While Nebraska football won’t be playing this weekend, the rest of the Big Ten will start to ramp up conference play.
This week will feature four conference matchups, with five teams playing their last non-conference game. When the Huskers return from the bye week and play Indiana, it’ll be a slate of only intraconference games.
Through the first few weeks of the season though, the Big Ten has turned in mixed results. On the plus side, the Big Ten East features the strongest records, as all but one team is undefeated. That team is Michigan State, which fell from No. 11 to unranked with a double-digit loss to Washington.
Nebraska’s three opponents from that side of the conference enter the weekend 3-0. The first is the aforementioned Hoosiers, who also possess a conference win.
Coming into the season, Indiana was expected to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten after a 2-10 2021 campaign. While it has already surpassed that win total, the wins haven’t been particularly impressive, so questions remain.
Indiana’s first win was arguably its most notable, taking down Illinois with a game-winning touchdown drive. Since then, the Hoosiers have beat Idaho, an FCS team, by 13 and needed overtime to take down Western Kentucky by three. Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak has been the standout thus far, topping 300 yards in two games, albeit both on over 50 passing attempts.
They’ll be double-digit underdogs this weekend when they take on Cincinnati, and may need to show more to shake their poor reputation.
After Nebraska faces Indiana, it’ll take on Rutgers the next week on a Friday night in New Jersey.
Somewhat like Indiana, the Scarlet Knights have eked out their biggest wins so far. Aside from a 66-7 trouncing of Wagner, they’ve won by a combined three points against Boston College and Temple. In those two games, they relied heavily on a rushing attack that ranks third in the conference. That could be an issue for the Huskers, who give up 1.5 more yards per carry than any other Big Ten team.
Those victories haven’t been enough to help Rutgers escape underdog status at home this weekend against Iowa.
The toughest matchup for Nebraska in the Big Ten East, and potentially of the entire schedule, looks to be a road game against No. 4 Michigan in mid-November.
Michigan has taken care of business early, beating Colorado State, Hawaii and Connecticut by over 40 points each. Nebraska lost to the Wolverines by just three points last year, but the Huskers’ situation will obviously be different this time around.
Thankfully for Nebraska, it has company in its struggles within the Big Ten West, where only one team is undefeated. Paramount among those stumbling companions is Northwestern, which, after beating the Huskers in Week 0, sits at 1-2 following losses to Duke and Southern Illinois.
Nebraska’s next two games within its division are a road matchup with Purdue and a home contest against Illinois. The Boilermakers are 1-2, beating Indiana State and losing to No. 14 Penn State and Syracuse. The Fighting Illini have two wins against Virginia and Wyoming, but that’s muddled a bit by their loss to Indiana.
There’s not much change for either Purdue or Illinois from years beforehand. The former is the highest-volume passing offense in the conference, while the other sticks on the ground. Both have given Nebraska trouble in the past few years, although the Huskers have gotten at least one win against both since recently fired head coach Scott Frost’s first season.
What currently seems to be Nebraska’s three toughest Big Ten West matchups will all take place in the last four games of the season, with the game against Michigan mixed in. Minnesota is the division’s only undefeated team, dominating light competition through three games. It’ll be worth watching the Golden Gophers this weekend when they take on Michigan State.
The Huskers close the year with Wisconsin and Iowa, the division opponents they have the longest droughts against. Two of the most consistent top teams in the division have had slip-ups so far. The Badgers have a loss to Washington State sandwiched between two blowouts.
The details of Iowa’s 2-1 record are even more noticeable. The Hawkeyes won 7-3 against South Dakota State in the season opener off the strength of two safeties and a field goal, then lost 10-7 the next week against Iowa State. The most recent 27-0 win against Nevada was less interesting, but the future weeks will show whether a strong defense can continue to make up for poor offensive play.
Overall, the Big Ten West’s inconsistency this far leaves the division title door open. Only the Golden Gophers are unblemished so far.
Although there’s no matchup left on the schedule which currently projects as an easy or even favorable matchup for Nebraska due to its 1-3 record, there’s opportunities to take advantage of struggling teams. Whether Mickey Joseph and an altered staff can actually do so is yet to be seen.
That’ll begin in October, when Indiana comes to town.