The beginning of the week for Nebraska football probably felt a little bit helter-skelter.
In a bit of a scheduling quirk, the first day of classes at UNL coincided with the beginning of game week. That not only meant a change in routine for the players who took part in training camp, but also featured the addition of 40-plus players who were not on the 110-man camp roster.
“We’re all kind of creatures of habit and we like our routines,” inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said Tuesday.
Head coach Scott Frost said it showed a little bit early in the week.
“It was a little different this week starting class on the same day we were starting preparation for a game,” Frost said. “Wasn’t as happy with Tuesday and Wednesday practice as I would have liked to have been. They were good, but I just think going to class and the change in routine probably affected them a little.”
On top of all those schedule changes, Nebraska announced the indefinite suspension of two players on Wednesday, still has no answer on whether sophomore running back Maurice Washington will play Saturday and is dealing with the typical myriad other things that crop up in the run-up to a gameday.
None of that is to say the Huskers are at major risk this weekend — they're 36-point favorites over South Alabama — and Frost said the team’s execution as the week went on only showed what he’s thought all offseason.
“Our team just needs to play like it’s been practicing all fall and we’re going to be in good shape,” he said. “Today was really good. So I think our guys are dialed in and ready to go and excited to play a football game.”
With only a “fast Friday” practice standing between the Huskers and kickoff at 11 a.m. Saturday, most of the questions that remain are the kind that only game action will settle.
“I guess you never really know how prepared you are until the first kickoff,” he said. “If I’m just comparing apples to apples to where we were last year, I know we’re a long way ahead of where we were. Guys’ understanding of things is better, I think they’re physically more ready to go, I think they’re fresh, I think they’re excited, I think they’re more confident.
“So I’m pleased with where we are right now, but we need to go out and prove it and keep improving from there.”
Breaking down the outlook for the Huskers' 12 games
Game 1: South Alabama
Aug. 31 /11 a.m. / Memorial Stadium / ESPN First-half thoughts: Nebraska couldn't have scheduled a better season-opening opponent. The Jaguars, 3-9 last season (2-6 Sun Belt), run a power-spread offense that won't be hard for the Huskers to prepare for, in part because the Jaguars were awful last season. They scored fewer than 17 points six times. Meanwhile, South Alabama's defense allowed 39 points per game and gave up far too many big plays.
Second-half prediction: Nebraska could have this game in hand as folks are sitting down for lunch. South Alabama is bad enough that it'll be hard to learn much about the Huskers on this day.
Game 2: at Colorado
Sept. 7 /2:30 p.m. /Boulder, Colorado/ Fox First-half thoughts: This is where Nebraska will be tested. Granted, Colorado finished just 5-7 overall last season (2-7 Pac-12). But one of those wins was in Lincoln, a 33-28 decision. Husker fans got a close look at Buffs standout receiver Laviska Shenault, one of the best players in the country regardless of position. KD Nixon and Tony Brown are perimeter weapons that take pressure off Shenault. Meanwhile, new head coach Mel Tucker has a strong defensive background. Look for that side of the ball to be improved, in that you often excel in what you emphasize.
Second-half prediction: Look for the game to be close throughout. CU quarterback Steven Montez and his receivers will put plenty of pressure on the visiting team. But quarterback Adrian Martinez will come up with enough big plays down the stretch for Nebraska to win in a game that will be a bit more higher-scoring than last year's affair.
Game 3: Northern Illinois
Sept. 14 / 7 p.m. / Memorial Stadium / FS1 First-half thoughts: Another tip of the cap to Nebraska's schedule-maker. Wise choice for a foe, sir. Although Northern Illinois won the MAC last season, the Huskies averaged only 20 points per game. So we highly doubt NIU will come into Lincoln and outscore Scott Frost's offense. But worth noting is that Tre Harbison, a 227-pound banger, rushed for 1,034 yards last season. First-year head coach Thomas Hammock, a former NIU running back, gets the benefit of a defense that returns eight of its top 10 tacklers from a stout unit. However, All-America pass rusher Sutton Smith is now in the NFL.
Second-half prediction: Northern Illinois has reached the MAC title game in seven of the past 10 years. Plus, it's used to locking horns with Power-Five programs. Note its 21-17 win in Lincoln two seasons ago. But not this time. The Huskies have enough bite to push this game into the fourth quarter, but the Huskers will pull away in the final 7½ minutes.
