The first weekend of the 2022 college football season is light on big-time matchups, but Nebraska versus Northwestern in Ireland for Week 0 is certainly near the top of the list in terms of intrigue. Although Dublin is a nice vacation spot, this is clearly a business trip for both teams with a victory in Big Ten play on the line. And don't be fooled by the fact it's just Week 0: There's pressure on both teams to get off to a good start with a conference matchup to start the year after a disappointing '21 season.
It's a make-or-break year for Nebraska coach Scott Frost. The Cornhuskers are 15-29 under Frost's direction and have yet to post a winning season or bowl trip. Small problems added up in a big way last fall, as Nebraska slipped to 3-9 – riddled by inconsistency at times on offense, special teams errors, turnovers and issues on third downs and in the red zone. Despite losing nine games by single digits, it was time for change in Lincoln. Frost hit the reset button and overhauled his staff, bringing aboard a handful of new assistants, including offensive play-caller Mark Whipple. He also hit the transfer portal hard, landing impact players at quarterback (Casey Thompson), receiver (Trey Palmer), and along the defensive line (Ochaun Mathis). Showing improvement right away is crucial, as Frost's buyout drops to $7.5 million on Oct. 1.
Northwestern also is coming off a 3-9 season, but the overall feeling surrounding the program is much different. Coach Pat Fitzgerald guided the Wildcats to Big Ten West Division titles in '18 and '20 and has suffered just two losing marks since '15. Both sides of the ball are under the spotlight after last year. Northwestern's defense regressed, and the offense averaged only 16.6 points a game. Returning to the postseason requires marked improvement on both sides of the ball, and there's optimism with 12 starters back.
Nebraska holds a 9-6 series edge over Northwestern. The Cornhuskers pounded the Wildcats 56-7 in Lincoln last year. Five of the last seven games between these two teams were decided by single digits.
Nebraska vs. Northwestern (Dublin, Ireland)
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 27 at 12:30 p.m. ET
Where: Aviva Stadium (Dublin, Ireland)
Spread: Nebraska -13.5
When Nebraska Has the Ball
Intrigue. Saturday's game is the first chance to get a look at Nebraska's offense following all of the offseason changes. How fast can Whipple and Frost get this unit to perform at a high level after changing schemes, as well as breaking in new faces all across the depth chart? This unit averaged 27.9 points a game but finished second in the Big Ten in yards per play (6.4) in '21. Things aren't necessarily broken here, but Nebraska has to do a better job at eliminating turnovers (18 lost last year) and convert more on third downs and inside the red zone.
The spotlight will be on Casey Thompson when Nebraska takes the field. The Texas transfer threw for 2,113 yards and 24 touchdowns and added 157 rushing yards and four scores despite a significant thumb injury for the Longhorns last fall. Thompson should be a good fit for Whipple's scheme and won't lack for weapons on the outside with a couple of transfers in Trey Palmer (LSU) and Marcus Washington (Texas) joining Alante Brown and Omar Manning as top targets.
With Whipple calling the plays for Thompson, it's safe to assume Nebraska's passing game should be productive. However, the offensive line is one area that could hold back the Cornhuskers. New line coach Donovan Raiola inherits two returning starters from a group that allowed 29 sacks last year and needs a big season from the return of left tackle Teddy Prochazka from injury. A handful of running backs are likely to see time on Saturday, including Rahmir Johnson, Anthony Grant, Jaquez Yant and Gabe Ervin. How effective will the line be at clearing running lanes and protecting Thompson?
For Northwestern to get back into a bowl or at least show marked improvement, getting the defense to its '20 level where it led the Big Ten in fewest points allowed (15.9 a game) would be a huge boost. Under first-year coordinator Jim O'Neil, the Wildcats surrendered more than 30 points a game in Big Ten action, ranked last in the conference against the run and allowed 6.2 yards per play. Standout linebacker Chris Bergin and safety Brandon Joseph are gone, but this unit should take a step forward on the stat sheet thanks to a solid secondary, as well as the return of end Adetomiwa Adebawore.
When Northwestern Has the Ball
To say it was a struggle for Northwestern's offense in 2021 might be an understatement. The Wildcats ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring (16.6 a game), averaged just 321.6 yards a contest (4.7 a snap), and didn't get much production from their quarterbacks. Mike Bajakian is back as coordinator, so no major scheme tweaks are expected despite last year's poor performance.
Improvement on this side of the ball starts under center. Four players attempted passes last year, combining for a paltry 13 touchdowns to 14 picks over 12 games. Also, the four quarterbacks combined to complete just 57 percent of their throws and averaged 5.8 yards per attempt. Ryan Hilinski started five games last fall and paced the offense with 978 yards. He's back as the favorite to start, but sophomore Brendan Sullivan and junior Carl Richardson will push him for time if the offense sputters. Last season's leading receiver Stephon Robinson Jr. is gone, but capable targets return in Malik Washington (44), Bryce Kirtz (19) and tight end Charlie Mangieri.
Major question marks remain about Northwestern's ability to execute consistently through the air, but those same doubts don't exist on the ground. The line should be solid behind All-America left tackle Peter Skoronski, and the backfield tandem of Evan Hull and Cam Porter (back from an ACL tear) is the unquestioned strength of the offense. Hull ran for 1,009 yards last season, while Porter tallied 333 in the abbreviated '20 campaign.
Nebraska's struggles in the win column have overshadowed what's been a solid defense under coordinator Erik Chinander the last few years. Although there's some turnover with just five starters back, this unit has the potential to be just as effective in '22. Garrett Nelson, Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich return to form one of the better linebacker units in the Big Ten. Up front, TCU transfer Ochaun Mathis will create havoc against opposing offensive lines. The Cornhuskers return only one starter in the secondary, so there could be opportunities for Hilinski to test this unit. Although Mathis is a force up front, the turnover from last season could create a chance for Northwestern to have more success on the ground than it did in last year's matchup (37 yards on 26 attempts).
Starting the season with a conference game is no easy assignment, but this matchup should provide an excellent window into how far these teams have progressed since '21. All of the change and new faces at Nebraska also make this a challenging matchup to predict. Will the Cornhuskers come out firing on all cylinders with an improved line protecting Thompson in Whipple's offense? Or will the new attack need time to mesh? Northwestern's defense should be better in 2022 than it played last year. However, even if the defense is significantly better, the Wildcats have to find ways to move the ball consistently. The run game is likely to have some success, but with too many question marks at quarterback, Nebraska pushing this to a two-touchdown victory (or more) is the most likely outcome. The Cornhuskers start a critical year for Frost with a big win in Ireland.