Nebraska football fans had any lofty expectations for their season dashed when NU coughed up an 18-point lead en route to a 41-21 drubbing at the hands of UCLA. For many, the rest of the season really became an afterthought, certainly nothing to look forward to.
That may have been premature. Nebraska’s schedule remains very manageable (which is the polite way of saying “full of not very good teams”). At the start of the season, fans circled the November 9 trip to Ann Arbor as the game of the season. Is Nebraska, even with all the weaknesses exposed in the first quarter of the season, good enough to make it through the next four games between now and November 9 unscathed?
The Case For
Nebraska’s next four opponents are home to Illinois, away to Purdue, away to Minnesota, and home to Northwestern. The first three of that foursome are conference foes that have been struggling. Illinois posted the worst conference record in 2012. Purdue is currently 1-2, with its only win being a 20-14 victory over Indiana State. Minnesota has lost its last two games against Nebraska by a combined score of 79-28. And Northwestern will have to come to Lincoln to face Nebraska.
Sure, the Northwestern game will be tough. Given Michigan’s recent struggles against Akron and Connecticut, it’s possible the Purples might be the sternest test on Nebraska’s schedule this year. But the game will be at home, where Nebraska will (likely) be 6-1 and coming into the contest full of confidence. Plus, it’s not like Northwestern’s defense is much better than Nebraska, with the Purples checking in at No. 89 nationally in total defense (compared to Nebraska at No. 108).
Plus, one of the reasons for Nebraska’s struggles on defense has been a lack of experience given all the youth and new players that have been plugged into the system. Seven games in should be enough to get all those fresh faces enough game experience to make them at least a little battle-hardened and ready for the meaty part of Nebraska’s schedule.
The Case Against
It would be unwise to write off the chances for a Nebraska loss at any point in the season, particularly in conference play. Illinois quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase, is the type of dual threat that Nebraska’s defense has struggled against throughout Bo Pelini’s tenure in Lincoln.
And the Illini are making a nice turnaround in year two of Tim Beckman’s time in charge. They dominated Cincinnati, 42-17, and held in there against nationally-ranked Washington to a 34-24 loss. Illinois’ visit to Lincoln might not be the gimme a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst thought it would be before the season.
Purdue is still trying to put things together, but the Boilermakers did hang with Notre Dame, last year’s national runners-up, losing 31-24. More importantly, the game is Nebraska’s first road trip, which means it will be the first time a very young and inexperienced defensive unit has to face a hostile environment. Yes, Nebraska should win this game, but funny things can happen to kids on the road.
While Nebraska has dominated Minnesota since joining the Big Ten, the Gophers are undefeated this season. They also have Donnell Kirkwood, one of the conference’s best rushers. Plus, the game is away from home, another challenge for a young squad.
And then Northwestern comes to town. The Purples came to Lincoln and knocked off Nebraska in 2011, 28-25, a score that flattered the Cornhuskers in terms of the overall performance of the two teams. Last year, Northwestern would have made it two straight wins over Nebraska, absent Taylor Martinez leading an amazing fourth-quarter comeback.
There is a plausible scenario where Nebraska loses each of the four games between now and Michigan, although a loss to Northwestern is the most plausible of the four.
Nebraska’s two toughest games between now and Michigan are against Illinois and Northwestern. Nebraska is fortunate to have them both at home, a big advantage. And both teams certainly have their flaws.
Neither team plays much defense. As mentioned, Northwestern is No. 89 nationally in total defense. Illinois is No. 116. And while Northwestern’s offense is closer to Nebraska’s (No. 31 nationally in total offense compared to Nebraska’s No. 22), the Purples’ schedule has been softer than Nebraska’s. Look for the disparity in those numbers to rise.
Illinois, on the other hand, is No. 56 nationally in scoring offense. Yes, the Illini have the firepower to challenge Nebraska, but given that NU has performed significantly better on offense and (amazingly enough) on defense, and that the game is in Lincoln, Nebraska should be able to get a win.
The remaining two games are on the road, which present its own challenges. Purdue did play Notre Dame close, but for whatever reason is always able to keep things close against the Irish. In 2012, when the Boilermakers went 6-7, they only lost to Notre Dame 20-17 in South Bend. So that tight game may be a bit deceiving.
And Minnesota’s undefeated start is likely a bit of a mirage, as the wins have come against UNLV, New Mexico State, Western Illinois, and San Jose State. If Minnesota is still undefeated when it plays Nebraska, that means the Gophers will have wins over Iowa, Michigan, and Northwestern, and then they can be considered a danger.
Yes, it’s awfully hard to invest any trust in this squad of Cornhuskers, given how the defense is putting in performances that would make the 2007 squad blush. The ghost of the UCLA collapse will be haunting both the team and the fans, to be certain.
But none of the teams between now and Michigan have the kind of offensive firepower that can do what UCLA did to Nebraska’s defense. So, based on the evidence presented, the verdict is that Nebraska will likely be 7-1 on November 9 when it takes the field in Ann Arbor.
All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.
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