Nebraska Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Cornhuskers' Schedule

The Huskers' will get their chances to collect several signature wins at home this fall

Scott Frost's Nebraska Cornhuskers are poised to rebound significantly following consecutive 4-8 seasons, and the hype surrounding Adrian Martinez's sophomore year has already reached a fever pitch. Nebraska fans around the country are deathly curious to see if Frost and Erik Chinander can produce the jumps in efficiency they did at UCF in their second year.

 

Twelve teams stand in the way between disappointment and a season teetering on one that merits adult alcoholic libations. The Big Red still has some work to do on both offense and defense. However, as we saw last year, a synchronized team under Frost is a dangerous thing. The best news for Nebraska is that this year's major contests take place in the state's capital.

 

Here's how the Huskers' schedule stacks up in terms of difficulty:

 

12. Aug. 31 vs. South Alabama

Perhaps the closest thing to an FCS team when opening the season, Nebraska's 2019 kickoff versus Sun Belt competition doesn't bring the bite that '18's Troy squad did. South Alabama features its fifth quarterback in six seasons in sophomore Cephus Johnson, but has two notable offensive weapons in running back Tra Minter and receiver Kawaan Baker.

 

Fortunately for the Huskers, they'll be going against a 3-4 scheme on defense, something the Big Red offense regularly practices against. This should give Frost's offense the opportunity to slice and dice the Jaguars in game one.

 

11. Sept. 14 vs. Northern Illinois

Nebraska fans still suffer from nightmares about the Huskies walking into Lincoln and leaving as the victors during the Mike Riley era. While NIU has one of the better overall defenses in the MAC, the Huskies aren't even the favorite to win the West division.

 

With inconsistency at quarterback and this being a matchup early in the season, NIU must rely on its familiar running back room and a retooled offensive line while the signal-callers figure out who will lead the starting 11.

 

10. Sept 28 at Illinois

In possibly a make-or-break year for Lovie Smith, the Fighting Illini get Nebraska at home to open both teams' Big Ten conference slates. Illinois touts one of the league's best running backs in senior Reggie Corbin, but much like South Alabama, the quarterback position is far from settled. The Illini get three games to sort things out before the Huskers come to town in Akron, Connecticut, and Eastern Michigan.

 

With Illinois featuring four returning offensive linemen and nine returning starters on defense, consider taking the over on an eventual point total should the mood strike you.

 

9. Oct. 26 vs. Indiana

Much like their game against Illinois, Nebraska faces another quality running back in Stevie Scott when the Hoosiers come to Lincoln. Quarterback Peyton Ramsey finished 2018 with 2,875 passing yards, including 300-plus efforts versus Ohio State and Purdue. This opens things up against a Husker defensive front seven probably as gelled as they will get considering when the game takes place.

 

We should note that the Hoosiers severely sputtered last year once they got to their opponents' 40-yard line. So bad, in fact, that they ranked nearly at the bottom of FBS for their efforts. While Nebraska's linebackers may still struggle, their bruisers on the defensive line likely have more than enough opportunities to keep Scott in check and Ramsey scrambling.

 

8. Nov. 23 at Maryland

A road game sandwiched between Wisconsin and Iowa, Maryland doesn't have much talent of note outside of running back Anthony McFarland Jr. and safety Antoine Brooks Jr. However, the Terrapins will want a statement game for new head coach Mike Locksley and what better than to get a W against a Nebraska team working hard to prove 2018 was a fluke?

 

Unfortunately, familiarity won't do Maryland many favors with only seven returning starters across the probable 22 they'll trot onto the field. Creativity must be the name of the Terrapins' game if they want to come out ahead as an unforgiving contest at Michigan State ends the season.

 

7. Oct. 12 at Minnesota

The Golden Gophers are being served up the perfect opportunity to jump a gassed bunch of Huskers. Regardless of their record, Nebraska will have faced Ohio State and a Northwestern team that always provides a challenge.

 

Much like several other teams on this list, Minnesota is scrambling for signal-caller stability. Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan went back and forth during the spring, but a lasting starter might not even be named by mid-October. Keep in mind both played in Frost's first win last year, a 53-28 affair.

 

Goldy and crew feature a trio of wide receivers that can assist, but with poorly thrown balls, that won't make a difference. They also tout legitimate enforcers on defense, including do-it-all playmaker Carter Coughlin. He's shown the size, speed, and agility to make an impact, but he can't do it all himself.

 

6. Sept. 7 at Colorado

Ah, the revenge game. There's a great deal the Huskers remember about this meeting from last year: Adrian Martinez's twisted ankle, the trash talk, and of course, the loss. Former Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker takes over as head coach and keeps the two main offensive components that were the most productive in last year's 33-28 win.