Game 4: at Illinois
Sept. 21 / TBA / Champaign, Illinois/ TBA First-half thoughts: You know how we said earlier that you often excel in what you emphasize? It doesn't apply in this case. Illinois fourth-year head coach Lovie Smith built a reputation in the NFL as an excellent defensive coach, but the Illini allowed 508 yards and 39 points per game last season. Smith told reporters during Big Ten media days that his defenders have to own up to their past. That's just wonderful, Lovie. Nine starters return, so maybe there's hope, or maybe that's just bad news.
Second-half prediction: Although Illinois -- 4-8 last season (2-7 Big Ten) -- was atrocious on defense, the Illini are formidable offensively. They ripped Minnesota for 55 points and scored 31 points or more six times in the first 10 games, and then came the power outage to close things out over the final two. With seven starters returning and some big prospects coming in, Smith's crew could make things uncomfortable for Nebraska deep into the second half -- but then will come up short.
Game 5: Ohio State
Sept. 28 / TBA / Memorial Stadium / TBA First-half thoughts: Make no mistake, Urban Meyer left the cupboard stocked for new head coach Ryan Day. J.K. Dobbins is primed to be the go-to running back in the wake of Mike Weber's departure. Dobbins rushed 23 times for 163 yards and three TDs against Nebraska last season. The Buckeyes lost three of their top four receivers from last season, but the wideout crew is still loaded, led by the fleet K.J. Hill. Speaking of loaded, OSU should be better on defense, led by a front four with ample NFL talent. The offensive skill talent and defensive strength across the board should take plenty of pressure off new starting quarterback Justin Fields, who replaces first-round draft pick Dwayne Haskins. All Haskins did was throw for 50 touchdowns last season.
Second-half prediction: This game will test Nebraska like no other on the schedule. If the Huskers enter the contest undefeated, Memorial Stadium will be up for grabs. Of course, Ohio State is used to these type of scenes. But how well will Fields react? The guess here is Nebraska can get just enough done on offense to pull the upset. The Huskers were close to beating the Buckeyes last season at the Horseshoe, which should give the home team plenty of confidence and motivation.
Game 6: Northwestern
Oct. 5 / 2:30 or 3 p.m./ Memorial Stadium/ TBA First-half thoughts: Right off the bat, remember that Nebraska is only 1-3 against Northwestern in Lincoln since the Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011. Also, consider this: Northwestern won the Big Ten West with an 8-1 record last season, and the Wildcats should be better this season. Their defense, which returns nine starters, allowed 391 yards and 23 points per game last season and took the ball away enough to make up for a slew of other issues. On offense, Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson should actually be an upgrade over Clayton Thorson even though Thorson was drafted in the fifth round by the Philadelphia Eagles. Johnson should benefit from an improved running game. That part can't get much worse, as the Wildcats were last in the Big Ten in rushing.
Second-half prediction: Northwestern simply doesn't get enough respect. The Wildcats have won 15 of their last 16 regular-season Big Ten games, yet still get overlooked. Nobody's saying Nebraska will overlook Pat Fitzgerald's crew. But Nebraska will expend a lot of energy against Ohio State, and it's easy to imagine Northwestern taking advantage in the form of a 27-24 triumph.
Game 7: at Minnesota
Oct. 12 / TBA / Minneapolis / TBA First-half thoughts: It's hard to know what to expect from Minnesota, especially if you're going by last season's results. After all, the Gophers got their doors blown off last season by Maryland (42-13), Nebraska (53-28) and Illinois (55-31). But P.J. Fleck's crew -- helped by the promotion of Joseph Rossi from defensive line coach to defensive coordinator -- captured three of its final four games. The three wins: 41-10 against Purdue, 37-15 at Wisconsin and 34-10 against Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl. Minnesota returns eight starters on offense, including deep and talented groups at both receiver and running back. The defense returns five starters. The biggest question mark is at quarterback, where sophomore Tanner Morgan likely will be at the controls.
Second-half prediction: This has the feel of a toss-up game. If Minnesota gets its ground game going, it obviously can play keep-away from Frost's offense. Morgan, 4-2 as a starter last season, can create room with his feet but mostly will rely on the skill guys, most notably 6-2, 200-pound senior receiver Tyler Johnson. Give the Gophers a slight edge.
