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

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

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

College football schedules are now facing rapid changes and Nebraska's is no exception. With the Cornhuskers' slate trimmed to Big Ten foes exclusively, games against FCS opponent South Dakota State and MAC member Central Michigan are gone, as is an intriguing matchup with Cincinnati. Here's a breakdown of Nebraska's current Big Ten-only slate from the least daunting game to the most challenging — as of this writing, anyway.

Note: Opponents and dates are subject to change.

9. Oct. 10 vs. Illinois

The Cornhuskers no longer have to worry about running backs Reggie Corbin or Dre Brown, who racked up a combined 193 yards and two scores in last year's thrilling, 42-38 victory. However, quarterback Brandon Peters does get two familiar receivers back in Josh Imatorbhebhe and Donny Navarro.

Head coach Lovie Smith retains a key piece of 2019's defensive successes in linebacker Jake Hansen but loses a leader in two-time captain Dele Harding. The additional departure of Oluwole Betiku, Jr. will only help Nebraska keep its quarterback upright. An experienced Illini secondary could prove problematic, though.

8. Oct. 24 at Rutgers

A potential trap game, Nebraska's trip to Piscataway is sandwiched between the Huskers' bye week and their trip to Ohio State. They also could see Noah Vedral – a two-time starter for the Big Red in 2019 – leading the offensive charge for the Scarlet Knights.

Rutgers' running back corps is deep with Isaih Pacheco spearheading an attack that could feature up to four different options. Only one proven receiver returns in Bo Melton which could leave "new" head coach Greg Schiano's crew extremely one-dimensional.

Frost's biggest defensive challenge will be a linebacker corps that returns six players with starting experience.

7. Sept. 5 vs. Purdue

Former Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco returns to Lincoln wearing the Boilermakers' colors. Offensive fireworks should be plentiful considering playmakers David Bell and Rondale Moore are back.

Purdue may very well see both of these wideouts racing to rack up 1,000 yards each if quarterback Jack Plummer (or whoever gets the starting nod) can find a rhythm in the season's infancy. Running back King Doerue found a measure of success versus the Huskers last year with a 15 carry, 71-yard performance.

Nebraska's biggest offensive advantage comes with Diaco's 3-4 scheme likely not fully implemented. The Boilermakers' defense features Lorenzo Neal at nose tackle and the emerging George Karlaftis at defensive end. Questions only mount at linebacker with Diaco hoping junior college transfer DaMarcus Mitchell can make an instant impact.

6. Oct. 3 at Northwestern

Peyton Ramsey sees Nebraska again in 2020, only this time it'll be as a Wildcat roster, not an Indiana Hoosier. Last year Ramsey threw for 351 yards and two touchdowns in IU's 38-31win in Lincoln. Ramsey has a trio of experienced pass catchers and some intriguing backfield options to work with under new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. However, Northwestern's attack struggled mightily last season, ranking 124th or worse nationally in scoring, total and passing offense.

This game could come down to how the Huskers' offense fares against what appears to be another salty Wildcat defense. Returning two-time All-Big Ten selection Paddy Fisher has ample help with eight other returning starters, including the entire back seven.

Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz's experienced unit should pose quite a challenge for Nebraska's attack. This could be yet another barn burner in a series that routinely showcases them.

5. Nov. 27 vs. Minnesota

The Golden Gophers replace Iowa as Nebraska's Black Friday game this season. Tanner Morgan headlines a potent offense with receivers Rashod Bateman (1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns in ‘19) and Chris Autman-Bell (371, 5) returning. Should head coach P.J. Fleck find a reliable target to replace Tyler Johnson's production and big-play ability, Big Ten secondaries will have their hands full yet again.

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Minnesota also bid farewell to 1,100-yard rusher Rodney Smith and productive backfield mate Shannon Brooks, but Mohamed Ibrahim (604 yards, 7 TDs) returns and will have the benefit of working with an offensive line that returns all five starters.

Fleck's crew will have to contend with some growing pains on defense as just five starters return including only a pair in the front six of the Gophers' 4-2-5 scheme.

4. Nov. 14 at Iowa

Nate Stanley departs but at this point in the season, the Hawkeyes will have found his replacement. Both Tyler Goodson and Mehki Sargent return at running back, a duo that combined for 171 yards and a score versus the Blackshirts last year.

While the offensive line suffers the loss of Tristan Wirfs at tackle, Indiana graduate transfer Coy Cronk (a 40-game starter for the Hoosiers) may be able to fill the void. All of Iowa's leading receivers return and Sam LaPorta may be the Hawkeyes' next great tight end.

Nebraska no longer has to deal with defensive terror A.J. Epenesa at defensive end but Chauncey Golston remains a major roadblock. Typical production should be expected from a linebacker crew that touts Nick Niemann and Djimon Colbert on the outside. If the Hawkeyes are vulnerable anywhere, it's in the secondary.

3. Nov. 7 vs. Penn State

A potential trap game for the Nittany Lions, Nebraska gets their best shot after hosting Iowa and Ohio State before traveling to Indiana. Look for James Franklin to try silence any potential upset bid in a hurry with quarterback Sean Clifford manning an offense that includes the returning Journey Brown at running back. A major X-factor is how well new wide receiver coach Taylor Stubblefield develops his group.

Jahan Dotson totaled 40 catches for 691 yards in his first two seasons. No receiver can tout more than a dozen career snags. The loss of KJ Hamler looms large and puts the onus on Clifford to be extremely accurate and requires Brown to carry a substantial burden.

Defensively, linebacker Micah Parsons is out to wreck everyone and anything thrown at him. The freak athlete will be a terror to game plan for and has some talent around him. Penn State's defensive backfield remains notable as both cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields and safety Lamont Wade could've opted for a future in the NFL.

2. Nov. 21 at Wisconsin

Regardless of whether Jack Coan or Graham Mertz is taking snaps for the Badgers, we all know the drill. Paul Chryst trots out a mauling offensive line and Wisconsin will look to run the ball down your throat. However, Jonathan Taylor isn't around to torment opposing defenses and leading receiver Quintez Cephus is now in the NFL as well.

Wisconsin will likely use a committee approach before finding a hot hand so a No. 1 option could be identified before Nebraska visits Madison. While still bruising, this is perhaps the most vulnerable Badger offense the Big Red has faced in some time.

Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard can no longer rely on linebackers Chris Orr and Zack Baun but Jack Sanborn is still around and will anchor this side of the ball. Eight other starters return but there are questions this unit will need to answer. The secondary appears an initial strength with Faion Hicks, Caesar Williams, and Eric Burrell.

1. Oct. 31 at Ohio State

Nothing's impossible but the likelihood of Frost claiming his first victory over Ryan Day isn't high just yet. Despite the loss of JK Dobbins, far too many playmakers are ready for another go. Justin Fields, Master Teague III, and Chris Olave alone provide severe headaches for defensive coordinators.

Chase Young and Jeff Okudah now have homes in the NFL, but the defensive talent differential versus Frost's offense is still impressive – at least on paper. If Nebraska enters this game hot and playing well, we could see something akin to when the Huskers trekked to Columbus in 2018 and gave the Buckeyes everything they could handle.

The Big Red could win a shootout if Frost has every game-changer healthy and playing at their best. But they'll need to drop the Buckeyes' morale immediately and keep them on the canvas. If they can't, the outcome seems elementary.

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