Here’s an exercise that’s fun and not at all subjective and surely won’t lead to any disagreements whatsoever.
We’re going to rank Nebraska’s 12 regular-season games in order of importance for the upcoming season. Why? Probably a little to do with the fact it’s that time of the year where this kind of content is exclusively allowed. Probably a little boredom. One can never have too much football talk though, right?
The scale should probably be one of a sliding variety as different games mean different types of things to this Husker program as it looks to come out of the rebuild it has been in since Scott Frost took over.
Let’s get to it.
No. 12: Fordham, Sept. 4 at home
Nebraska gains nothing from beating an FCS team aside from a win in the lefthand column. Fordham didn’t played three games last year as a result of the coronavirus, went 4-8 in 2019 with a 57-29 loss to the only FBS team it faced (Ball State), and went 2-9 the year before that. Interestingly enough, the Rams have a better record on the road (6-12) than they do at home (4-12) over their last three seasons of play, but that won’t make for some road warrior situation in Lincoln this fall, all due respect to the Fordham program.
Originally NU was scheduled to play Southeastern Louisiana later in the year, but a desire to find a home game early in the schedule led NU to Fordham. From a recruiting standpoint, it makes some sense, NU would have played one home game before October with the old schedule. But in terms of the on-field intrigue, this won’t move the needle much, if at all.
No. 11: Ohio State, Nov. 6 at home
ESPN’s FPI gives the Huskers a 13.2% chance to win this football game. Bill Connelly’s SP+ system—which has the Buckeyes as the preseason No. 4, bolstered by the second-best offense in the country—would favor the Buckeyes by 11 points on a neutral field. Nebraska has lost six straight games to Ohio State in the series, with five of the six coming by an average of 40.4 points. The only time NU has kept it competitive with this bunch was in 2018, Frost’s first year, when Ohio State boasted a top-flight offense and an uncharacteristically leaky defense. This year’s Buckeye squad, at least on paper, looks as though it might be more vulnerable than usual on defense, but that can change quickly once the games get rolling.
The fact of the matter is we know how this game is going to go. Nebraska isn’t there yet. If Nebraska were to pull off an improbable upset here, it’s playing with house money. If Nebraska loses, regardless of the final scoreline, it shouldn’t change much.
No. 10: Michigan State, Sept. 25 on the road
The side of the ball that was really good for Mel Tucker in his first year loses a bunch of its production. The side of the ball that was a mess last year returns a pretty good amount of its production. Michigan State turned the ball over a ton and its quarterback is a big question mark. Tucker looks to be building the right way in East Lansing, but he’s still firmly in the early stages of that build. SP+ would see the Huskers as about a 10-point favorite in this one. They might not hit that, and there’s a chance this game falls into the “Letdown-Lookahead Sandwich” category (h/t to The Solid Verbal for the phrasing), but the most-likely outcome is a game that doesn’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things.
No. 9: Purdue, Oct. 30 at home
Nebraska needs to start making these lower-tier Big Ten West games automatic in order to get to where it wants to go. Don’t read that as disrespect to Purdue’s program, as the two are pretty close at this current point in time, but Nebraska has big aspirations. SP+ is a fan of Purdue, probably more than some others, and sees this line at about five points in favor of the Huskers. Interesting that FPI gives NU nearly a 70% chance to win this one and only a 38% chance to beat Michigan State (the two systems are essentially flipped in their viewing of the two games). Beating Purdue doesn’t change how folks will view the Huskers, and Purdue could end up being a quality team in 2021, so this is just a big meh.
No. 8: Buffalo, Sept. 11 at home
SP+ puts the Bulls at No. 77 in its preseason ranking, and it would set the line for this game at 16 points in favor of Nebraska on a neutral field. Like I wrote on Monday in the game preview, this game should serve as a quality insight into the mental makeup of this year’s squad. If Nebraska opens its season with a win against Illinois, it’ll almost assuredly be 2-0 heading into this matchup with the Bulls. Meaning it’ll have a chance at bringing a 3-0 record into Norman, Oklahoma. We could find out how this team handles its business when the lights aren’t at their brightest. That’s an important data point to get, but this is still a nonconference game against a MAC opponent that just hit reset on its program.
No. 7: Northwestern, Oct. 2 at home
The Wildcats are breaking in a new quarterback who wasn’t particularly exceptional at his last stop, and replacing a ton on offense. According to FPI, this game is essentially a toss-up, which is what any other game in this series of late has been, but SP+ would see the Huskers as a 15-point favorite. The fact this will be played at home and in the evening should give Nebraska at least something of an atmospheric advantage. Maybe the Wildcats dip back down to the median after last season. They won’t be an easy out, make no mistake, as they never are, but if there’s any slippage on defense (125th nationally in returning defensive production) and they take some time to sort out the offense, this will end up looking like a game Nebraska should win rather than one it needs to win.