 

Quarterback Steven Montez and wide receiver Laviska Shenault, Jr. are ready to serve up an encore, but there are a few differences this year. Nebraska's secondary is light years ahead of where it was, the Huskers will have a game under their belts coming into this tilt (assuming Mother Nature plays nice this time), and Martinez isn't as green as a crisp dollar bill. This one could yet again come down to a track meet, but Nebraska has far more speed to rely on than the Buffaloes.

 

5. Nov. 2 at Purdue

The temptation to begin and end this preview with “Rondale Moore” is great and while the Boilermakers' offense revolves around him, it takes another 21 players to win. While Purdue lost quarterback David Blough, Elijah Sinclair is an adequate replacement.

 

As a supplement, running backs Tario Fuller and Zander Horvath offer a one-two punch. It's not all about Moore at receiver, though. His presence enticed a pair of four-star prospects to join the corps, and if one can develop early, Jeff Brohm should produce another devastating offense.

 

On defense, Purdue returns nine starters. Linebacker Markus Bailey returns for his senior season with Derrick Barnes and Cornel Jones reprising their roles at the LEO and MIKE spots, respectively. A familiar refrain for 2019, it will be a shock if this doesn't turn into a barn-burner early.

 

4. Oct. 5 vs. Northwestern

Minnesota seems like they're in a prime spot to pick off the Cornhuskers, but give Pat Fitzgerald's team the nod as a more probable trap game. The Wildcats visit Lincoln after the battle versus Ohio State, they haven't lost in the Huskers' home stadium since 2013, and they boast notable talent on both sides of the ball.

 

Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson replaces Clayton Thorson at quarterback and last year's leading rusher Isaiah Bowser returns as do two of the Wildcats' top four receivers. On defense, the rough and tumble Paddy Fisher lurks at the interior linebacker spot while Joe Gaziano and Samdup Miller will spend all season wreaking havoc on the defensive line's exterior.

 

3. Nov. 29 vs. Iowa

This rivalry (#NotARivalry) is quickly turning into a blood feud regardless if fans want to admit it. So it's only fitting that this game will end both teams' conference schedules and likely has Big Ten West implications.

 

While the Hawkeyes will have spent the season breaking in new tight ends, steady quarterback Nate Stanley returns as do experienced receivers Brandon Smith and standout left tackle Alaric Jackson. The top three running backs also provide familiar faces and caused 266 yards worth of damage in last year's three-point victory over the visiting Huskers.

 

We would be remiss to not point out devastating defensive end A.J. Epenesa who will frustrate whoever he lines up against. His work along with fellow end Chauncy Golden gives Iowa the opportunity to crash the pocket.

 

2. Nov. 16 vs. Wisconsin

As always, this is a major game for Nebraska. Not just because the Badgers are consistent Big Ten bullies standing in the Big Red's way, either. Wisconsin has been one-upping the Huskers lately in the recruiting game. It's hard to say the Badgers aren't creating addition by subtraction with the skittish Alex Hornibrook taking his leave. True freshman Graham Mertz is already nipping at Jack Coan's heels to take over the reins. Running back Jonathan Taylor will get his yards, score his points, and make tacklers look foolish as that's what he does.

 

If Nebraska is going to rock the Badgers' defense, this is the year to do it. Inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly are both gone as is outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel. Nose tackle Olive Sagapolu and D'Cota Dixon — Wisconsin's most experienced defensive back — also have taken their leave. The Badgers will do their best to bully the Big Red and will get their licks in, but there's a genuine question regarding whether Wisconsin can keep up in Lincoln once mid-November rolls around.

 

1. Sept. 28 vs. Ohio State

Regardless of how effective Ryan Day will eventually be in taking over for Urban Meyer, he has the talent to coast for at least a few years. While there aren't many returning Buckeyes on offense, running back J.K. Dobbins has unfinished business. If former national top-five quarterback prospect Justin Fields can find his groove, then Buckeye fans won't miss Dwayne Haskins nearly as much.

 

On defense, despite all of their talent, Ohio State allowed 4.5 yards per carry last season. To make matters slightly worse, the Buckeyes are now without linemen Nick Bosa and Dre'Mont Jones. However, they return nine defensive starters who should make life miserable for every offense they face.

 

An obvious early test for both squads, the Huskers will throw just about everything they can at Ohio State to spoil Day's debut season. On the flip side, the Buckeyes will work to generate a far more impressive outing than they did versus Nebraska last year. If the Huskers draw first blood or, worse yet for Day's bunch, get out to a double-digit lead, Frost likely gets a signature win while the Buckeyes retool for the remainder of the year.

 

— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces). To contact him, click here.

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