What makes a tough game? Well, the opponent. The place on the schedule. The time of the game. The importance of the game. Lots of things.
So, in the dead of May, when you're fiddling through things to rate and chew over, here's a quick-and-relatively-mindless way of looking at Nebraska's games, easiest-to-toughest, for 2016.
We may revisit it in August, but, post-spring, I feel pretty good about this ranking.
12. Maryland (Nov. 19): The Terrapins visit NU after playing Ohio State and Michigan back-to-back. It'll be cold on Nov. 19. Nebraska may need this game to stay in the Big Ten West race or firm up a bowl bid.
11. Purdue (Oct. 22): The Boilermakers have won one road game in three seasons, and Nebraska won't be caught off guard this time.
10. at Indiana (Oct. 15): The fears over this game are a bit overcooked. Nebraska gets a bye week before it. Indiana will have faced Michigan State and Ohio State in back-to-back weeks before it. The Hoosiers are breaking in a new quarterback and there will be more NU fans in Memorial Stadium than IU fans. I expect Indiana to be 2-3 or 1-4 entering this game.
9. Illinois (Oct. 1): NU will want to take a bite out of the Illini after what happened last season. Illinois is a few athletes short of being the kind of team that Lovie Smith can coach to eight wins. He'll need better recruits. That said, Illinois gets a bye week before playing in Lincoln. It'll be prepared.
8. Fresno State (Sept. 3): The Bulldogs will have a mobile quarterback, Chason Virgil, who figures to give NU defensive coordinator Mark Banker a few fits. But Fresno State's defense just doesn't have the horses to match up with Power Five conference offenses. Try 6.97 yards per play and 56.8 points per game in the last five games against Power Five teams.
7. Wyoming (Sept. 10): I don't like this game for Nebraska. It is destined to be an early kickoff, it is sandwiched between the season opener vs. Fresno State and the big game vs. Oregon, and it's a Craig Bohl-coached team. Bohl played a lot of freshmen last year. They'll be a lot better this year. And they have a quarterback with a big arm. And Bohl, regardless of what he says, will want this game badly. Wyoming plays hard against the Huskers. Mild upset alert here.
6. Minnesota (Nov. 12): I'm just not as high on Minnesota as most people have been for many years. I don't think the talent is there for an elite offense to grow, and some of the best defensive playmakers just left the building. The Golden Gophers actually have a very manageable schedule — no Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State — but I expect at least four losses by the time Minnesota rolls into Lincoln Nov. 12.
5. at Wisconsin (Oct. 29): The Badgers fall here because of their brutal schedule, which, before Nebraska comes to town, includes LSU, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State. Ouch! I know NU fans flinch when they think about Camp Randall Stadium, given the beatings the Huskers suffered there in 2011 and 2014, but simmer down and don't worry. The series will even out. If nothing else, Nebraska has a coaching staff that knows Wisconsin inside out, and a defensive scheme suited to slowing down the Badgers. Give it time.
4. at Northwestern (Sept. 24): The Wildcats are stingy each time they play Nebraska, which is a testament to the kind of coach Pat Fitzgerald is with limited resources and less talent. In the five games of this series, Nebraska has won the coaching battle perhaps twice. Still, when these two teams take the field, NU generally has such a talent advantage that coaching and discipline shouldn't matter. Nebraska should win these games, and playing at Northwestern makes little difference, since NU fills half the stadium. Night games are always better for the Huskers, too.
3. Oregon (Sept. 17): If the team name here was “Baylor,” it just might be No. 1. Oregon's style of play and team speed is a bad match to Nebraska. Oregon has a touch more talent than Nebraska, too. But! This coaching staff knows as much as any staff possibly could know about how Oregon's offense operates. It's worth something. And Nebraska's crowd will be an electric zoo for the contest.
2. at Iowa (Nov. 25): The annual tilt with the Hawkeyes will always occupy a high spot in these ratings. The games have been tough each year, even in 2012, when Nebraska eked out a 13-7 win over 4-8 Iowa and lost two players to season-ending injuries. By season's end, in the Big Ten, both teams are a little beat up and weary. Injuries play a factor. Cold weather plays a factor. Raw toughness plays a factor. When I think about the “Welcome to the Big Stinkin Ten” games Nebraska has played in recent years, the games at Iowa rate high for sheer exhaustion.
1. at Ohio State (Nov. 5): Every year Nebraska plays the Buckeyes, it won't play a bigger or tougher game that year. Now, you're thinking to yourself “but what about the division?” That's you thinking too pragmatically. OSU is the big fish in the Big Ten. (It's not Michigan until Jim Harbaugh clutches the cold, dead heart of Urban Meyer, and I don't see that happening soon.) The Buckeyes — their stadium, their recruiting classes, their delirious, overly emotional fans — are the gold standard in the Big Ten. When OSU arrives on the schedule, it's the toughest game, annually, until further notice or a Harbaugh heart-clenching.