It’s time for college football fans to prepare for the long, arduous trek through summer and look toward the future. That’s certainly what Nebraska fans are doing following last season’s 6-7 record. But what will Big Red backers see once they reach their seats on Sept. 3 in Memorial Stadium and beyond?
The Huskers’ schedule sets up to show that not only was last year’s stumble a fluke, but also that Mike Riley’s offense and Mark Banker’s defense can actually work in Lincoln. It also gives the Big Red plenty of opportunities to test new defensive line coach John Parrella’s skills as he works to retool a pass rush and the interior line.
Which teams pose the biggest threats to a successful 2016 campaign? Here are Nebraska's 12 regular season games, ranked according to degrees of difficulty from easiest to most potentially painful.
12. Sept. 3 vs. Fresno State
The Cornhuskers’ kickoff game looks to be the easiest contest on the slate. The Bulldogs are breaking in new coordinators on both sides of the ball following last year’s 3-9 campaign.
Quarterback Chason Virgil has taken his place as No. 1 on the quarterback depth chart for the Bulldogs ahead of redshirt freshman Kilton Anderson and West Virginia transfer Ford Childress.This appears to be the perfect test for Nebraska’s high-octane offense and question mark-laden defense.
11. Sept. 10 vs. Wyoming
The Cowboys’ 2-10 record from last season may seem like reason enough to give them the cellar spot. However, the Blackshirt run defense – perhaps the most vulnerable spot on the team – will be tested by running back Brian Hill. Hill averaged 135.9 yards rushing per game last season and if Craig Bohl’s team has any hope of victory, it’ll be thanks to No. 8.
10. Oct. 22 vs. Purdue
No, Nebraska shouldn’t have lost to Purdue last year and the Boilermakers certainly shouldn’t make it two in a row over the Big Red. Junior quarterback Austin Appleby transferred to Florida leaving Purdue with sophomore David Blough to likely take over.
Former Nebraska linebackers coach Ross Els is the new defensive coordinator, but that doesn’t exactly concern Husker fans. Several were befuddled how he got the gig in the first place, especially with head coach Darrell Hazell squarely on the hot seat.
9. Nov. 12 vs. Maryland
The Cornhuskers and Terrapins meet for the first time as Big Ten football foes, but it doesn’t look good for the Old Line State visitors. This will be the last of a three-game stretch for Maryland that includes Michigan and Ohio State.
Talent alone should be enough to seal a victory for the Huskers against head coach D.J. Durkin in his first year.
8. Oct. 1 vs. Illinois
Lovie Smith visits Lincoln as the Illini’s head man with a familiar face at quarterback in Wes Lunt. Illinois also returns its leading rusher in Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who picked up 723 yards on the ground in 2015. The defensive line is solid, but the back seven could be exploited by Nebraska’s receiving corps.
If the Huskers can work around senior free safety Taylor Barton, this should be a conference win.
7. Oct. 15 at Indiana
Another first conference meeting on the Big Red’s slate, the Hoosiers should provide an entertaining game in Bloomington. Indiana’s offense has proven it can put up points in buckets under Kevin Wilson, chalking up an average of 36.5 per game in 2015. Just one problem for Indiana: the Hoosiers can’t defend to save their lives.
They also have to replace quarterback Nate Sudfeld who led the conference in passing yards and running back Jordan Howard who was third in rushing yardage. Depending how the Blackshirts are doing six games in, this one could be a shootout.
6. Nov. 25 at Iowa
A likely close game, All-Everything cornerback Desmond King returns for his senior season and quarterback C.J. Beathard should guide the offense expertly. The Hawkeyes do have to find a new receiving corps and despite King’s return, the defense does have to find a way to plug the hole that Drew Ott left.
Much like the Huskers, the Hawkeyes will be searching for a pass rush. This game may very well determine who represents the Big Ten West in the conference title game.
5. Sept. 24 at Northwestern
The Battle for NU is precariously placed for the Huskers this year. Not only does the Big Red’s conference slate begin in Evanston, Ill., but this game follows what will almost assuredly be an emotional home tilt versus Oregon win or lose.
To make matters worse, Justin Jackson – the Big Ten’s top returning rusher from last season – is back and could exploit the Blackshirts up the gut if they haven’t gelled quickly.
4. Nov. 12 vs. Minnesota
Another potential timing issue, Nebraska does get Goldy and his Gophers in Lincoln, but this comes after road trips to Wisconsin and Ohio State. Senior quarterback Mitch Leidner returns and he’s proven to be a thorn in the Huskers’ sides, having passed for an average of 148 yards per meeting and scoring three times on the ground.
Sophomore running back Shannon Brooks also averaged nearly six yards per carry and seven touchdowns last season.
3. Oct 29 at Wisconsin
So close. Nebraska came so close to finally knocking off the Badgers last year, but a last-second field goal won the day for the visitors. The Huskers do catch a break as defensive coordinator supreme Dave Aranda headed to LSU and the Badgers need to find someone to replace Joel Stave at quarterback.
The stadium’s always jumping in Madison (get it?), so Nebraska will need to play a crisp, efficient game to silence the crowd and send the students home early.
2. Sept. 17 vs. Oregon
This is easily Nebraska’s biggest recruiting weekend of the season. There are barely enough stars in the sky to account for how many match the rankings of prospects expected at this contest. Oregon’s not as good as it used to be, but the Ducks still smoke the opposition with speed regularly.
The Huskers will find out just how good their rush defense is as they must go up against stud running back Royce Freeman. It’s a good thing Nebraska’s got someone on the coaching staff all too familiar with the Quack Attack in Riley.
1. Nov. 5 at Ohio State
Is it a realistic expectation for the Huskers to beat the Buckeyes at The Shoe? No. Should we still play the game to see if it happens? Sure. That said, the best Nebraska can likely ask for in this one is to keep the final score within a couple of touchdowns.
Staying competitive and showing that Ohio State simply has better talent is an acceptable outcome that the Huskers can take into their next game against Minnesota, but hey, you never know.