Nebraska football fans have much to be excited about entering the 2013 season. But perhaps the biggest reason for optimism in Lincoln is the favorable early-season schedule that will allow the Cornhuskers to rise into the Top 10 before playing Michigan on November 9th.
A Top-10 ranking certainly seems like a stretch for a team facing as many questions on defense as Nebraska. But the Huskers' surplus of home games and back-loaded Big Ten schedule make the first two months of the season very manageable.
In its non-conference slate, Nebraska should handle Wyoming, Southern Miss and South Dakota State with ease. Although nothing is ever certain in college football, the Huskers should feel confident about their chances against three opponents that combined for four FBS victories a season ago.
The one potential stumbling block is UCLA in Nebraska's third game.
The Bruins return 14 of 22 starters from their 2012 team that brutalized the Huskers in Pasadena and narrowly missed out on a Rose Bowl berth. But in part two of this duel, Nebraska will benefit greatly from home-field advantage and the absence of former UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin as it exacts revenge for last year's defeat.
After finishing the non-conference schedule unscathed, Nebraska must survive two more tough tests before heading to Ann Arbor.
The first is a trap game at Purdue on October 12th.
Even though the Boilermakers struggled in 2012, they will host a young group of Blackshirts experiencing their first road game. Any lack of focus or composure from the Huskers' newcomers could cause the Big Red problems in West Lafayette.
After a bye week and a trip to Minnesota, Nebraska will face Northwestern in a pivotal game in the Legends Division race. The athleticism of Kain Colter and Venric Mark will once again give the Blackshirts trouble. But the offense will not turn the ball over like they did in Evanston last season and will outgun the Wildcats in a high-scoring afternoon at Memorial Stadium.
So, with five comfortable wins, a revenge victory over UCLA, a survival of their first road test and a difficult but confident win over Northwestern, the Huskers will awake November 3rd with an 8-0 record.
There will still be doubters, though. And perhaps for good reason. Critics will scoff at victories over Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota and claim UCLA and Northwestern to be middle-of-the-road contenders.
But like last year, when the Week 10 BCS standings ranked every 8-0 team, save Louisville, one through four, the polls will have no choice but to vault Nebraska well into the Top 10.
The Huskers will have taken over two months to attain their lofty ranking, but they will then need one quality afternoon at the Big House to prove they deserve it.