Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Gut Reactions to Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa Being Favored Over Nebraska

May 22, 2022

We’ve reached the late stages of May in Nebraska’s offseason. To the average college football fan, there might not seem to be much going on. Look a little closer, though, and things are just starting to heat up.

Recruiting is the name of the game right now. Official visits are happening and others are being locked in for future dates. Nebraska just had a big weekend itself. Camp season is nearly here as well.

But there’s another aspect of the offseason starting to begin, too: betting lines from sportsbooks. FanDuel recently came out with lines for five Husker games this season: Northwestern, Oklahoma, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa.

Let’s give them a gut reaction.

Nebraska is -9.5 over Northwestern

Gut reaction: seems about right

While there are a ton of questions surrounding Nebraska’s team right now, there might be more with Northwestern.

Unlike Nebraska, the Wildcats don’t have a clear starter at quarterback. It may come down to either Ryan Hilinski or Brendan Sullivan. Hilinski, who started against Nebraska last year, began 2021 as the third-string quarterback and was thrust into duty following ineffectiveness and injury. He completed just 53.9% of his passes and threw more interceptions (4) than touchdowns (3). Sullivan is the wildcard—there just isn’t much known about him. He could be good, or he could struggle as a potential first-time starter.

On top of the quarterback issues, Northwestern needs to replace key players from all three levels of its defense, including defensive tackle Jeremy Meiser (7 tackles for loss, 4 sacks), linebackers Chris Bergin (141 tackles) and Peter McIntyre (68 tackles) and safety Brandon Joseph (80 tackles, 3 interceptions), a freshman All-American in 2020.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald did bring in help to shore up the defensive line in transfers Ryan Johnson (Stanford), Henrik Barndt (Indiana State) and Taishan Holmes (UMass). Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 280-pounder, started four games for the Cardinal last year and racked up 16 tackles.

Northwestern is 13-20 in its last three seasons and coming off a 3-9 campaign in 2021. Last year the Wildcat offense averaged a B1G-worst 16.6 points while allowing 29 points per game, third-worst in the conference. There’s just not a lot there to make one think things will improve that much in Evanston.

Even with all the offseason change that’s happened in its program, Nebraska being a two-score favorite seems right.

Oklahoma -4.5 over Nebraska

Gut reaction: skeptical, but I understand it

No matter what the opening lines for the Oklahoma game were going to be—it could’ve been Oklahoma -18.5 or Nebraska -14.5—it was always going to be hard to judge simply because of the massive shakeup in the Sooners’ program.

You know the story by now. Head coach Lincoln Riley left Norman shortly after losing to rival Oklahoma State and is now busy being college football’s villain at Southern California. He’s brought in a bunch of talent to his program via the transfer portal—star quarterback Caleb Williams, speedy slot receiver Mario Williams, former Alabama linebacker Shane Lee and most recently Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison to name a handful—and looks well on his way to making USC interesting again.

But Riley also brought four of his Sooner assistants with him to Los Angeles, including defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, outside linebackers/nickels coach Roy Manning, inside ‘backers coach Brian Odom and receivers coach Dennis Simmons. Riley’s exit was messy and caused a ruckus, but Sooner fans found new life with the hire of Brent Venables, the architect of some really good Clemson defenses.

Venables, a veteran and well-respected guy in the industry but first-time head coach, has built a unique staff. He retained four of Riley’s former assistants, including DeMarco Murray (running backs), Bill Bedenbaugh (offensive line), Joe Jon Finley (tight ends) and Cale Gundy (receivers/assistant head coach). He hired Jeff Lebby as his OC, so expect an up-tempo spread offense like you saw from Lebby’s past two offenses at Ole Miss (though Lane Kiffin had a hand in those, too) and before that at Central Florida.

But Venables also made interesting hires of Ted Roof (DC), Miguel Chavis (DEs) and Jay Valai (corners).

Roof is well-traveled—he’s on his 15th different school and spent last year as an analyst under Venables at Clemson. This is Chavis’ first assistant coaching job, and he has a unique background, too. Chavis, a former Clemson player from 2006-08, was a youth and college minister for three years after a brief stint in the NFL. He’s spent the past five years at Clemson with Venables, serving in an off-field defensive player development role.

