Wisconsin and Iowa are on the road this season, as is Ohio State, so Nebraska’s home slate of games doesn’t have the sizzle it has in years past. According to Huskers.com, tickets are in short supply for two of NU’s non-conference clashes and the two conference headliners on the home schedule, which seems significant considering anyone buying tickets to sporting events right now is basically flipping a coin—heads, you gotta watch from home (with your head, get it?), and tails you get into the stands (or, if I may, if your coin comes up showing tails you get to put your tail in a seat).
And seeing as we did this same thing last year, I thought we’d go through the home slate once more and rank the games.
1. Minnesota Golden Gophers, Week 13
Minnesota is the team in the Big Ten that makes the most sense on paper for Nebraska’s “this is it, f*** those guys” rivalry game of the season. Join me on this hill. Iowa doesn’t have the reputation for Nebraska to take it seriously and recent results have bred more contempt than anything else. Wisconsin is a better program at this point in time, and the feeling over there seems to be one of superiority. Minnesota is right there in the sweet spot.
I’m gonna go out on a limb and say the two fanbases aren’t fond of each other. Minnesota fans were so thrilled to send NU home, tail between its legs, a season ago. Since NU joined the Big Ten, the series is 5-4 in favor of Minnesota; the last four games have alternated. Husker head coach Scott Frost is a year behind PJ Fleck in terms of what they’re trying to do at their respective schools; Fleck made the jump from standout G5 coach to a rebuilding P5 situation and in Year 3 made that team tremendous thanks to a high-powered offense and a fantastic quarterback? Sound familiar? Now it’s Frost who’s entering Year 3 with what he hopes is a high-powered offense and a fantastic quarterback. As long as these two coaches stay in the Big Ten West, there are going to be parallels drawn.
And the great big cherry on top of the whole thing is that this game will be played on Black Friday, which no one is really thrilled about. When NU’s last athletic director announced the Iowa series was being evicted from its sacred spot on Turkey Hangover Day, there was an uproar.
Minnesota (we’ll get to a preview of the Gophers in the coming weeks) projects as a Big Ten West title threat once again in 2020 and Nebraska projects as a team determined as hell to prove Frost is who he says he is and NU can become what it was. Wisconsin plays Iowa on the road a day after this game, so what if there are title implications for the Gophers?
This one is going to be so good. I hope we get to it.
2. Cincinnati Bearcats, Week 4
This game showed up in our “Best Big Ten Games of 2020” piece Tuesday. There, I wrote this:
Luke Fickell is one of the up-and-coming coaches in football. He turned down Michigan State during this past coaching carousel because Cincinnati is one of the best Group of Five teams in the country. In 2019, the Bearcats went 11-3, at one point winning nine straight games. Cincy ended last season 32nd in Bill Connelly’s defensive SP+ rankings, return their top eight options on the defensive line and six of the top seven defensive backs. The defense was one of the best in the country at generating plays behind the line of scrimmage. Which means when the Bearcats and Huskers meet in Memorial Stadium, it’ll be strength on strength. Nebraska will look for a statement win early in Scott Frost’s third year at the helm. Purdue, Central Michigan, and South Dakota State offer legitimate threats to NU, but it’s Cincy that offers Nebraska the ability to prove they’re moving in the right direction. It’ll be a big game for both sides—NU wants to prove it’s a team to be taken seriously, and Cincy wants to prove it’s not just another G5 team beating up on G5 opponents.
3. Penn State Nittany Lions, Week 10
Nebraska has played Penn State four times since joining the Big Ten. The first three happened in consecutive seasons under the Leaders/Legends divisional alignment, and then Maryland and Rutgers came in and messed everything up. Nebraska won each of those first three games by three, nine, and three points. Then realignment resulted in the two only playing once in the last six seasons (2017), a meeting Penn State won in dominant fashion. After this one, they won’t play again until 2024.
The novelty of this game is what puts it so high in the rankings, at least personally. Nebraska fans haven’t seen Penn State, a contender for “Blue Blood” status, since 2012. And those teams were much different than the ones James Franklin has started regularly fashioning of late.
Behind Micah Parsons and Sean Clifford, Penn State is a darkhorse threat in the Big Ten East. They might be riding high or licking some wounds when they get to Memorial Stadium with four games in five weeks against Michigan, Iowa, Ohio State, and Indiana before facing Frost’s Huskers. Nebraska could have the chance to play spoiler or strike when the iron’s hottest.
Franklin lost another offensive coordinator this offseason, but filled the void with Kurt Ciarrocca, the man behind Minnesota’s offensive firepower last season. Penn State should be able to put points on the board in bunches. Nebraska should be able to as well. Against Parsons and the Nittany Lion defense? We’ll see. Having to replace Yetur Gross-Matos is no small task, even considering the talent still on the line.
Could get gross from Nebraska’s perspective, but it also could be a lot of fun.
4. South Dakota State Jackrabbits, Week 3
Forty-two kids on the Jacks’ roster hail from either Nebraska or a state bordering the Cornhusker state. Let’s say college football attendance is restricted to families only. This would be one of the more-attended games on NU’s schedule all season. That alone could create one of the best environments of the wacky year.
Plus, I mean, just schedule one of these “Dakota State” schools at your own peril. The Jacks played Minnesota last season and held a lead going into the fourth quarter. They put up 41 points against TCU on the road in 2016. They beat Kansas in Lawrence in 2015. They enter 2020 ranked 12th in the preseason coaches poll.
Nebraska will be getting a team to be taken seriously, and a team that figures to give NU all it can handle. No looking ahead to Cincinnati a week later, no letting off the throttle if NU is sitting at 2-0 after games against Purdue and Central Michigan.
5. Purdue Boilermakers, Week 1
Nebraska* shouldn’t endure too much strain** in order to win this game in Week 1***.
*All things considered, Nebraska should probably be viewed as the better team here. Purdue has Rondale Moore and David Bell, and I’m fond of running back King Doerue, but Nebraska has the quarterback answer Purdue doesn’t and probably won’t have in Week 1. Purdue also had an abysmal ground game in 2019, and getting that fixed right away seems like something no one should expect from Jeff Brohm and company.
**Remember Bob Diaco? Ah. Those were the days. Well, Purdue had injuries on defense last season, but not enough to justify the two-year rockslide that group has undergone since a pretty solid 2017 campaign. Purdue’s defensive coordinator was let go following a year in which the Trains ranked worse than 80th nationally in (deep breath): scoring defense, points per play, yards per play, yards per carry, yards per pass attempt, completion rate against, third-down conversion rate against, takeaways, sacks, and 20-yard plays allowed. The last time Bob Diaco tried to overhaul a defense on the fly? Yeah.
***Week 1 is going to feature teams that were bad a season ago and are likely to be incredibly rough around the edges out of the 2020 gates. Nebraska is breaking in a new offensive coordinator and replacing an entire front line on defense, Purdue is breaking in a new defensive coordinator and looking for new linebackers (an issue in Diaco’s system) and a new quarterback.
You’re forgiven if you aren’t overly excited about this game for any other reason**** than it’ll be the first game of Year 3 for Frost and you’re excited that, A) it’s Year 3 for Frost, and B) they’ll be playing football when a few months ago that didn’t seem probable.
****Well, I guess Diaco being back in Memorial Stadium could be a fun storyline.
6. Illinois Fighting Illini, Week 6
It’s at the bottom because Lovie Smith shaved the beard. Boycott has begun.
7. Central Michigan, Week 2
Something, something, Jim McElwain and a shark.
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.