Let’s start by stating the obvious.
Nebraska’s 2022 campaign will begin in one of two directions. Either the Huskers beat Pat Fitzgerald and his Northwestern Wildcats over 4,000 miles away from Memorial Stadium and across an ocean or they won’t. The outcome of the season-opener in Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 27 will spawn two different worlds that fans will be forced to live in: one where Nebraska begins 1-0; the other where it’s 0-1 with an L in the conference standings before September hits.
Let’s attempt to go down each path. How different are those worlds? Let’s try to look into the future and predict what things will look like until the first bye week on Sept. 24.
Path A: Nebraska Beats Northwestern
In this hypothetical exercise, there’s one reality for both worlds: Nebraska will enter the game as the favorite, and it should once you look at Northwestern’s team. The Wildcats don’t pack much bite.
One season after going 3-9 and winning just one conference game, Fitzgerald brought his entire coaching staff back except tight ends coach Bob Heffner, who retired. Fitzgerald put the tight ends on special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk’s plate and hired Ryan Smith to coach the corners. Smith had spent the past two seasons at Virginia Tech.
On the field the Wildcats have questions to answer, and who starts at quarterback is one. Ryan Hilinski, who started 2021 backing up the backup, returns, but he completed 53.9% of his passes while throwing more interceptions (4) than touchdowns (3).
That might mean Nebraska’s defense will see a new quarterback. Brendan Sullivan could be that guy. He’s a 6-foot-3, 212-pound sophomore who didn’t see the field in his first year on campus. Sullivan is a better athlete than Hilinski and would provide offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian’s offense with a run threat at quarterback, something that isn’t part of Hilinski’s game.
The strength of Northwestern’s offense is at running back, where it returns its top four in Evan Hull (1,009 rushing yards, 7 touchdowns), Andrew Clair (349, 1), Anthony Tyus III (210, 1) and Cam Porter. While the 5-10, 210-pound bruiser Hull is a solid back and proved himself last year, Porter is one to keep an eye on. The 5-10, 220-pounder from Cincinnati turned heads as a true freshman in 2020, rushing for 333 yards and five scores. But he missed all of last season with an injury in fall camp.
With questions at quarterback and receiver, it’s fair to presume Northwestern is going to lean on those backs and its offensive line, led by left tackle Peter Skoronski. Let’s say the Huskers’ re-tooled defense stuffs the Wildcats’ methodical run-heavy, ball-control offense. Nebraska and its Casey Thompson-led attack featuring Mark Whipple’s favorite schemes proves tough to stop for Northwestern’s defense, which loses playmakers at all three levels in defensive tackle Jeremy Meiser, linebacker Chris Bergin and safety Brandon Joseph, a freshman All-American in 2020 who transferred to Notre Dame.
The Wildcats can’t contain the speed and quickness of new receivers Trey Palmer and Alante Brown on short passes to the flats and middle of the field, and Omar Manning rips off a few explosive plays down the field, using his 6-4, 225-pound frame to bully Northwestern’s skilled, yet smaller, corners like the 5-10 A.J. Hampton Jr. and the 6-foot Cameron Mitchell. Travis Vokolek catches a well-drawn up screen pass and gets a big chunk of yardage before delivering a bigger hit to the DB who brings him down.
Three backs—Rahmir Johnson, Jaquez Yant and Anthony Grant—are in a rotation throughout the game as position coach Bryan Applewhite looks for someone to emerge. While the competition isn’t settled in week zero, it’s the transfer from New Mexico Military Institute, Grant, who had the most carries and rushing yards.
Husker fans breathe a sigh of relief as the game ends in a Big Red win. There were no postgame quotes to talk and post about on social media. Instead, the attention turns to the two non-conference games against North Dakota and Georgia Southern.
Both of those are wins, by the way.
Last year North Dakota gave Utah State, the lone FBS team on its schedule, a scare, leading 21-7 after one quarter before being outscored 41-3 the next three quarters. It only lost 16-10 to FCS powerhouse North Dakota State. But Bubba Schweigert’s team will be missing a lot from last season and doesn’t have the horses to compete in Lincoln. Nebraska starts the season 2-0 while its offense gets another game under its belt to learn and grow.
The following week, Clay Helton and his 1-0 Georgia Southern Eagles, fresh off a win over Morgan State, are in Lincoln. Helton was fired from USC after losing 42-28 to Stanford at home in week two last year. After getting the job in Statesboro, Helton retained one assistant coach from last year’s Georgia Southern’s staff, corners coach Kevin Whitley.
The hire that catches your eye was at offensive coordinator, where Helton picked Bryan Ellis to call the plays. Last season Ellis was the co-OC with Zach Kittley at Western Kentucky, which averaged 44.2 points and 433.7 passing yards per game, first in the nation. Their quarterback, Bailey Zappe, broke FBS records for touchdown passes (62) and passing yards (5,967) in a season and was later drafted by the New England Patriots.
