Nebraska is no longer the new kid in the Big Ten, and the Huskers have high hopes for their second go-round in the league. They play an interesting nonconference slate followed up by another taxing run through the Big Ten.
Let's see what Bo Pelini's squad can look forward to in 2012 ...
Nonconference opponents (with 2011 records)
Sept. 1: Southern Miss (12-2)
Sept. 8: at UCLA (6-8)
Sept. 15: Arkansas State (10-3)
Sept. 22: Idaho State (2-9)
Legends division games
Oct. 20: at Northwestern
Oct. 27: Michigan
Nov. 3: at Michigan State
Nov. 17: Minnesota
Nov. 23: at Iowa
Sept. 29: Wisconsin
Oct. 6: at Ohio State
Nov. 10: Penn State (protected)
Gut-check game: Ohio State. Some might have expected to see Wisconsin here, but the result of the Big Ten opener won't matter much unless Nebraska follows it up with a strong effort on the road. The Huskers suffered two blowout losses in hostile road venues (Camp Randall Stadium and Michigan Stadium) in 2011, and if they want to contend for the league title, they'll have to be better away from Lincoln. Ohio State will be an improved team under Urban Meyer, especially on defense, and Nebraska must contend with Braxton Miller, who played well in Lincoln last year before leaving with an injury. The game also marks a homecoming for Pelini, an Ohio State alum who has a big opportunity to make a statement at his alma mater.
Trap game: Penn State. It would be Northwestern, but Nebraska lost to the Wildcats last year and should be geared up to avenge the defeat. The Penn State game, meanwhile, falls after Legends division showdowns against Michigan and Michigan State. Nebraska could be in command of the division on Nov. 10, or it could be essentially out of the race. Penn State is banned from postseason play and has been weakened by player transfers in recent days. Nebraska gets the Lions in Lincoln, where the Huskers typically lose one game they shouldn't. They need to be geared up for Bill O'Brien's team.
Snoozer: Three of Nebraska's nonconference games are very intriguing, in part because of the new head coaches at Southern Miss (Ellis Johnson), UCLA (Jim Mora) and Arkansas State (Gus Malzahn). This contest doesn't fit the description. Idaho State went 1-7 in the FCS Big Sky Conference last year. Huskers should roll.
Non-con challenge: There are a few options here, but I'm going with the opener against Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles won a team-record 12 games in 2011, including an upset win against Houston in the Conference USA championship game. Although Southern Miss loses seven starters on defense and must reload there, it boasts a dangerous weapon on offense in Tracy Lampley. Defensive playmakers Deron Wilson and Jamie Collins also return.
Telltale stretch: After an open date in Week 7, the Huskers open Legends division play on the road against a Northwestern team that stunned them last year in Lincoln. Two division showdowns follow against Michigan (home) and Michigan State (road) before Nebraska faces a cross-division foe in Penn State. While the opening games against Wisconsin and Ohio State will tell a lot about Big Red, Nebraska needs to take care of business within the division, beginning with the Northwestern game. A 3-1 or 4-0 stretch here should put Nebraska in good shape for the stretch run.
Analysis: Nebraska once again plays one of the toughest schedules in the Big Ten, especially when factoring the division crossover games and some tricky nonconference contests. The Huskers should emerge from non-league play at 4-0 before opening the Big Ten portion with defending champ Wisconsin and an improved Ohio State team. The big key is consistency, particularly in hostile road environments, where Nebraska made too many major errors to win games in 2011. Nebraska's overall road schedule isn't easy with a long Week 2 trip to Pasadena and Big Ten road contests at Ohio State, Michigan State, Northwestern and Iowa. If the Huskers go 4-1 away from Lincoln, they should be in the mix for the division crown.
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