Check out Valai’s winding path to Norman. He was a defensive quality control coach at Georgia from 2016-17. He held the same role with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2018. He was Rutgers’ cornerbacks coach in 2019 and Texas’ cornerbacks coach in 2020. Dana Holgorsen, Houston’s head coach, hired him in 2021, but a few days later Valai scrapped his plans with the Cougars and took a job with the Philadelphia Eagles. That didn’t stick, either, as Nick Saban soon called and gave him the Alabama corners job, which Valai took. That’s four jobs in a little over a month.

All of this is laid out to pound home this fact: no one knows what Oklahoma is going to look like when it plays Nebraska. How quickly is this team going to jell? The Sooners could look good, or bad.

And that’s without getting into all the on-field change. It’s hard to gauge how Central Florida transfer quarterback Dillon Gabriel will do reuniting with Lebby—they were together in 2019, Gabriel’s freshman year. Defensive linemen Isaiah Thomas, Perrion Winfrey and edge rusher Nik Bonitto are gone, too.

But if we’re trying to look into the future, a blowout either way seems unlikely. What is likely is a contest like last year’s—a close, one-score game. While both teams have unknowns to work out, until Nebraska shows, as a program, it’s turned the corner and doesn’t make game-altering mistakes in key moments, you have to give the Sooners the edge and make them the favorite.

It’s fair to be skeptical about this Oklahoma team, but the Sooners being a -4.5 favorite makes some sense, too.

Michigan -11.5 over Nebraska

Gut reaction: not ready to go that high yet

The Wolverines need to replace big pieces defensively, which makes me hesitant about the 11.5.

Just five of the top 13 tacklers are back. The two monsters off the edge, Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, are off to the NFL. The top two tacklers from 2021—linebacker Josh Ross and nickel Dax Hill—have departed, too. On top of all that, there’s a new DC in Jesse Minter, who comes to Ann Arbor after spending one season in the SEC as Vanderbilt’s DC (the Commodores allowed a league-worst 35.8 points per game, though Vandy will always face an uphill battle). He takes over for Mike Macdonald, who went back to the Baltimore Ravens to be their DC.

Sidenote: Minter is a former Ravens coach himself. Head coach Jim Harbaugh’s older brother, John, the Ravens’ head coach, has helped out little brother by sending him bright coaching minds. Nice little pipeline from the NFL to Michigan for Wolverine fans.

There was also a shakeup on the offensive side of ball. Last year’s OC, Josh Gattis, the Broyles Award winner for the nation’s top assistant, left to call plays for Mario Cristobal at Miami. Harbaugh, who flirted hard with becoming the Minnesota Vikings head coach in the offseason, chose to stay in-house to fill Gattis’ role. Michigan offensive line coach and co-OC, Sherrone Moore, remains a co-OC and will work with quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss, who has the “co-OC” label on his job description this season.

Gone is bruising running back Hassan Haskins, though Blake Corum is quite good and more than capable of being the lead back. The quarterback, Cade McNamara, is limited in what he can do but is a safe option. Could last year’s backup, former five-star JJ McCarthy, enter the mix more than last year? McCarthy is a different quarterback than McNamara and has big-play ability.

I’m not ready to believe Michigan is 11.5 points better than Nebraska just yet. Could the Wolverines get there? Sure—there are likely talented guys waiting in the wings to play and replace those who did so well last year.

But -11.5 with a new defense and two new coordinators? I’m not ready to go that high just yet.

Wisconsin -3 over Nebraska

Gut reaction: seems about right

It’s hard to disagree with this, right? Wisconsin has owned Nebraska, winning the last eight games. Scott Frost has never beaten the Badgers, though he came close last year. Remember that no-call pass interference in the fourth quarter? Rough way to end the game.

Again, this game is hard to judge because a lot can happen between now and when these two teams play in Lincoln on Nov. 19. It remains to be seen how new OC Bobby Engram will go about things. Engram coached receivers with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens from 2012–18, and then the Ravens’ tight ends from 2019-21.

