Adrian Martinez and the Huskers hope a home-friendly slate will help them contend for a Big Ten West title
Following consecutive 4-8 seasons, Scott Frost is prepped to see a major rebound in year two at the helm of the Nebraska football program. This coming season offers a far friendlier slate than the previous year with the potential to start strong and make major noise. A Big Ten West title is an extremely attainable goal as the division finds itself in one of the biggest states of flux in its history.
The script is flipped from 2018’s "death schedule" that saw Nebraska go on the road to face some of their most difficult challenges. Now, the Big Red has home-field advantage and will get to recuperate before some major battles — assuming weather cooperates. Let’s review which teams are looking to knock Nebraska under the eight wins that sportsbooks are offering as a benchmark.
Week 1 — Aug. 31 vs. South Alabama (Lincoln, Neb.)
Claiming victories over only three teams in 2018 — Texas State, Alabama State, and Coastal Carolina — the Jaguars should provide Nebraska with an excellent opportunity to shake off the cobwebs and experiment freely. This is a game that should see Adrian Martinez and the offense excel, the defense gain some confidence and backups become more intimate with the speed of the college game. Knock on wood that Mother Nature doesn’t make this a second canceled season kickoff in a row.
Week 2 — Sept. 7 at Colorado (Boulder, Colo.)
The Buffaloes spoiled Scott Frost's first game as the Huskers’ head coach and would love to do the same at home as former Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker takes the reins of the program. Colorado opened on a five-game tear in 2018 before dropping seven straight with losses to every ranked team they faced. Wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. should provide an excellent challenge for a Nebraska secondary that solidified late last season but will be breaking in new safeties.
Week 3 — Sept. 14 vs. Northern Illinois (Lincoln, Neb.)
The last time the Huskies visited Memorial Stadium, it ultimately resulted in the firing of both the Huskers' athletic director and their head coach. History is extremely unlikely to repeat itself as NIU won’t be facing the same type of athlete at quarterback and a far more up-tempo offense that can slice and dice the Big Ten's best, let alone the MAC's. The Huskies are another team with a brand-new head coach in former Baltimore Ravens running backs coach Thomas Hammock. Pulling off another upset in Lincoln would be nothing short of huge, but the odds are far more stacked against them this go-around.
Week 4 — Sept. 21 at Illinois (Champaign, Ill.)
Nebraska opens the Big Ten slate on the road against Lovie Smith's Fighting Illini. This is a program that's seen just as many transfers decide against actually making their way to Smith's roster as pledging to be a part of it. AJ Bush Jr. — the quarterback who caused the Blackshirt defense fits in Lincoln last season — is no longer a part of the team. The Huskers were able to win a shootout last year and there’s nothing indicating they can’t do so again if the necessity arises.
Week 5 — Sept. 28 vs. Ohio State (Lincoln, Neb.)
Ohio State ultimately came out ahead in the teams' clash last year, but the Huskers made it interesting until the final stanza. They even garnered praise from Urban Meyer before and after the game. This is a contest that may very well draw the likes of ESPN Gameday if both teams show up with an unblemished record. It may also very well set the tone for Nebraska’s entire season — let alone their march towards a potential Big Ten West title.
Week 6 — Oct. 5 vs. Northwestern (Lincoln, Neb.)
The Huskers lost a 34-31 overtime heartbreaker to the Wildcats in Evanston last year, the final game that would see a historically bad start for Nebraska cemented. Northwestern has to find a replacement for long-time quarterback Clayton Thorson, who shredded the Nebraska secondary to the tune of 455 passing yards. Fortunately, the Big Red was able to stymie the Northwestern running game. If they’re able to do the same this year, snapping a two-game losing streak to Pat Fitzgerald’s crew appears an easier challenge.
Week 7 — Oct. 12 at Minnesota (Minneapolis)
P.J. Fleck had the honor of being the first coach to fall at the hands of Frost's Cornhuskers and while the game was competitive in spurts, the eventual winning margin was impressive. The Gophers have a chance for revenge in this year's Battle for the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy, but they were largely aided by some lingering doubt on the Huskers' behalf in the last go-around. That seems to be in short supply in Lincoln these days and if Minnesota can't keep up — a challenge many teams on the Huskers' roster must face — this game could get out of hand quickly.
Week 8 — Oct. 26 vs. Indiana (Lincoln, Neb.)
Following a bye week when Nebraska can heal up and learn from seven weeks of successes and failures, the Hoosiers give the Big Red a chance to wow the home crowd yet again. Indiana opened the 2018 season on a 3-0 run before dropping seven of their last nine. The Blackshirt secondary will face another dynamic quarterback-wide receiver combo in Michael Penix Jr. and Donavan Hale. Like Colorado, if Nebraska can keep the success of the Hoosiers' passing game to a minimum, things set up nicely for one of the biggest games of the season with another squad from Indiana.
Week 9 — Nov. 2 at Purdue (West Lafayette, Ind.)
The story writes itself. Fantastic freshman Wan'Dale Robinson versus sensational sophomore Rondale Moore. Purdue helped extend Nebraska's painful winless streak to open 2018 with a 42-28 besting in Lincoln. The Boilermakers do have to find a replacement for David Blough and DJ Knox, two players who made life miserable for the Nebraska defense last season. Whoever takes snaps for Jeff Brohm, they'll have Moore and tight end Brycen Hopkins at their disposal, both of whom had successful days against Frost's squad last season. Mark your calendars as this should be one of the best conference tilts of the year regardless of division.
Week 10 — Nov. 16 vs Wisconsin (Lincoln, Neb.)
Here’s where things get interesting. There is perhaps no other team that has pushed Nebraska around since their entrance to the Big Ten — quite literally — more than Wisconsin. The biggest question is: will the Huskers finally able to grapple with the some of the best offensive linemen in the nation and one of the conference's finest defenses? True freshman Graham Mertz could prove to be a far more dynamic quarterback than Alex Hornibrook, who transferred to Florida State, and running back Jonathan Taylor returns to do more damage on the ground. Needless to say, this is one of the most important games for Big Ten West supremacy.
Week 11 — Nov. 23 at Maryland (College Park, Md.)
Not a Big Ten West foe, but the Terrapins offer a challenge that cannot be ignored following the Badgers and prior to Nebraska’s final regular-season game. Former Alabama offensive coordinator Michael Locksley takes the helm as Maryland's head man and dropping the Big Red would obviously be a major feather in his cap. Following a 5-7 season in 2018, one has to wonder if the Terrapins have the horses to compete with a late-season Husker squad that’ll be as cohesive as possible and will no doubt be firing on all cylinders.
Week 12 — Nov. 29 vs. Iowa (Lincoln, Neb.)
The Huskers have dropped four straight to the Hawkeyes and cannot afford to make it a fifth for the sake of clinching a division title. Iowa always plays Nebraska tough because, well, the two teams can’t stand each other. However, Kirk Ferentz loses two major pieces of his offense in tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, both projected first-round NFL draft picks. No doubt Iowa will still provide a stiff test with its traditionally stout corps of offensive linemen and linebackers. They also retain quarterback Nate Stanley, who had a decent performance last year, along with running backs Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young, who saw as much productivity on the ground versus Nebraska as any team. Much like Purdue and Wisconsin, this should be a barn-burner.
— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces), on Facebook, and enjoy the Eight Laces podcast. To contact him with tips, story ideas or for interview purposes, click here.