No. 6: Michigan, Oct. 9 at home
Who knows what Jim Harbaugh’s seventh Michigan team will look like? After sitting not-so-comfortably in the 8-10 win range for his first five seasons, the Wolverines struggled in 2020. Weird year, sure, but a 2-4 record was certainly eye-catching. They beat Minnesota handily to open the year and then a 48-42 three-overtime win over Rutgers in late November was all that separated Michigan from a five-game nosedive to close the year out. The Ohio State game got canceled, which was probably merciful toward the Wolverines, who got blasted by Indiana and Wisconsin and lost by 10 at home to Penn State to close out the year. Again, weird year, but Michigan continues to have quarterback questions. Frost will likely be looking for some payback after the 2019 game in Ann Arbor, but if Nebraska loses this one ugly it’ll likely draw some attention from national folks as the loser of the “Who’s More on the Hot Seat Game.”
No. 5: Minnesota, Oct. 16 on the road
The Gophers and Huskers enter the year basically neck-and-neck in SP+. The line for this game played on a neutral field would be Nebraska by 0.4 points. Since it’ll be played in Gopher Country, maybe just swing that the other way. Minnesota has the 20th-ranked offense and the 48th-ranked defense. Nebraska has the 19th-ranked defense and the 43rd-ranked offense. Strength on strength. This is a budding rivalry as both coaches feature similar backgrounds and neither fanbase cares much for each other. Each side has won three of the last six meetings, but PJ Fleck is 2-1 so far against Frost. The last time NU went to Minneapolis it was sent home tail between its legs after a 34-7 thumping. HoodieGate was born that day. Nebraska looked uninterested for long, painful stretches. With this being a division game and Minnesota not looking like it’s going away any time soon, Nebraska needs to assert some will in the series.
No. 4: Wisconsin, Nov. 20 on the road
Two years ago NU ran all over the Badgers at home. Last year, the game was canceled by COVID-19, though some felt the Badgers were ducking the Huskers. This is the matchup that Nebraska needs to build toward. When Nebraska is where Frost wants it to be, this game will be competitive year in and year out, it’ll be a coin flip year in and year out, and it’ll decide the Big Ten West more often than not. Nebraska isn’t there yet, but it needs to start showing it’s on the right path. Wisconsin checks in at No. 9 in the preseason SP+ projections, with what is expected to be the country’s second-best defense. FPI gives Nebraska a 25% chance to win, SP+ would make the spread a little more than a touchdown in favor of Wisconsin. Nebraska needs to start closing that gap.
No. 3: Oklahoma, Sept. 18 on the road
Why is a game Nebraska will almost assuredly lose so high in a ranking of important games? Oklahoma is a national title favorite, it is SP+’s No. 3 team in football, it has what could be the best offense in football led by perhaps the Heisman favorite at quarterback. FPI gives Nebraska a 5.6% chance of winning and SP+ would set the line at 14 in favor of Oklahoma on a neutral field. It will not be a neutral field, it’ll be an extremely hostile environment after the events of this spring.
Oklahoma will want to smash Nebraska. News leaking out that Nebraska tried to back out of the game, scheduled to commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Game of the Century, added fuel to the fire.
For a lot of reasons, this will be the toughest test Frost has faced yet as a head coach.
Nebraska needs to show fight. Nebraska needs to show that though both fanbases might foresee something like a 45-7 smackdown, the Husker locker room has other ideas. We’re going to learn whether this Husker defense is just contextually good because of the unimaginative Big Ten offenses it faces or if it’s actually capital G Good. We’re going to find out how mentally tough this team is. Even if it’s a loss the Huskers are heading for in Norman, there is going to be a lot to learn about them. That carries a tremendous amount of importance early in the season, not because of the result, but because of what that result might look and feel like.
No. 2: Illinois, Aug. 28 on the road
For the love of God don’t lose the opener.
No. 1: Iowa, Nov. 26 at home
According to SP+, Iowa’s defense projects as the best in football for the 2021 season. The spread for this would be 5.7 points in favor of Iowa on a neutral field by SP+, and FPI gives NU a 42.4% chance to win.
This is the game. Nebraska lost to Iowa on game-winning field goals in back-to-back years to open the Frost era despite possibly outplaying Iowa in both games and then lost by six last year. The Hawkeyes have taken six straight in this rivalry series.
Want to be taken seriously? You win this football game.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.