At the moment, Nebraska football’s season can be cleanly divided into thirds.
The first of those is the four games that have already been played, the span of time which has already felt like a full season. I’ll label it the end of the Scott Frost era. That title may bring into question the Oklahoma game’s inclusion, but given the quick turnaround after Frost’s firing, I feel like it’s fitting to put it in there. Most talk of Frost should be done now following a bye week and changes made by interim coach Mickey Joseph.
All of that is behind us. Thank goodness.
The next portion is the four games the Huskers will play in October. Of the eight games left on the schedule, the next four currently project as the best opportunities for wins. That begins with tomorrow’s game against Indiana, followed by two road contests with Rutgers and Purdue and finishing off after a bye week with a home game against Illinois.
The final third brings the greatest challenges. Nebraska will play No. 21 Minnesota, No. 4 Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. Despite the ups and downs the Badgers and Hawkeyes have seen so far, they earn their placement as a particularly tough matchup given Nebraska’s long droughts against each.
Right now though, we’re in the middle third, which I see as the most intriguing stretch of time for this team. In a way, this is Nebraska’s time to breathe.
Gone is the burden of expectations that was present in the first three games of the year. The following trouncing against Oklahoma confirmed that this also isn’t a team that’ll just work its way into a close loss against every opponent on the schedule.
Along with the pressure of outside narratives being lifted, Nebraska won’t be gasping for air on the field either. Beyond the first drive on offense and defense, the Huskers couldn’t do anything against the Sooners. If they were to go against teams such as Michigan or Minnesota right now, the situation may be similar.
Instead, the retooled Husker coaching staff will lead the team into games where it might not be completely helpless.
I don’t mean to underrate the competition ahead or understate how bad Nebraska has been. The offense found success against an FCS team, Georgia Southern and Northwestern. The Wildcats have been terrible since their win over the Huskers, losing three straight to Duke, Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio).
The Oklahoma defense followed up its shutdown of Nebraska by giving up 41 points and 509 yards to Kansas State. The Husker offense still has a lot of work to do too, along with a defense that currently is one of the worst in the country.
Indiana is above the level of Nebraska’s first three opponents. The Hoosiers have already surpassed their 2021 win total with a 3-1 record that includes a win over Illinois. Last weekend, they lost their first game of the year against Cincinnati.
The way the Hoosiers match up with Nebraska is a cause for concern. Their offense runs at a high tempo, something Joseph pointed out earlier this week as presenting a problem for the defense. Nebraska’s offensive line has had struggles this year, and Indiana is currently a top-50 team in the nation in sacks.
Nebraska last played Indiana in 2019, losing 38-31 without starting quarterback Adrian Martinez. The Huskers also wore their Blackshirt alternates — my favorite alternates I’ve seen from this program. With all that’s changed, this doesn’t really matter, but I wanted to mention the jerseys.
Anyway, the Huskers are somehow still favored going into Saturday. While I’m a bit surprised at that, there are reasons you can point to. Unimpressive wins over Idaho and Western Kentucky aren’t enough to shake a negative reputation, and Illinois isn’t exactly regarded highly either.
Indiana doesn’t stand out in many ways. It averages 3.4 yards per carry — a number that ranks 13th in the conference, ahead of only Iowa and a full yard behind anyone else. The passing yardage is top five in the Big Ten, but the completion percentage and yards per attempt are second-to-last. Iowa’s doing some heavy lifting to keep the Hoosiers out of the bottom spot.
On defense, they’re also the second-worst in yards and points allowed in the conference, and it isn’t hard to guess which team is last.
The idea behind a Nebraska win is that the Huskers will be able to take advantage of a poor Indiana defense more than the Hoosiers can take advantage of Nebraska’s poor defense. With offensive talent like Casey Thompson, Anthony Grant and Trey Palmer, you can see the path to success.
The next four games are roughly like this. Each opponent has things it does well, but Nebraska should have at least a good chance. That doesn’t mean you should be counting on the team to rip off four straight wins — a 2-2 prediction almost feels generous right now — but the games should be more enjoyable than a shootout with a Sun Belt team or a blowout loss to Oklahoma.
If things continue to go poorly in October, the final four games could be hard to watch as we await to see who Nebraska’s next head coach will be. If it goes somewhat well, the team probably still won’t have much of a shot at making a bowl game, but there’d at least be a little bit of intrigue.