It’s hard to know what kind of offense Engram will want to run, because he’s never coordinated one before in college or the pros. But Wisconsin has an identity on offense, and it’s a physical one. Engram happens to have one of the top young running backs in the nation, Braelon Allen, and a quarterback, Graham Mertz, who’s looking to prove a lot of people wrong after a season in which he struggled.

It’s at least safe to say this: If Nebraska is going to finally beat Wisconsin, it will need to limit how well the Badgers run the ball.

The Husker defense has had a bad habit of allowing Wisconsin running backs to break loose and run wild. A big part of that comes from the Badger offensive line simply doing work, leaning on the Huskers for four quarters, but let’s take a look at recent games and how the Wisconsin running backs have fared:

2021: Braelon Allen; 22 carries, 228 yards, 3 touchdowns, 71-yard scoring run
2020: Didn’t play, COVID canceled it
2019: Jonathan Taylor; 25 carries, 204 yards, 2 touchdowns
2018: Jonathan Taylor; 24 carries, 221 yards, 3 touchdowns, 88-yard scoring run
2017: Jonathan Taylor; 25 carries, 249 yards, 2 touchdowns, 75-yard scoring run

We don’t need to mention Melvin Gordon’s day in 2014.

There’s reason to believe Wisconsin’s defense will take a step back after losing key pieces from last year’s unit, but are you confident betting against a Jim Leonhard-coordinated defense? Give credit where credit is due—Frost called one heck of a game last year and his offense put 452 total yards, 351 of which came through the air, on the Badgers’ defense. Frost let it rip that night, and it was fun to watch.

Considering the history of this series and how Wisconsin has won the games, the Badgers being a 3-point favorite seems about right.

Iowa -3.5 over Nebraska

Gut reaction: I agree, but barely; Nebraska needs to show something here

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re thinking Iowa doesn’t have a quarterback—Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla don’t exactly keep you up at night. Neither does their OC, Brian Ferentz, the head coach’s son. Brian’s offense averaged 4.67 yards per play in 2021, tied for 120th in the country with Northwestern.

But look at what Kirk is bringing back, especially on defense.

Eight of Iowa’s top 12 tacklers return, including linebackers Jack Campbell (143 tackles) and Seth Benson (105). Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year, Riley Moss (4 interceptions, 5 pass breakups), is back. So is fellow DB Jermari Harris (4 interceptions, 4 pass breakups). The Hawkeyes’ top sack artists, Joe Evans (7 sacks) and Lukas Van Ness (7 sacks), help anchor the defensive line again.

Offensively, Iowa’s top four receivers return in tight end Sam LaPorta (53 catches, 670 yards, 3 touchdowns) and receivers Keagan Johnson (18, 352, 2), Nico Ragaini (26, 331, 1) and last year’s Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year, Charlie Jones (21, 323, 3).

Like Wisconsin, Iowa has been a tough puzzle to solve for Nebraska. The Hawkeyes have won the last seven games and eight of the last nine, but to Nebraska’s credit, it’s played the Hawkeyes tough recently—the last four games have all been decided by one score. Last year’s contest was looking good for the Logan Smothers-led Big Red until the fourth quarter, when Iowa outscored it 19-0 in the final 15 minutes.

Iowa’s LeVar Woods is one of the top special teams coordinators in the country, too, and his unit made a difference that Black Friday with a punt block returned for a touchdown. Led by Woods, Iowa had an STR rating of 1.02, second in the nation behind only Michigan. STR is a Football Outsiders’ statistic that combines kickoff return, kickoff, punt return, punt, and field goal efficiency into one overall rating. Nebraska finished with an STR of -1.46, or 129th out of 130 FBS teams.

Nebraska has attempted to fix the special teams woes with the hire of Bill Busch as special teams coordinator and the transfer additions of Brian Buschini and Timmy Bleerode. Buschini was the FCS Punter of the Year at Montana in 2021. Bleekrode is coming from FCS Furman, where he made 21-of-25 field goals the past two seasons with a long of 51 yards.

While Iowa isn’t flashy on offense, it’s solid on defense and on special teams. In football—and especially the Big Ten West—that usually means a good season. Until Nebraska can show it can play a clean game and beat a well-coached program like Iowa, the 3.5 spread seems fair.

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