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McKewon: Ranking Nebraska's easiest to most difficult opponents in 2022

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LINCOLN — When a program hasn’t been to a bowl game in five seasons — and voted not to play in one two years ago — a Week Zero Transatlantic trek takes on a certain quality.

All business in Dublin, Ireland. No party.

"We're going over there for one reason and one reason only — and that's to win a game,” NU coach Scott Frost said at Big Ten media days of Nebraska’s season-opener against Northwestern. “It's not a bowl trip that we've earned. It's just a game that we have to focus on.”

Nebraska will need discipline, Frost said, on the plane, “in the country” and in the hotel, which is roughly 40 minutes from Aviva Stadium.

“We've got to keep the first thing first,” Frost said.

The second thing — a home game against North Dakota directly after the Ireland trip — won’t be an easy transition, either. Frost isn’t the only one who thinks so.

“I even think after the Ireland thing’s tough,” BTN analyst Gerry DiNardo, noting that Northwestern has a bye week after the Ireland trip, while the Huskers have to open nonconference play against the Fighting Hawks.

In The World-Herald’s annual ranking of easiest-to-most-difficult games, it’s challenging to consider how logistics — the trip to Ireland and inevitable quick turnaround — figure into the difficulty of games. While Nebraska doesn’t view its game vs. the Wildcats as a bowl trip it will, in fact, have a month to prepare for it and a week of festivities in Ireland before kickoff.

What bowl games don’t tend to feature — unless it’s a semifinal in the College Football Playoff — is another game after the long trip.

In NU’s case, that’ll happen. While neither Northwestern nor North Dakota are among the best teams the Huskers will play in 2022, logistics make those games a little harder than they would be.

The full rankings:

12. Georgia Southern (Sept. 10)

The Eagles are transitioning from a run-heavy, option-style offense to a pro-style system installed by Clay Helton, fresh off a firing at USC.

Not only is it the easiest game on NU’s slate, it’s the one where Nebraska is most-likely to force at least four takeaways.

11. Indiana (Oct. 1)

IU may have a competent quarterback in Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak, but it will head to Lincoln right after a road game at Cincinnati. Nebraska will come off of a bye week.

The Hoosiers peaked in 2019 and 2020 with the right combination of talent and coach Tom Allen’s fire, but they likely have another season in the valley.

10. North Dakota (Sept. 3)

The Fighting Hawks may be a FCS team on NU’s schedule, but the Huskers will be making a quick turnaround from the trip to Ireland, likely battling fatigue and fogginess in the week before the game.

North Dakota’s penchant for relentlessly blitzing the opposing quarterback will be a challenge for a Nebraska offense still finding its footing, too.

9. Northwestern (Ireland) (Aug. 27)

The compressed schedule and jet lag effects both teams, and Nebraska, based on both the 2021 result and its overall talent profile, fits as a two-score favorite.

Northwestern is likely the weakest team in the Big Ten West, with question marks all over the defense.  

8. At Rutgers (Oct. 7)

Friday Night Lights in Piscataway!

Nebraska is bound to face a louder-than-usual crowd, but the Scarlet Knights are still a few years away from being able to win full brawls in the Big Ten with any consistency.

Plus, NU will be RU’s sixth straight game to start the season, coming after back-to-back contests against Iowa and Ohio State.

If Nebraska wanted to assert its physicality, this would be a good week.

7. Illinois (Oct. 29)

Both teams are coming off bye weeks.

Illinois has won two straight in the series — convincingly, it should be noted — and has one of college football’s rising stars in defensive coordinator Ryan Walters.

The Illini have enough talent on hand to be a tough out for the Huskers, who shouldn’t sleep for a second on the Champaign Boys.

6. At Iowa (Nov. 25)

It’s time, Part 2.

The Hawkeyes got the nasty Big Ten West schedule in 2022 — Michigan and Ohio State are both on it — and will experience a fierce November schedule with road trips to Purdue and Minnesota sandwiching the Wisconsin home game.

Nebraska comes last, and both teams are bound to be drained of energy.

Iowa tends to win the battles of attrition.

5. Wisconsin (Nov. 19)

It’s time for Nebraska to win this game.

The Huskers have long figured out the Badgers’ defense — more than seven yards per play in each of the last three games — and should have a frothy crowd for Senior Day.

NU’s outside shot at the Big Ten West title may come down to being able to beat Wisconsin in November.

4. Oklahoma (Sept. 17)

The Sooners are smarting after their franchise coach, Lincoln Riley, left OU for Los Angeles and USC.

Replacement Brent Venables — whose passion outstrips just about every college coach in America — is tasked with building a national title winner, and he has thus far taken a long view to doing it.

Nebraska has an opening here to pull an upset at home.

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3. Minnesota (Nov. 4)

The Gophers have outcoached and outplayed the Huskers for three straight years.

Coach P.J. Fleck’s score-and-play-keep-away style has bedeviled the Big Red, and Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan — in his sixth year — has three wins already over Nebraska, which has not handled the matchup well.

2. At Purdue (Oct. 15)

The Boilermakers could have their most complete team since the Joe Tiller era.

The 2021 Purdue squad, which finished 9-4, was pretty darn good, especially on defense, and quarterback Aidan O’Connell is the Big Ten West’s best signal caller.

The coaching matchup pitting Jeff Brohm and Scott Frost is fun and tends to produce a lot of offense.

1. At Michigan (Nov. 12)

Nebraska stunned a so-so Michigan team in 2013 and lost badly to good Wolverine teams in 2011 and 2018.

It’s not a venue Nebraska fans rush to fill, especially in November, and UM has talent to burn on both sides of the ball.

The Huskers are a long shot to strike a blow against Jim Harbaugh.

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