ESPN released a list of 10 games this season with the “highest stakes.” I wasn’t totally expecting to see the Huskers show up on that list as these things tend to be reserved for highly ranked teams, and Nebraska won’t be ranked to start the season.
But Nebraska did make the cut and that’s because this is a good list that takes its “high stakes” mission statement seriously. It’s not just a collection of big games. Alabama-Florida State (Sept. 2, Atlanta), for example, isn’t on here. Huge game. Fun game. But the loser, if it goes on to win a conference title and/or wins out, will be just fine come playoff time. Interest is high, stakes is low.
When Wisconsin visits Lincoln on Oct. 7, however, stakes is high per ESPN.
Nebraska improved by three wins in Mike Riley’s second season, to 9-4, but it sure didn’t feel like it after the Huskers dropped four of their final six games. Their final three losses came by a combined 103 points. It started to go wrong for Big Red after an overtime defeat at Wisconsin, which will enter the season as the Big Ten West division favorite and a fringe CFP contender. Although Nebraska has a revealing Week 2 trip to Oregon, it ultimately must compete for the division or serious questions will emerge about Riley’s leadership. Nebraska entered the Big Ten pegged as a West heavyweight, but it has won the division once in six years. This game also carries stakes for Wisconsin, which skips both Ohio State and Penn State on the regular-season schedule.
Works as an explanation for me. “Serious questions” gives me a bit of pause. I just don’t get that sense from Husker fans. It’s not a win-or-else season. If the Huskers win seven or fewer games the pressure will ratchet up, so maybe it’s a win-or-else predecessor, but “serious” indicates a severity level greater than what I’m seeing. Maybe I’m wrong. Or maybe it’s just the difference between local and national perception. Two of the past three Husker coaches to be fired did win 10 and nine games in the seasons of their firings, so it’s not like national analysts shouldn’t assume stakes are always high in Lincoln.
Next question: If Wisconsin is the game with the highest stakes on Nebraska’s schedule — and I agree that it is — which game comes in second? Ohio State a week later? If Nebraska happened to beat Wisconsin it would have a decent chance of being 6-0 at that point, so the game against the Buckeyes all of the sudden becomes another referendum on how close the Huskers are to being one of the Big Ten’s elite teams.
What about Iowa? Husker fans don’t like losing to the Hawkeyes, and they definitely don’t like being humiliated (as happened last season). This is probably the safest bet on the board after Wisconsin. In some circles, it might even be ahead of Wisconsin.
There’s also that late-November trip to Penn State, defending Big Ten champs. I don’t expect that one would get much support, but the Nittany Lions are one of three conference teams that have yet to beat Nebraska as a Big Ten member. Maryland and Indiana, which have only played the Huskers once, are the others.
Tom Fornelli is running through rankings of each Power 5 schedule over at CBSSports.com and his Big Ten list is up.
Nebraska checks in with the sixth-toughest schedule in the conference:
Nebraska’s nonconference schedule is bolstered by a road trip to Autzen Stadium to take on Oregon in the second week of the season. Arkansas State and Northern Illinois should provide a challenge themselves, but nothing like what the Huskers will face with the Ducks. In conference play, the Huskers didn’t get many favors from the schedule makers, as they draw both Ohio State and Penn State from the East. Luckily it’s offset a bit by Ohio State having to come to Lincoln and a home date with Rutgers as well. Nebraska will also get to face two of its divisional rivals in Wisconsin and Iowa at home as well.
According to Fornelli, always my favorite college football citation, Michigan State has the toughest road in the Big Ten, while Minnesota has calm waters upon which to do its rowing.
The Grab Bag
- Tyjon Lindsey makes this list of Big Ten recruiting battles that “still sting.”
- ICYMI: Mike Babcock gets you ready for Nebraska baseball’s trip to Penn State.
- San Diego State might need a new home football stadium in 2019 if you’ve got an extra one lying around.
- Baylor is facing a new Title IX lawsuit related to its response to a sexual assault allegation. Here’s Andy Staples on why the NCAA won’t punish the school.
Today’s Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.