Nebraska football is about to embark on its hardest schedule in several years.
To believe that — and some may think I’m nuts for writing it — you’d have to believe, as I do, that Nebraska’s 2016 schedule was quite a plum. It was about the only easy thing about last season, tragedy-laced as it was, but NU finished with a 9-3 regular season record while averaging fewer yards per play than it gave up. The year before, the opposite was true, and NU finished 5-7 in the regular season.
That’s part of why analytics expert Jeff Sagarin had the 2015 Husker team No. 42 in his final ratings and the 2016 team No. 44. The schedule.
The 2016 home schedule was a dream. NU finished 7-0 at home. The road schedule was tough — as seen in losses at Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa — but since those are games Nebraska might have lost at home, having them on the road just meant that the schedule lined up more neatly at home.
This season, the matter reverses itself. Nebraska is staring down the barrel of a tough home schedule. Perhaps not as tough as 2015 — when it faced four teams that won at least 10 games, beating only one — but close enough.
On top of that, Nebraska gets back the road games that caused it heartburn in 2015 — Illinois and Purdue. Add games at motivated, offense-heavy Oregon and defending Big Ten champion Penn State — where, to be fair, NU won in 2011 and 2013 — and this may be NU’s toughest slate since 2012, when Nebraska played at UCLA, Ohio State, 10-win Northwestern and Michigan State, and beat Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State at home.
Next season, 2018, knocks all of that out of the water, of course. But we’ll rate those games when we get there.
To rank games on the 2017 schedule, I used a more analytical approach. What does the past tell us statistically? The past tells us Nebraska has lost 1.16 home games per year in Big Ten play. Expect at least one loss at home, and possibly two. The past tells us Nebraska has lost 1.83 road games per year in Big Ten play. Expect at least one of those, too. The past tells us Nebraska lost close games at Miami in 2015, UCLA in 2012 and Virginia Tech in 2009. Is the 2017 Oregon squad as good as those teams, or is it more like the 2010 Washington and 2007 Wake Forest teams NU beat?
The past tells us a few things. It helps me rank the present schedule. Without further delay:
Sept. 16 vs. Northern Illinois: For the easiest game, you have to perform a coin flip of sorts between the two nonconference games against non-Power Five teams, NIU and Arkansas State. Nebraska doesn’t lose such games very often — BYU in 2015 and Southern Mississippi in 2004 come to mind, but those are rare — and especially not at home. NIU gets the nod as the easiest because it’s what I call a “get right” game that comes after the contest at Oregon. Since 2011, Nebraska has won the following game after its big nonconference game by the following scores: 38-14, 42-13, 59-20, 45-14, 36-28 and 24-13. Of that bunch, the 36-28 win over Southern Miss was a bit of a nail-biter, but I don’t see Nebraska in the same place it was in 2015, nor do I see NIU having that kind of passing game. Northern Illinois has beaten three Big Ten teams — Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue — since 2013.
Sept. 2 vs. Arkansas State: The Red Wolves traditionally struggle against Power Five teams before finding their footing in league play and inevitably qualifying for a bowl. ASU’s 2012 team — coached by Gus Malzahn one year before he took Auburn to the national title game — finished 10-3 overall, but lost 42-13 to Nebraska in an aforementioned “get right” game. (That’s also the game where Bo Pelini went to the hospital.) Since 2011, Arkansas State has played 11 Power Five teams and lost all 11 by an average of 21.8 points. Partially because of Arkansas State’s returning starting quarterback and partially because I question whether NU will show too much in its season opener, I expect this game to be a little more competitive than Northern Illinois. Switch the two games, and I may not. NU is paying Arkansas State $1.65 million to play.
Sept. 23 vs. Rutgers: Nebraska is 5-1 in Big Ten home openers and the lone team that beat the Huskers — 2015 Wisconsin — has little resemblance to Rutgers, which finished 2-10 in coach Chris Ash’s first season. The Scarlet Knights lost 58-0 to Ohio State and 78-0 to Michigan last season, and they did not score in four league games. Rutgers plays NU after back-to-back home games against Eastern Michigan and Morgan State, so it’ll have a little time to prepare, and this game may be more competitive than it might have been last season, especially with new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill, who should help Ash get more cohesion in the offense.
Nov. 11 at Minnesota: The Gophers will be the first team Nebraska has played four times on the road in Big Ten play; the three previous games all took place in late October. New coach P.J. Fleck takes over a program that will be looking for a starting quarterback for the first time since 2013 and still has some hurt feelings over how previous coach Tracy Claeys was fired in the wake of a sexual assault investigation and a brief player boycott because of it. Claeys and Fleck couldn’t be more different, and Fleck is a “build from the bottom up” kind of personality, so the Gophers could easily take two steps back in 2017. Minnesota gets its bye week early — Week 4 — so Nebraska will be the seventh of nine straight Big Ten games. What’s more, NU visits after Minnesota has back-to-back road games against rivals Iowa and Michigan. By then, the Gophers may have five or more losses and more NU fans might be inside TCF Bank Stadium than UM fans.
Oct 28 at Purdue: The Boilermakers hired a promising new coach in Jeff Brohm and they have two-year starting quarterback David Blough to run Brohm’s high-octane offense. I’ve watched Purdue for four seasons; the team has more talent than former coach Darell Hazell knew how to wring out of it, but Brohm’s first team will struggle to win five. That said, Nebraska could be one of those wins. It’s not likely, but the Boilermakers show an odd amount of pluck against NU. See the 2015 win, and the spirited effort in 2016, when a 3-9 team lost just 27-14. Nebraska has a curiously hard time running the ball on Purdue: just 166 yards per game and 3.86 yards per carry over four games.
