Coaches Rank Nebraska 22nd, That Might be Good Enough
It may not be a huge cause for celebration to hear that Nebraska was ranked 22nd by the Coaches preseason poll. But then again, preseason polls are almost meaningless. For example, only one of the top four teams just prior to the bowls a year ago (which would have been the likely participants in the college football playoff) were ranked inside the top ten prior to the season. Florida State was 11th and both Auburn and Michigan State were unranked. Similarly, Florida was ranked 23rd and both Notre Dame and Ohio State were unranked prior to the 2012 season. If there was a playoff (and OSU was eligible), those teams all would have made it. So how might the Huskers crash the party?
The schedule is plenty difficult. That's both good and bad. If the slate were too soft (say like Central Florida), the Huskers might not get in even as an undefeated team. NU would be a lock going undefeated with the schedule that they have and would even have an outside chance of sneaking in with one loss.
But of course, going 13-0 or 12-1 would be awfully difficult. Oh yeah, there's that. But taken one game at a time, it's less daunting. Nebraska will be a comfortable favorite at home over Florida Atlantic, McNeese State, Illinois, Rutgers, and Purdue. You give the Huskers the edge in the rematch against Minnesota and the night game coupled with inexperience at quarterback should give NU the edge versus Miami in Lincoln. The Hurricanes are 0-3 all-time in Lincoln.
Michigan State is a game where the Huskers could be considerable underdogs. Nebraska outpassed and outrushed the Spartans a year ago but lost the game due to a minus five turnover ratio. Win that battle and NU has every chance of escaping East Lansing with a victory. Even with a loss here, the door would be open to make it to the playoffs. Especially if the Huskers won a rematch on a neutral field.
Northwestern has played the Huskers tough but they are outgunned and their home field is not scary (in fact, the crowd could again be swelling with Huskers). The Wildcats could be beaten up after three straight games versus Penn State, Wisconsin, and Minnesota - all teams that beat Northwestern the last time they played them.
The road trip to Wisconsin is a scary one. The Badgers were an underacheiving bunch in 2013. They had a schedule that screamed 10 or 11 wins and only one nine. Who's to say that new coach Gary Andersen really has the goods. His presence in Madison seems based entirely on one good season at Utah State. Penn State went into Camp Randall and got a victory to end the season a year ago. That's the same Nittany Lion team that the Huskers beat in State College that year.
Going to Iowa might seem daunting given the margin of defeat a year ago. But the Huskers may have been done in by getting cute and sloppy play. Turnovers and a botched punt on their own end of the field played a huge role in that game. It's not hard to picture Nebraska slugging out a victory on a cold day against the Hawkeyes just as they did in 2011 and 2012.
Then comes either a rematch with the Spartans or a contest with Ohio State. It's hard to imagine a victory over Ohio State with Braxton Miller at quarterback. Perhaps Michigan State can take care of business in East Lansing and keep the Buckeyes out of the title game. Or maybe an untimely injury or simply some sloppy play by OSU could deliver NU a victory.
Certainly, 12-1 or 13-0 is not the likeliest season for the Huskers. But it's not impossible to picture either. History tells us that we're likely to see teams in the top four at the end of the season currently ranked outside the top 10. Why not Nebraska?