There's always that one game every college football season that a team tries to plan for as best it can, but for whatever reason, they're taken by surprise. Sometimes they're good enough to gut out a win such as Clemson did versus Syracuse in 2018. Other times, they get tripped up and take a tumble as the Tigers did against those same Orange the year prior. For Nebraska, nailing down which contest might be their surprise undoing requires both a process of elimination and an educated guess at when and where the Huskers may trip up.
Let's start with opponents that will get Nebraska's full attention. South Alabama, Colorado, Northern Illinois, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Iowa all fit this bill and lessens the field significantly.
You can make an argument that Illinois belongs in this group considering the Fighting Illini are not only the Big Red's first Big Ten foe of the year, but the game's also in Champaign. However, Lovie Smith's on the hot seat for a reason and Illinois doesn't have the firepower to keep up with Scott Frost's offense. Nebraska's head man won't let his squad look ahead to Ohio State, either.
Indiana doesn't qualify for the trap game designation either. The Huskers-Hoosiers clash follows a bye week for the former and will be used by Frost to fine-tune any loose screws before his team takes on Purdue in one of the Big Ten's most anticipated matchups. It's also important to note Indiana not only visits Lincoln but do so in late October. By then, we'll know what level of effort and ability to expect from the Big Red every week.
This leaves three options: Northwestern, Minnesota, and Maryland.
Northwestern has won the last two contests between the schools including a heart-breaker in 2018. The Wildcats first used a 99-yard drive at the end of regulation before finishing the job in overtime, sending the Huskers back to Lincoln with a crushing 34-31 loss. The series has been competitive since Nebraska made the move to the Big Ten in 2011, tied 4-4 with the average margin of victory being 6.4 points per game.
The Wildcats also could be getting an upgrade at quarterback. Gone is Clayton Thorson, who is expected to be replaced by Clemson transfer and former five-star prospect Hunter Johnson. Northwestern's new offensive line should gel by early October and Johnson enjoys the return of leading rusher Isaiah Bowser. In addition, returning receivers Bennett Skowronek and Kyric McGowan — a duo that combined for 845 yards and five touchdowns in 2018 — provide excellent targets.
Defensively, the Wildcats are led by linebacker Paddy Fisher who totaled 10 tackles against Nebraska in last year's clash. Defensive end Samdup Miller, the leading tackler against the Huskers that day, also poses a major threat. This year's game is in the friendly confines of Lincoln, but that shouldn't ease Husker fans' concerns. The Big Red hasn't beaten Pat Fitzgerald's team at home since 2013.
Minnesota is more of a coin flip. If P.J. Fleck is to notch his first win against Frost, his best chance is taking advantage of an absolutely gassed group of Huskers that can be forced into making mistakes. Despite the Gophers' current quarterback struggles and the game being played at TCF Stadium, this year's Battle for the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy may see the Big Red take a disappointing dive if they can't manage continued disciplined football seven games into the season.
Finally, there's Maryland. The schedule-makers sandwiched this late November trip for Nebraska between two must-win West division games, Wisconsin and Iowa. The Terrapins might not be world-beaters in Mike Locksley's first year as head coach, but they don't have to be to pull off the upset. Locksley may have three years of knowledge passed down from Nick Saban himself, but Maryland has an exceptionally green team across the board. That said, by late November, the Terps will have found an identity and be looking to make a statement.
Ultimately, all signs point to Northwestern being in a fantastic position to spoil the Big Red's homecoming. Not only do they boast all the aforementioned benefits, but they face Nebraska following a date with the Buckeyes that's circled in Sharpie on almost all college football calendars. Win or lose, Ohio State will receive everything the Huskers can throw at the reigning Big Ten champs m in an attempt to lock up a signature victory for their second-year head coach. All of those factors mean the stars line up for Fitzgerald to be a thorn in Nebraska's side yet again.