LINCOLN — The toughest opposing quarterback on Nebraska’s regular-season schedule completed less than 50 percent of his passes for 193 yards against the Huskers last year.

At least on preseason paper — which, admittedly, couldn’t buy a stick of gum by October — Michigan State’s Connor Cook is as good as it gets. And while Cook’s stock rose by the end of the Spartans’ Rose Bowl win, if he represents the top end of NU’s frustrations, it’s safe to say the Huskers aren’t in 2011 anymore.

That’s the year, you’ll recall, that Nebraska faced Russell Wilson, Denard Robinson, Derek Carr, Kirk Cousins, Matt McGloin and Braxton Miller. The first five are in the NFL in some capacity. Miller is the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.

So, not only is the Huskers’ defense projected to be as strong as it’s been since 2010, it’ll face the weakest roster of opposing quarterbacks since 2005, when Missouri’s Brad Smith and Pittsburgh’s Tyler Palko were headliners.

This grouping of quarterbacks is so weak, in fact, that two relatively long-term starters — Wisconsin’s Joel Stave and Rutgers’ Gary Nova — were essentially stripped of their starting jobs in the spring. Nova, almost by default, seems to have won his back. Stave, who’s won a lot of games for the Badgers, will have to beat out Tanner McEvoy, a converted safety.

Should Nebraska’s suddenly strong front four be drooling on third down? You bet.

Established guys

Michigan State

QB: Connor Cook

Where: Spartan Stadium

When: Oct. 4 (7 p.m., ABC/ESPN/ESPN2)

Last year: Michigan State 41-28

Nebraska’s five costly turnovers were the main reason the Huskers coughed away a chance at the last Big Ten Legends Division crown. But the secondary reason was Cook, who came of age in Lincoln. Cook only got better from there, leading Sparty to a Rose Bowl win. Now, he could take the big leap into the upper echelon of the nation’s quarterbacks. Cook has just enough mobility to accompany a good arm. The Spartans are the best team Nebraska will play, and Cook is the best quarterback.


QB: Jake Rudock

Where: Kinnick Stadium

When: Nov. 28 (time and TV TBA)

Last year: Iowa 38-17

Rudock had a penchant for bad interceptions and the occasional overthrown pass last year. But his first season under center was a marked improvement over James Vandenberg in 2012, especially in his ability to push the ball into tight spaces on third down, where he completed 58 percent of his passes for nine touchdowns and 10 yards per reception. Rudock was serviceable outside the pocket, too. With all of his running backs, most of his line and most of his receivers back, Rudock appears poised for a big year, should he stay healthy.

Florida Atlantic

QB: Jaquez Johnson

Where: Memorial Stadium

When: Aug. 30 (2:30 p.m., BTN)

Last year: Didn’t play

Before Carl Pelini resigned from FAU, he found the team a quarterback who would remind many Husker fans of Tommy Armstrong. Johnson, 6-1 and 225, ran for 772 yards, threw for 1,876 and amassed 22 total touchdowns. He’ll get three starters back on the line and a couple of lanky receivers. Johnson is not Brett Smith, who nearly stole a game from Nebraska last year for Wyoming. But he’s better than fans might think, and he’s not easy to tackle. The Huskers seemed ill-prepared for last year’s season opener; they shouldn’t fall asleep here.

Dead heats


Where: Memorial Stadium

When: Sept. 20 (7 p.m., ABC/ESPN/ESPN2)

Last year: Didn’t play

The Hurricanes lost presumed starter Ryan Williams to an ACL injury in the spring; he’s scheduled to return Sept. 20. Former BYU and Kansas quarterback Jake Heaps (pictured), a former five-star recruit, is transferring to the school for his fifth year. Redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen will be Heaps’ prime competition. Olsen has a big arm, but not much experience. A tough first month of games — including Louisville, NU and Duke — may give Heaps the advantage.


Where: Memorial Stadium

When: Sept. 27 (8 p.m., BTN)

Last year: Nebraska 39-19

Nathan Scheelhaase has graduated, leaving a position battle among three guys, one of whom is a flashy transfer from Oklahoma State, Wes Lunt. Lunt showed a big arm in his one year at OSU, but he didn’t have as good of a spring game as veteran backup Reilly O’Toole, and sophomore Aaron Bailey is more mobile than both of them. Illinois should have an explosive, diverse offense, but it needs one guy to emerge to run it. Tim Beckman can’t afford to drag a quarterback controversy into the season.