Sept. 29 at Illinois: Mild upset alert. Illinois gets a bye week to prepare for Nebraska, while the Huskers have a short week (after playing Rutgers, mind you). The Illini were 3-9 in Lovie Smith’s first year, but he took over a mess. One remembers the last game at Illinois — a 14-13 stunner that NU had wrapped up until the infamous third-and-7 bootleg run that somehow turned into a bootleg pass. Illinois has won 27 games since 2011 — 21 at home and 15 before October. NU is perpetually better than Illinois on paper, but the last two games — the loss in 2015 and the 31-16 win in 2016 that was much closer than the final score — suggest a nail-biter in Champaign.
Nov. 24 vs. Iowa: The rivalry is white hot after the Hawkeyes won the 2015 and 2016 games. The latter was a 40-10 pummeling that seemed to underline Iowa’s commitment and interest in this game despite also having Wisconsin and Minnesota as rivals. Iowa lost its quarterback, top tight end, best bruiser back, best defensive lineman and best defensive back from last season. Its wide receiver corps might be really thin by November, but Iowa usually saves its best football for last. Its November record since 2013 is 12-5. NU’s is 8-8. Still, is this Iowa team as good as the 2015 and 2016 versions? Iowa will be on upset alert in its first two games — Wyoming and Iowa State — and the schedule (Penn State and Ohio State at home, Wisconsin on the road) is no picnic.
Nov. 4 vs. Northwestern: Nebraska owns Northwestern in Evanston, where the game morphs into a neutral site event with 25,000 Husker fans packing into Ryan Field. Northwestern stinks at home — just 14-14 since 2013. The Wildcats are 12-8 on the road in that time; one loss was the Hail Mary to Nebraska in 2013. This 2017 version could be Northwestern’s most talented overall team since the Huskers joined the league. The Wildcats get a game at Nebraska sandwiched in between four home games, so freshness, even in November, shouldn’t be a problem. In six games against Northwestern, Nebraska is -5 in turnover margin. The Huskers have outgained the Wildcats by an average of 120 yards per game in those six contests and have averaged 280 passing yards in those six games.
Sept. 9 at Oregon: Nebraska is 6-4 in nonconference games against Power Five teams since 2007, but 2-3 on the road. Out of those five road opponents, Virginia Tech in 2009 had the most hostile road atmosphere; Oregon will be close to that. The Ducks have all of their key offensive pieces returning. Quarterback Justin Herbert. The top four running backs — all of whom had their moments against Nebraska in a 35-32 loss last season. Two top wideouts in Darren Carrington and Charles Nelson. Nebraska didn’t have all that in 2015 when coach Mike Riley arrived. Oregon invented ways to lose games last season, starting with a choke job at NU. The Huskers will thus be the Ducks’ first game as part of a revenge tour.
Oct. 7 vs. Wisconsin: Since joining the Big Ten, Nebraska has beaten Wisconsin once, 30-27, at home, in 2012. After blistering defeats in the 2012 Big Ten title game and the 2014 game in Madison, NU played close — but lost — in 2015 (23-21) and 2016 (23-17). Wisconsin has run for 296.1 yards per game — and 6.94 yards per carry in six games against Nebraska since 2011. NU’s own run game against the Badgers has been better than you may think — 194.3 yards per game and 4.53 yards per carry. NU’s pass blocking has not: The Huskers have given up 2.3 sacks per game in those six games. This is the game NU has to win to pull off a division title. Wisconsin should have its best offensive line since 2014. Wisconsin finds backs who can run behind its lines. Whether you know their names before the season matters not.
Nov. 18 at Penn State: Nebraska won at Beaver Stadium in 2011 (the unforgettable game just days after the Sandusky scandal broke wide open and Joe Paterno was fired) and 2013 (a sloppily played, poorly officiated game in rotten weather). Both games also were in November. Penn State’s 2017 team projects to be better on offense than the 2011 squad — and certainly better overall — and much better overall than the 2013 team. Just by my reporter’s eye, NU gets far fewer fans at this game than any other in the Big Ten. Nebraska plays at PSU directly after a road game with Minnesota. Since 2007, NU is 3-4 in the second of back-to-back conference road games, but the losses were real ugly: 76-39 to Kansas in 2007; 45-17 to Michigan in 2011; 34-23 to Minnesota in 2013; and 62-3 to Ohio State in 2016. Although Riley won back-to-back league road games at Oregon State in 2012 and 2013, he’s 4-5 in league road games at NU. Penn State is 14-1 at home in the last two seasons. Little points to Nebraska winning this game.
Oct. 14 vs. Ohio State: Since Urban Meyer arrived, the Buckeyes have lost one true road game; Penn State needed a blocked punt and a blocked field goal to nip OSU by three last season in Happy Valley. Meyer won at Michigan State in 2014, Michigan in 2015, and Wisconsin and Oklahoma in 2016. Ohio State is a juggernaut that bears no resemblance to the foggy, interim coach-led program that lost 34-27 at Nebraska in 2011. That’s not to say NU can’t pull off an upset; Riley stunned Michigan State in 2015. But Husker players also saw the Spartans as peers, even after losses in 2013 and 2014. Do they see Ohio State that way? OSU hired former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson to run the offense — Riley holds Wilson in high esteem — and may have college football’s best defensive front seven. It’s hard to know with certainty what Ohio State’s record will be, but at least 10 wins is a decent guess. Well, since 2007, NU is 6-25 in games against teams that won 10 in a season. In the Big Ten era, Nebraska is 4-14. The four wins: Michigan State twice, at Northwestern once, Arkansas State once. Ohio State is the best team Nebraska will play and history leans hard against the Huskers.