torn ACL suffered in the bowl victory.
The Wildcats also have to replace All-Big Ten safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro. Back-to-back shootouts perhaps?
Week 8 – Oct. 20 vs. Minnesota (Lincoln, Neb.)
When last we saw Nebraska tangle with the Golden Gophers, Huskers athletic director Bill Moos was extremely upset in his suite as Minnesota ran roughshod over his team en route to a 33-point win in Minneapolis.
While quarterback Demry Croft did decide to head elsewhere, junior college transfer Vic Viramontes appears to be the Gophers’ likely new field general. Assuming he picks up the appropriate oars to P.J. Fleck’s boat quickly, he could very well prove a nuisance for Chinander and his charges to wrangle.
We’ll get a very good look at how Frost has been able to both build depth and keep his team’s focus for each game by this point. Fortunately, after a meat grinder of eight straight, the Big Red goes into a bye week.
Week 10 – Nov. 3 at Ohio State (Columbus, Ohio)
Hopefully the bye is productive, because the Big Red gets no break coming out of it with a trip to the Horseshoe for what should be an interesting chess match between Urban Meyer and Frost.
The Buckeyes haven’t needed to punt against Nebraska since October 2012 and have dominant a three-game winning streak against the Huskers. It’s not just a streak, but an absolute chain of embarrassment as Ohio State has averaged 60 points in those contests compared to Nebraska’s 18.
This will be an amazing litmus test for Frost’s team for a number of very obvious reasons.
Week 11 – Nov. 10 vs. Illinois (Lincoln, Neb.)
Nebraska took advantage of Illinois’ youth movement to notch one of its four wins of the 2017 season in Champaign. It looks like the Big Red may get a bit of a reprieve regardless of what happens in Columbus as they return home to play against an Illini squad that is still growing up and will be relying on a bevy of underclassmen.
While Lovie Smith appears to be excited about the future and Illinois is putting together an impressive recruiting class for the 2019 cycle, it’s hard to think that Nebraska chalks up a loss here barring an extreme number of injuries or a major emotional letdown following the trip to Columbus.
Week 12 – Nov. 17 vs. Michigan State (Lincoln, Neb.)
Mark Dantonio did a fantastic job of helping the Spartans rebound from a 3-9 record in 2016 to finish 10-3 last season, including a 42-17 demolition of Washington State in the Holiday Bowl.
For whatever reason, this series always seems to be hard-fought and one of respect having produced some thrilling results. The last time these two teams met, Nebraska scored the game-winning touchdown with 17 seconds to play to win a 39-38 thriller over the then-No. 6-ranked Spartans.
This year may prove to be equally entertaining as quarterback Brian Lewerke looks to lead the offensive charge against a gang of Blackshirts that hopefully will be reaching its peak by this point (if it hadn’t happened already).
Frost’s offense also should get a challenge from a Sparty defense that’s led by linebacker Joe Bachie and the talented cornerback duo of Josiah Scott and Justin Layne.
Week 13 – Nov. 23 at Iowa (Iowa City, Iowa)
As much as neither side wants to completely admit it, this is becoming a rivalry – nay, a blossoming blood feud. This series is becoming what Bill McCartney wanted Colorado-Nebraska to develop into. However, for it to be a true rivalry, the Huskers are going to have to actually pull off a few wins.
After last year’s 56-14 shellacking, Nebraska travels to Iowa City with an opportunity to repay the Hawkeyes for three consecutive losses including two recent beatdowns.
Iowa has a number of personnel issues to sort out this spring, but the Black and Gold should be salty as ever, especially with the Big Red coming to their house. Look for Iowa to attempt to add insult to injury by targeting Nebraska native and Iowa tight end Noah Fant early and often. However, if the Hawkeyes’ defensive back seven is still shaky, this may turn into a game that’s “defense optional.”
(Scott Frost photo courtesy of Nebraska Athletics)