If Scott Frost's first Cornhuskers team wants to make a statement it could come in one of these five games
It’s no secret that the first edition of Nebraska football under head coach Scott Frost is going to have a rough go of things. The Cornhukers are set to face a collection of teams that combined to win 63 percent of their games in 2017. Included in this 12-game gauntlet are four teams that were ranked at the end of that season and eight that had winning records. Five or six wins seems to be the most commonly predicted result for Frost’s inaugural season as the Huskers’ head man.
That said, what if Nebraska is able to dig down and actually exceed those expectations? There are at least five games on the Nebraska football schedule that likely have the Big Red as underdogs as of this writing. To get a pulse on what Husker Nation feels about the topic, an oh-so-scientific Twitter poll was shot into the ether about the Big Red’s chances and it generated more than over 200 responses.
These are the teams that should stay sharp when Nebraska lines up opposite them, ranked from the upset opportunity with the most potential to the near-impossible.
1. Iowa (Nov. 23)
The Hawkeyes have chalked up three straight victories over Nebraska by a combined 80 points, so what’s to suggest the Huskers have any remote chance of walking out of Iowa City with a victory?
While Iowa has a competent quarterback in Nate Stanley and a deadly scoring threat in Nebraska native Noah Fant, a sputtering offense was still an issue in 2017. If that carries over into 2018, the Hawkeyes can’t hope for another Bob Diaco-style performance from the Blackshirts to send the Huskers packing.
Iowa managed all of 330 yards per contest last season, which ranked them 117th nationally. The Hawkeyes also only converted on third down just 34 percent of the time. To make things worse, they lose running back Akrum Wadley and are replacing four starters on the offensive line.
On defense, recovering from the blow of losing 2017’s top three tacklers in linebackers Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann won’t be easy. Head coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff can’t simply snap their fingers and get that kind of production back instantly.
However, at the point in the season when these two teams meet, both Iowa and Nebraska will know where they stand.
If Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s aggressive style can rattle Stanley just enough to give Frost’s offense time to jump ahead with some colorful play-calling, the Huskers will have an excellent chance to exorcise the Black Friday demons of years past.
Husker Nation Upset Probability Poll Result: 60 percent
2. Michigan State (Nov. 17)
After spiraling to a 3-9 season in 2016 – the worst finish ever under head coach Mark Dantonio – Michigan State rebounded with a 10-3 season that culminated in a mauling of Washington State in the Holiday Bowl.
The 2018 squad welcomes back 19 starters including junior quarterback Brian Lewerke, who had a stellar second half of 2017. However, there is some concern about the depth behind him following the loss of Damion Terry to graduation and Messiah deWeaver’s transfer.
Redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi looked crisp in the latter part of the Spartans’ spring scrimmage. He appears to be the front-runner to serve to as Lewerke’s backup.
On defense, nine starters return from the nation’s second-ranked rushing defense and one that finished 37th against the pass. Included in the returnees is the entire secondary.
Michigan State is a legitimate threat in the Big Ten East Division, but Nebraska gets the Spartans at home and after Danontio’s crew takes on Ohio State in what figures to be a slugfest. If Michigan State is going to have a letdown next season, the matchup in Lincoln lines up perfectly for one.
Husker Nation Upset Probability Poll Result: 14 percent
3. Michigan (Sept. 22)
This is a game that should theoretically have a pretty grandiose billing behind it. Two blue-blood programs with alums at the helm looking to get their respective programs back to the Promised Land.
To make things even more interesting, there may be a pair of Ole Miss transfers going against each other as Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson could be taking snaps against former teammate Breon Dixon, now a member of Nebraska’s linebacking corps. Patterson’s waiver to play immediately was granted while Dixon’s is still currently in limbo, however*.
Here’s the good news for the Huskers: While the Big Ten opener against the Wolverines is on the road, they could be 3-0 heading into the contest with a game that should be a tune-up in Akron and ones that should provide some legitimate challenges in Colorado and Troy.
The bad news is that the chances of Nebraska establishing offensive gains against the Wolverine defense aren’t good. The Huskers’ new offensive scheme will be going against a team returning eight of the top 11 tacklers from a defense that was 18th in the nation against the run.