Kittley was hired as Texas Tech’s OC. Now Ellis, who coached quarterbacks under Helton at USC in 2018, gets to run his own pass-happy offense, and there might be a familiar face operating it in Lincoln. The Husker defense could be facing sixth-year quarterback Kyle Vantrease, who transferred to Georgia Southern from Buffalo this past offseason. Vantrease was the Bulls’ quarterback when they lost 28-3.
Vantrease will suffer the same fate in Lincoln as he did last year. Nebraska gets the win over a rebuilding program and heads into Oklahoma week undefeated at 3-0.
The Sooners, under the guidance of head coach Brent Venables and his OC, Jeff Lebby, are 2-0. But Boomer Sooner had a bit of a scare the week before against Kent State, which was without veteran quarterback Dustin Crum but still played Oklahoma tough on the road. Sean Lewis is a future Power Five head coach, and he showed why in Norman by keeping things closer than expected.
Like last year, Nebraska and Oklahoma is a tight contest. Sooners’ quarterback Dillon Gabriel, a transfer from Central Florida, continues to be shaky and make questionable decisions at the helm of Lebby’s fast-tempo spread offense. First-year Husker Ochaun Mathis looks right at home against a Big 12 offensive line, flying around the edge and wreaking havoc.
Thanks to a big day in the passing game from Thompson and his receivers, Nebraska defends Memorial Stadium and beats Oklahoma. The Huskers head into the bye week healthy and 4-0. Up next is a home game against Indiana, which comes to Lincoln with a 2-2 record after dropping its season-opener at home to Illinois and its week-four road game at Cincinnati.
Path B: Northwestern Beats Nebraska
Northwestern still doesn’t pack much bite. But Fitzgerald is one of the best coaches in the country and comes to Ireland with a solid game plan to beat the Huskers.
Sullivan wins the starting quarterback job over Hilinski. There’s no tape on Sullivan outside of his Hudl film from Davison High School in Michigan. The former three-star’s athletic ability catches the Husker defense off guard, and so does his arm. He’s an inexperienced quarterback and bails the pocket the moment he senses pressure getting to him, whether it’s there or not. He’s good in space, though, and picks up first downs on scrambles.
Mathis, Garrett Nelson and Caleb Tannor are close to sacking Sullivan on multiple occasions, but he’s stronger than he appears and breaks free multiple times before finding open receivers down the field. Nebraska is playing three first-year starters in the defensive backfield, and receiver Malik Washington, who caught 44 passes for 578 yards and two touchdowns in 2021, is finding open areas of grass between the zone defenses that coordinator Erik Chinander is calling in key third-down situations that extend drives.
Fitzgerald and Bajakian know the Huskers’ interior defensive line is replacing three members of the main rotation from last year, and they want to test how sturdy the middle of Nebraska’s defense is this time around. They’re aware of Mathis and know he’s a dangerous pass rusher, but they want to see how he handles a physical north-south run game that’s aimed at turning him into a run defender.
The Wildcats rotate three backs—Hull, Porter and Tyus—and run right at the heart of Nebraska’s defense and its highly-touted transfer portal addition on the edge. The Huskers do well stopping it in the first half, but those first-half runs for 2 and 3 yards turn into 4 and 5 in the second.
Northwestern’s defense, huddling around a passionate and vocal Fitzgerald before every defensive series, plays better than anyone expected and slows Nebraska’s work-in-progress offense. Edge rusher Adetomiwa Adebawore, who had 4.5 sacks last year, is beating Nebraska’s offensive tackles and getting to Thompson. Middle linebacker Bryce Gallagher isn’t Bergin, but he’s still racking up tackles and beating Nebraska’s blocks at the second level.
The Wildcats might have something in linebacker Mac Uihlein, too. He was a four-star recruit in the 2021 class according to the 247Sports Composite and spurned offers from Wisconsin and Iowa. At 6-1 and 215 pounds, Uihlein is everywhere. He’s a sideline-to-sideline wrecker who reminds Husker fans of a young Luke Reimer.
Fitzgerald pulls off the upset, sending the Huskers home with a loss. Whipple’s offense didn’t hit the ground running and the defense was exhausted in the fourth quarter. Nebraska fans pack the Dublin pubs and drink their Guinness asking when things will change. No one has answers.
Nebraska beats North Dakota and Georgia Southern, though fans had to wait for the game with Georgia Southern to become a three-score lead until early in the fourth quarter, much later than everyone expected. The game with the Eagles was prolonged an extra 15 to 20 minutes due to Ellis calling an abundance of receiver screens in the fourth, half of which fell incomplete and stopped the clock. Scott Frost and Helton have an extended handshake at midfield before going their separate ways.
Nebraska’s offense is still trying to get in a groove by the Oklahoma game. Some of the same mental errors are showing up again in a big-game environment—false starts, holding penalties, an illegal formation here and there. The Huskers didn’t get off to a good start in Dublin, and the high-pressure feel surrounding the program starts to trickle into the on-field performance.
Oklahoma wins the game, but it isn’t pretty. Gabriel makes mistakes as a passer, but veteran running back Eric Gray seals the win for the Sooners with a handful of hard runs for first downs in the fourth quarter. Scott Frost enters the bye week 2-2, and his contract situation and future is the talk of town.