Where: Memorial Stadium

When: Nov. 1 (time and TV TBA)

Last year: Nebraska 44-7

The Boilermakers probably have more issues — like building offensive and defensive lines and finding skill players — than figuring out which quarterback is going to absorb four sacks per game. But Danny Etling, who finished the season last year as starter, has to fight off Austin Appleby, who became the top backup and flashed a tough, gritty style in spring ball. True freshman David Blough isn’t shabby, either. He had the strongest spring game, throwing the game’s only touchdown pass.


Where: Camp Randall Stadium

When: Nov. 15 (time and TV TBA)

Last year: Didn’t play

Joel Stave has been Wisconsin’s starter for most of the past two years, and he’s been pretty good in that role, throwing for 3,598 yards and 28 touchdowns in 21 games. But Stave also has a tendency to get injured, and his lack of mobility doesn’t fit into second-year coach Gary Andersen’s vision for the Badgers’ attack. That means Tanner McEvoy — a dual-threat athlete who played safety last year — is getting a full shot to win the job in camp. Still, can Wisconsin really turn away from a two-year starter? Andersen seems willing to try.

More to prove


QB: Mitch Leidner

Where: Memorial Stadium

When: Nov. 22 (time and TV TBA)

Last year: Minnesota 34-23

Leidner — the main man after Philip Nelson transferred — played a minor role in the Gophers’ 2013 upset over the Huskers, amassing 9 total yards and a touchdown. The Big Ten’s burliest QB (6-4, 237), Leidner ran for 407 yards and passed for 619 last season as a redshirt freshman. He, like all Minnesota quarterbacks under Jerry Kill, struggled with accuracy, completing just 55 percent of his passes. By the time the Gophers hit Lincoln, Leidner will either have endured a sophomore slump or taken the next step. This is an offense, because of its plodding, physical style, that will give Nebraska trouble.


QB: Gary Nova

Where: Memorial Stadium

When: Oct. 25 (time and TV TBA)

Last year: Didn’t play

After Nova averaged just 5.85 yards per attempt last year, Rutgers coach Kyle Flood flung open the door to the job. Nova appeared to secure it in the spring with what Flood told reporters was good decision-making. Wholly immobile — he’s lost 251 yards rushing in three years as a starter — and facing a much tougher schedule, Nova’s bound to get sacked more than the 35 times he did last year.


QB: Trevor Siemian

Where: Ryan Field

When: Oct. 18 (6:30 p.m., BTN)

Last year: Nebraska 27-24

Yes, Siemian is still in the building. Husker fans have seen him since Nebraska’s entry into the Big Ten and generally enjoyed his presence on the field. Siemian has completed just 22 of 52 passes for 219 yards and two interceptions — one returned for a touchdown — against the Huskers. With Kain Colter’s graduation, Siemian alone takes over the job, as Northwestern shifts away, at least for one year, from the read option. He needs to improve on a mediocre 59.4 percent completion rate.

Fresno State

QB: Brandon Connette

Where: Bulldog Stadium

When: Sept. 13 (9:30 p.m. CBS Sports Network)

Last year: Didn’t play

A fifth-year senior transfer from Duke, Connette saw extensive action with the Blue Devils only in 2013, when he split reps with Anthony Boone, but he had several years of schooling under coach and noted Manning family quarterback whisperer David Cutcliffe. Connette likely won’t come close to replicating the stats of Fresno’s 2013 star, Derek Carr — Carr had better weapons, for one thing — but the Bulldogs play a fast, confident pace. Connette’s wheels — he ran for 735 yards and an impressive 31 touchdowns while at Duke — will also come in handy.

McNeese State

QB: Daniel Sams

Where: Memorial Stadium

When: Sept. 6 (11 a.m., ESPNU)

Last year: Didn’t play

Probably the most dangerous runner on Nebraska’s schedule is this Kansas State transfer, who dropped to FCS to be closer to home. Sams averaged 5.7 yards per carry in his two years in Manhattan backing up Collin Klein (in 2012) and sharing the job with Jake Waters (in 2013). Sams also enjoyed the blocking and protection of a cohesive, experienced offensive line. At McNeese — which advanced to the second round of the FCS playoffs last year — Sams won’t have near the collection of big boys in front of him. Given that he’s always been a sketchy passer, that’s a tough recipe.

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Video: Northwestern's Trevor Siemian

Video: Highlight of a Daniel Sams rushing touchdown

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