Then factor in that not only was Michigan’s pass defense ranked as the best in the land last season, but by all reports, it’s improved. The cornerback tandem of David Long and Lavert Hill is easily among the best in the nation if not the absolute best.
For Nebraska to have a chance at beating the Wolverines, Frost’s offense must bait Big Blue’s defense into making mistakes and second-guessing itself to the point where Jim Harbaugh will be ranting and raving at his defensive staff from the opening whistle to the final one.
*Edit: As of 5:37 p.m. CST on May 10, Nebraska has announced that Breon Dixon has been granted a waiver and will be immediately eligible for the 2018 season.
Husker Nation Upset Probability Poll Result: 16 percent
4. Wisconsin (Oct. 6)
What better way to follow up a trip to Ann Arbor than by visiting Madison after the Badgers enjoy a bye week to rest up? The only way to make the experience even better for Nebraska is if this tilt is a night game which, knowing the Huskers’ luck, it will be.
See if you haven’t heard this song before: Wisconsin will feature one of the best offensive lines in the country, at least one amazing running back in sophomore Jonathan Taylor and a defensive front seven that will terrorize the countryside.
If Nebraska’s going to have any luck against the two-time defending Big Ten West Division champions and the favorite to make it three in a row in 2018, the Huskers are going to have to do three things very efficiently: take to the skies offensively, rattle quarterback Alex Hornibrook, and be physical for 60 minutes of football.
The former will be easier than the latter, but not by much. The Badgers’ 3-4 defensive scheme isn’t exactly complicated; it’s just incredibly well executed. However, the secondary could be vulnerable. Cornerbacks Derrick Tindal and Nick Nelson are gone leaving only one returning starter in safety D’Cota Dixon.
Wisconsin has depth, but it’s incredibly inexperienced. This is where receivers like Stanley Morgan, JD Spielman and others can do the most damage on a frequent basis. Nebraska’s quarterback just needs time to get them the ball.
When it comes to the Blackshirts getting their hands on Hornibrook, that’s far easier said than done. He’s nowhere near the Big Ten’s biggest threat at quarterback, but he has so much time thanks to the massive bodies protecting him that the best chance Nebraska may have to mess with his head is by taking advantage of any mistakes. He threw interceptions in all but four games last season and no longer has tight end Troy Fumagalli as a security blanket.
Last year, Nebraska was able to hang with Wisconsin for about a half. After that, the Badgers ground the poorly-conditioned and weak-willed Blackshirts into the dirt. Thanks to Nebraska’s new strength and conditioning team, this is already a leaner roster. Whether or not those physical gains will result in being able to go blow-for-blow with the Badgers remains to be seen.
Husker Nation Upset Probability Poll Result: 10 percent
5. Ohio State (Nov. 3)
Did you know that the Buckeyes haven’t punted versus Nebraska since Oct. 6, 2012? Seriously, go look it up if you don’t believe me. That’s an important statistic because it helps illustrate just how badly Urban Meyer’s teams have eviscerated Nebraska since its arrival in the Big Ten.
Heck, barring Braxton Miller’s injury and a lack of Joe Bauserman’s impression of a t-shirt cannon in 2011, the Buckeyes are probably 4-0 against the Big Red in recent years.
What must Nebraska do to beat Ohio State? Well, Baker Mayfield’s in Cleveland and he’s already planted a flag in the middle of the stadium. Perhaps an arrangement could be made where the Cleveland Browns “represent” the Huskers. You know, as a sign of goodwill between Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany and the Nebraska brass.
All kidding aside, stranger things have happened in college football. Admittedly, a Husker team with a brand-new head coach installing a new vision across the board would definitely be pretty high on the scale of "stranger."
Husker Nation Upset Poll Result: Since Twitter currently only offers four choices for a poll, a quick one ran about the mere possibility of Nebraska beating Ohio State. Out of 99 voters, 76 percent don’t believe there’s a chance.
(Scott Frost photo courtesy of Nebraska Athletics)