One of my least favorite pieces of "coach speak" is that all games are equal and treated the same. On some levels, that's just baloney.
Not all games are created equal. Playing Oklahoma in Norman is not the same as playing at Iowa State. Playing Western Michigan is not the same as facing Missouri.
Coaches know this. Don't kid yourself, it affects their behavior. In their odd hours, do you think coaches pop in tape of San Jose State or Virginia Tech? When motivating players in workouts, do coaches mention Texas Tech or New Mexico State?
So, for the sake of typical fans, I humbly offer my opinion on which games carry the most weight for Nebraska this year.
Before the listing of importance, I feel the need to offer a couple of caveats. Call it covering my rear or hedging my bets if you like. But, these days, it's very unwise to assume anything.
Caveat No. 1—I'll take seven wins any way we can get them. Every win is a big win, especially when you are coming off of a losing season like NU is. So, I know that ranking their importance is being picky. Hey, it's the offseason. This is the kind of thing I think about.
Caveat No. 2—Yes, I know that the level of preparation has to be consistent to prevent upsets, especially now in the age of football parity. It is getting pretty obvious that there are very few "helmet games" for big schools (Appalachian State, please pick up a white courtesy phone). Brands don't win, prepared football teams do.
Now that my rear end is sufficiently covered, I offer my list of Husker games, ranked by their level of importance—12 being the least and one being the most.
12—New Mexico State—The Aggies seem to be one of the more sure wins on NU's schedule. The Huskers would be facing a losing team from a smaller conference in Lincoln. And, NU would have played twice at this point.
11—San Jose State—I gave SJSU the edge over New Mexico State because the Trojans have had more success in recent years, and may provide a better test for NU. Still, the game doesn't merit TV coverage.
10—Western Michigan—Western Michigan isn't necessarily better than the other two early non-conference foes. But, it is the home opener. So, it is a more "important" game.
9—Baylor—The Bears have proven to be the doormat of the Big 12 so far. The Huskers get to face them at home.
8—Iowa State—ISU struggled terribly last year, but showed signs of life. It's a road game in the conference, so you can't take anything for granted. Husker fans would hate for this to be a game that trip's up the Big Red.
7—Kansas State—Again, it is a conference road game, so anything can happen. But, with the influx of junior college players, who knows what KSU will be like in November? Personally, I mark this game on the calendar.
6—Colorado—NU's designated rivalry game on the day after turkey day. Games with CU tend to have a little bit of mean spirit in them, as the Buffs enjoy getting after NU. Last year's game kept NU out of bowl eligibility.
5—Kansas—The Jayhawks were last year's feel-good story in college football. Their hanging 76 on the Huskers didn't feel good to NU fans. The Huskers will be seeking a measure of revenge this year in Lincoln.
4—Virginia Tech—Not enough respect for the defending ACC champions? Maybe. I just value conference games more than non-conference. This is an important early test for NU, for good reason.
3—Texas Tech—The third hardest game the Huskers have in conference play. Tech has the returning talent for a breakout season. And, NU has struggled against the Red Raiders in recent years. Playing in Lubbock makes it tough.
2—Missouri—The Tigers are the favorites in the Big 12 North. The winner of this game has the early advantage in trying to win the division. Winning would be a turning point for NU. Losing would break up a long home winning streak over Missouri.
1—Oklahoma—Oklahoma is the class of the Big 12. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. I'm skeptical of the Husker's chances in Norman. But it is clearly the biggest game on the 2008 slate.
I'm not ready to go and make post-season assumptions for the Huskers at this point. Clearly, the ranking of a bowl game would depend on the caliber of a bowl and the opponent.
Pardon me if I don't consider an Independence Bowl birth a big deal. But, anything from the Holiday Bowl to a BCS birth would go near the top of the list.
The Big 12 Championship Game also counts as postseason play. Should the Huskers qualify to play a December game in Kansas City?
I'd put it at the top of the list. Capturing the North division, having a shot at the conference title and entering what is really a one-game playoff for a BCS birth would be beyond most folks' expectations, and make the game extremely important.