As the Big Ten enters its nine-game conference schedule, the Land of 10 examines each school before its league opener:
ANALYSIS: The Cornhuskers rallied from an emotionally taxing July and August and took care of business in September, progressively improving in wins over Fresno State (43-10), Wyoming (52-17) and Oregon (35-32). And the next two road dates, at Northwestern (Saturday) and at Indiana (Oct. 15) could wind up sounding like Lincoln home games, given the number of Huskers fans expected to travel to Evanston and Bloomington, respectively.
Nebraska isn’t the finished article yet, by any stretch, but the faithful have to be heartened by the run-pass balance shown offensively over the first three weeks. The Huskers enter conference play at No. 25 nationally in rush plays per game (47), No. 31 in rush yards per game (219.3) and No. 93 in pass attempts per game (27.7). The Huskers are 15th nationally in points per possession (3.17) and 30th in percentage of drives that lead to points, at 43.9 — up from 40.2 percent a year ago. Another good sign for flipping close games in your favor: Turnover margin, and Nebraska ranks seventh nationally (plus-2.0), while averaging 2.7 takeaways per contest (No. 14).
KEY GAME: at Wisconsin, Oct. 29
The West will be won over a series of elimination games — and this is one of the biggest. Snatch a victory at Madison, and the Huskers are probably 8-0 and in the division’s catbird seat. Conquer Madison, and a Nov. 5 trip to Ohio State will suddenly look like a Big Ten championship preview.
KEY PLAYER: Tommy Armstrong, QB
It’s not so much about volume as it is efficiency, accuracy and execution. Since 2013, whenever Armstrong completes 51 percent or more of his passes in a contest, Nebraska is 18-4. When he’s under 51 percent, the Huskers are 8-7.
FIRST MATCHUP: at Northwestern (1-2), 7:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, Ryan Field, Big Ten Network
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: A division championship. All those close losses and bad karma of 2015 get completely reversed. The ceiling’s high: The Huskers figure to be underdogs no more than three times the rest of the way, and could well be 8-0 going to Columbus the first weekend of November and 10-1 heading into Iowa City on Nov. 25.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Opposing defenses force Armstrong to play to his weaknesses instead of his strengths, and the offense stalls and turnovers start to rear their ugly heads again. Trips to Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa yield nada, collectively, and another Purdue-like brain cramp that nobody saw coming (at Indiana? Against Minnesota or Maryland?) turns what should’ve been a great season into something more pedestrian and frustrating. Again.
REALISTIC SCENARIO: The Huskers take care of business at home and snatch at least one of three from the aforementioned visits to Madison, Columbus and Iowa City. Given the struggles at the bottom of the West — there doesn’t appear to be as much middle ground or decent squads as in recent autumns, given the September performances of Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue — the schedule sets up for the division to likely end up being decided on Black Friday in Iowa City. If not sooner.