Entering a critical season, the Huskers need to be wary of potential landmines on their slate
Last year, I predicted that Northwestern would be the team that snuck up and bit the Nebraska Cornhuskers when they least suspected. They came close. The Wildcats fell 13-10 on a last-second field goal during what many probably expected to be a get-right game following the Huskers' 48-7 dismissal by Ohio State.
Looking ahead to the upcoming season and this exercise is even more difficult. For starters, there's plenty of uncertainty of what the schedule will (or could) look like as the NCAA and conferences deal with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. If we consider the schedule as it's currently constructed, several games shouldn't take the Big Red by surprise. Considering they've won a whopping nine games over the past two seasons under Scott Frost, an argument can be made that if the cliche about taking things one game at a time was ever applicable, the time is now.
Still, there's always that one tilt which seems like a sure thing even during a slate as difficult as what the Huskers face this season.
Let's break it down.
We start with teams that have no reason to surprise. Obviously, Ohio State starts us off.
Routinely trashing the conference left and right like Godzilla crashing through downtown Tokyo, Ryan Day's Buckeyes are the current Big Ten bully.
The last time Nebraska beat Ohio State, Taylor Martinez and Lavonte David helped spark the biggest comeback in program history. Yes, Joe Bauserman's poor play following a Braxton Miller injury helped (1-for-10 passing with an interception), but a win is a win.
Take into account that Nebraska came within five points of upsetting Ohio State in Columbus a mere two seasons ago under Frost and the Buckeyes will see them coming every time despite their record, so OSU's out.
Penn State is, too. Featured in the penultimate game of the 2020 Husker home slate, James Franklin does his absolute best to mentally prepare the Nittany Lions. Considering the current trajectories of these two programs, Nebraska provides far more of an opportunity to be a trap game for Penn State than vice versa. Their confidence following a trip to visit the Indiana Hoosiers will be telling.
Wisconsin at Madison later in the season? As Paul Chryst's team remains the most consistent force in the Big Ten West — winning the division three of the six seasons taking over as head coach — we can safely skip the Badgers.
We can also move past Iowa considering the Hawkeyes' five-game winning streak over Nebraska, their home-field advantage, and the rivalry factor.
Minnesota marks this year's Black Friday contest. Considering the 34-7 embarrassment P.J. Fleck and company inflicted in 2019 en route to the Golden Gophers' impressive campaign, Nebraska no doubt wants to return the favor with interest. But Minnesota wants to establish a trend, and we all know that.
The season opener against Purdue gets tossed out quickly. Not only does this conference game start the year off, but former Husker defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will be roaming the Boilermakers' sidelines. And again, the revenge factor plays a significant role, as Nebraska hasn't beaten Purdue under Frost.
Now we're getting to the meat of genuine possibilities.
Central Michigan might have been considered one. But thanks to the Chippewas' 8-6 record in Jim McElwain's first season, that's not advisable. Especially if the Big Red trips up early and starts out 0-1.
At one point, Cincinnati may have looked like a stiff test but not an exceptional threat by any stretch. Now, the Bearcats offer Nebraska one of the most difficult opponents on the slate face before their lone bye week.
Cincinnati went 11-3 in 2019, finishing 21st in both the Associated Press and Coaches polls. Luke Fickell's team notched victories over then-No. 18 UCF (27-24) and Boston College in the Birmingham Bowl (38-6).
This leaves us with four options: Northwestern, Illinois, Rutgers, and South Dakota State.
Let's address the Jackrabbits first. SDSU went 8-5 last season finishing the year ranked No. 10 in the FCS poll after losing to Northern Iowa in the playoffs. Nebraska should win this game on talent alone.
Northwestern finished last in the 2019 Big Ten West standings with a 1-8 conference record (3-9 overall), but Pat Fitzgerald's crew can't seem to help but give Nebraska fits. That 13-10 Husker victory actually broke a two-game losing skid in the series, with the Huskers holding a 5-4 advantage since moving to the conference.
However, the Big Red historically has performed better in Evanston (this year's venue) versus the friendly confines of Lincoln. With a 3-1 Big Ten-era record away from Memorial Stadium, Nebraska averages an 11-point margin in their victories. With a 2-3 record at home, that pair of wins came thanks to a combined four points.
Illinois seems to fit the bill upon first glance. Last year's contest was a squeaker as the Big Red barely escaped Champaign with a four-point victory. This came after trailing by 14 points late in the third quarter and turning the ball over four times. However, Nebraska doesn't have to worry about Illinois' two leading rushers from '19 in Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown, who combined for 193 yards versus the Blackshirts.
While this might turn into another shootout and a Nebraska victory, Frost isn't going to let his team forget how sloppy play nearly cost them.
This leaves us with one team, laughable though it might be for a number of reasons.
Rutgers is often the last team any Big Ten member should consider a threat. However, here Nebraska is. Not only do the Huskers face Greg Schiano's Scarlet Knights following their bye week, but they also do so in Piscataway (for whatever that's worth these days).
But there are two major X-factors in play here. The first half of Nebraska's season could be equally emboldening as demoralizing. This team's mental makeup is up in the air considering the lack of spring football and standard offseason routine. Fans hope for the best, but if the Huskers come out of that initial stretch with a 4-2 or 3-3 record, their chances at even making a bowl are up in the air.
The second piece of the puzzle is former Husker quarterback Noah Vedral. He probably didn't decide to transfer to Rutgers without an extremely good feeling he'd be the starter. Not only that, but Vedral is also intimately familiar with Frost’s philosophies from his time at both UCF and Nebraska.
It's easy to look at Rutgers and shrug them off. They don't have typical Big Ten talent. But for the Huskers, they offer a unique challenge. What’s more, this is the most winnable game the Big Red has for the remainder of the year.
There's a significant amount of pressure here. Even if Nebraska rolls through their pre-bye week schedule and immediately qualifies for a bowl game, it’ll be tempting to peek over Rutgers at the gauntlet they’ll be facing. And they can’t afford to do that.
Which is why the Scarlet Knights are in prime position to stun Husker Nation.