Game 8: Indiana
Oct. 26 / TBA / Memorial Stadium / TBA First-half thoughts: If you're a Nebraska fan, this game may feel a bit like an afterthought. If you're a Nebraska player, you better be ready. Indiana returns 17 starters, including eight on defense, seven on offense and two specialists. The Hoosiers are coming off back-to-back 5-7 seasons and should be hungry to reach a bowl game. Third-year head coach Tom Allen and his staff have been recruiting well. If the program expects to take a jump forward, it will need to win more battles in the trenches, which has been an issue.
Second-half prediction: One sure sign of growth in Frost's program would be winning games it's clearly supposed to win, especially at home. If Nebraska shows up ready to play, it should have this one under control in the second half. But Indiana's talented skill position players (led by running back Stevie Scott) could produce some anxiety. But NU will prevail.
Game 10: Wisconsin
Nov. 16 / TBA / Memorial Stadium / TBA First-half thoughts: First off, how cool is it that these teams are squaring off in mid-November? Wisconsin-Nebraska in potentially frigid Lincoln has all sorts of fun potential. On the other hand, the last time these teams played in November, in 2014, it didn't go so well for the Huskers as Melvin Gordon ran wild in Madtown. In that sense, Husker fans no doubt are bracing for Jonathan Taylor, who in the last two games against NU has rushed 49 times for 470 yards and five touchdowns. That’s an unsightly 9.6 yards per carry. Yikes. By comparison, he averaged 6.5 ypc and 142.3 yards against other Big Ten teams.
Second-half prediction: Nebraska's front seven expects to be much better than last season, when the Huskers allowed 5 ypc. If the Huskers are going to end their six-game skid against the Badgers, they obviously need to keep Taylor from taking over the game. If the Blackshirts can't come up with enough stops, it'll be the same old story. But the story should change this season in part because NU should indeed be more stout on defense and also because the Huskers' explosion on offense should cause major problems for a Badger defense that's replacing multiple key parts. Edge to the home team.
Game 11: at Maryland
Nov. 23 / TBA / College Park, Maryland / TBA First-half thoughts: Maryland's offense is a concern for virtually any foe. Just ask Ohio State, which needed overtime last November to stave off the Terrapins 52-51. Don't look now, but the Terps added transfer quarterback Josh Jackson from Virginia Tech, who's immediately eligible and should fit well in a fast-paced, spread option attack. He won't have to do it all, as Maryland features an excellent group of skill players led by sophomore running back Anthony McFarland, who rushed for 1,034 yards last season on 7.9 per carry. But there will be at least seven new starters on defense. The Terps are somewhat unpredictable. You don't want to catch them on the wrong day.
Second-half prediction: My heavens, the Big Ten schedule-makers did Nebraska no favors in this case. Maryland got good news earlier this month when Ohio State transfer Keandre Jones received a hardship waiver from the NCAA to be immediately eligible. He's a likely starter at outside linebacker. The other OLB is expected to be Clemson transfer Shaq Smith. New head coach Mike Locksley injected enthusiasm into the program. Terps fans will be thrilled when they celebrate a win over the blue-blood Husker program.
Game 12: Iowa
Nov. 29 / 1:30 p.m. / Memorial Stadium / BTN First-half thoughts: Iowa typically is at its best offensively when it has strong line play, and the Hawkeyes appear to be stout up front, which is good news for quarterback Nate Stanley, set for this third year as starter. He has a few nice weapons on the perimeter. But the losses of tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant to the NFL will make life easier for defenses. As for the Iowa defense, it's moving from a 4-3 to a 4-2-5 to better match up with spread offenses such as Nebraska's. Defensive end A.J. Epenesa is a surefire first-round pick assuming he stays healthy. Bottom line, Kirk Ferentz's crew looks capable of winning the division.
Second-half prediction: Never mind that Iowa has beaten Nebraska in five of the past six games in the series, including four in a row. Never mind that Iowa, in the past four games against Nebraska, averaged 249.0 rushing yards (5.9 per carry) compared with the Huskers' 108.5 (3.5). On second thought, if you're an NU fan, perhaps you should hope those stats weigh on the minds of the Huskers. This time around, the Hawkeyes' offense won't be able to flat-out bully Frost's crew, and NU should be able to produce enough offensively to score a mild upset in the cold.
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