Trips to Miami and Minnesota headline a deceptively difficult slate for the Huskers.
Every year as the college football season approaches, anxiety runs high in Husker Nation. The 2015 season is no different. In addition to the usual anticipation, speculation, prognostication and all of the other "ations" that eat up the offseason in Nebraska, the Huskers are beginning a new coaching era for the fourth time in 17 years.
As has been the case in recent years, the Nebraska fanbase is split in terms of their expectations for the 2015 campaign, new head coach Mike Riley's first in Lincoln. In one corner, you have the "cupcakes and rainbows" crew, confident that there is enough talent on the roster to win just about every game on the schedule with the right mentality and preparation. In the other corner, you have the recently consistent contingent of fans who aren't sure what to expect, thanks to nearly two decades of relative obscurity and mediocrity from their favorite team.
Both sides are sizing up the Nebraska schedule with different prisms and expectations — in some cases no expectations. That makes sense, as Nebraska's slate is one with a deceptive degree of difficulty from start to finish. Teams that have historically been elite are no longer such, while some other usually mediocre programs look to be turning a corner.
Here now are Nebraska's 12 regular season games, ranked according to degree of difficulty from easiest to most difficult.
12. Sept. 12 vs. South Alabama
This is a no-brainer, as the Jaguars play the role of the annual non-conference cupcake on Nebraska's schedule. It should be a cakewalk for Nebraska, however, given what nearly happened last season against McNeese State, you can't rule anything out.
11. Sept 26 vs. Southern Miss
Not much is expected from a Southern Miss team that won three games a season ago. That said, the Golden Eagles still have a roster full of athletes from SEC country, some of which could probably play in that conference. Focus and execution will be the keys to Nebraska avoiding an almost inexcusable early-season hiccup in this one.
10. Oct. 3 at Illinois
Every conference road game should make you at least a little nervous. If the Huskers can pressure Wes Lunt and account for Josh Ferguson, they should have enough talent on both sides of the ball to leave Champaign with an easy win. If they have problems doing either, this one will be closer than Nebraska fans would like.
9. Oct. 31 at Purdue
The Huskers head to West Lafayette after what will likely be another hard-fought and emotional game with Northwestern. Purdue returns the bulk of its offense and will feature a highly touted freshman running back. Looking past them to the matchup with Michigan State could prove costly.
8. Nov. 27 vs. Iowa
Make no mistake about it, the only reason this game is so low on the list is the location. Nebraska probably has more talent on its roster than the Hawkeyes, but Iowa has key players — specifically on the defensive line and in the passing game — who could be enough to dictate the tempo in this one.
7. Oct 24. vs. Northwestern
The Huskers will be coming off what should be a physically taxing game at Minnesota to find what some are calling one of their new rivals waiting for them in Lincoln. The strength of this Husker squad as opposed to recent years is expected to be mental preparedness and discipline. They'll need more than that against a Pat Fitzgerald-led bunch that annually specializes in both.
6. Nov. 14 at Rutgers
Nebraska will have just played Michigan State and now travel halfway across the country to unfamiliar territory right before a bye week. The late bye will undoubtedly leave the Huskers exhausted — both mentally and physically — at this point. They'll need to fight the urge to be complacent against a workman-like team that thrives on hosting "big name" programs and forces them to know where the exits are at all times.
5. Sept. 19 at Miami
Nebraska will need to fight the heat and the bowl game-feel during this trip to South Florida. These aren't your daddy's Miami Hurricanes, but there is still NFL-caliber talent all over the field that the Huskers will need to be ready to compete with.
4. Sept. 5 vs. BYU
The Mike Riley era will open with a visit from one of the more respected coaches in the country in Bronco Mendenhall. Like Miami, BYU features plenty of guys who will play on Sundays. The Cougars will be led by what might be the best dual-threat quarterback in the country in Taysom Hill. This could be one of the most interesting games nationally during opening weekend.
3. Oct. 17 at Minnesota
The Gophers bring back Mitch Leidner at quarterback, one of the better cornerback duos in the conference and a high level of confidence that comes with playing for Jerry Kill. Minnesota looks to be turning a corner from a program standpoint and asserting itself as a perennial "big dog" in the Big Ten's West Division. Knocking off the Huskers for a third straight year would go a long way in accomplishing that.
2. Nov. 7 vs. Michigan State
The series between these two is tied at two games apiece since Nebraska joined the Big Ten. All of the games have been entertaining, and this one should be no different. The Huskers have the talent to hang around in this one, especially at home. That said, the Spartans will be the most talented and arguably well-coached team Nebraska faces all season.
1. Oct. 10 vs. Wisconsin
There have been some changes in the Badger program over the past few months. The one thing that hasn't changed is the result of the last meeting between them and the Huskers. Nebraska's defense was scorched to the tune of an NCAA record on the ground by an elite running back last season. There will be a new head coach on Wisconsin's sideline, but the attack won't change. Don't look now, but Corey Clement might be as talented as his predecessor. It'll be gut-check time for a Nebraska team that has basically been dominated by Wisconsin since the Huskers joined the conference a few years back.