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Will this be the year Nebraska outperforms ESPN's projections?

Will this be the year Nebraska outperforms ESPN's projections?

Evan Bland and Abby Barmore recap Monday availability

LINCOLN — Nebraska has a bad habit of underperforming the preseason expectations of ESPN’s Football Power Index.

Last year NU was picked 22nd. It finished 44th. In 2019 Nebraska was projected to be 33rd and finished 47th. In 2018 it was 50th and 57th. In 2017 it was 58th and 70th. All four were losing seasons.

The FPI analytics measure the relative strength of a team against the average team while projecting a record based on a team’s schedule. They believe NU is No. 46 in 2021. The FPI also projects a record of 5.7-6.4 based on the difficulty of Nebraska’s schedule. ESPN rates the Huskers’ slate as the 19th-hardest schedule in the country and the hardest overall in the Big Ten.

The Huskers are scheduled to play the preseason No. 2 (Oklahoma), No. 5 (Ohio State), No. 15 (Wisconsin), No. 23 (Iowa) and No. 30 (Northwestern) teams in the country in 2021. The Huskers are given a 54.9% chance of winning six games in 2021, a percentage that ranks 11th in the Big Ten.

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The strength of schedule underlines why coach Scott Frost and other Nebraska officials at least kicked around the idea of replacing this year’s Oklahoma contest — the 50th anniversary of the Game of the Century — with a walk-over foe from the MAC.

Based on ESPN’s FPI projections, it’s likely Nebraska again heads into the final weeks of the season uncertain about its bowl fate. The final two games — at Wisconsin and vs. Iowa — are end-of-the-year tests the Huskers haven’t passed since 2014. That year Nebraska finished 28th in the FPI after a 9-4 season. It hasn’t finished in the top 25 since 2012, when the Huskers won the Legends Division. Its highest finish in the FPI — which dates back to 2005 — was 11th in 2009.

Nebraska returns almost all of its defensive production, but far less of its rushing and receiving production after the graduation of Dedrick Mills and the transfer of Wan’Dale Robinson. However, Nebraska’s optimism for its receivers appears high this spring with transfer Samori Touré and improved practices from Omar Manning and Zavier Betts.

Other notes about the preseason FPI, which often makes slight adjustments as the season approaches:

» Alabama, Oklahoma and Clemson take the top three spots. Iowa State is No. 4, Ohio State is No. 5 and Penn State is the only other Big Ten team in the top 10 at No. 10. The Buckeyes have the second-easiest schedule in the league, mostly because they don't have to play themselves.

» Northwestern has the league’s easiest schedule. The Wildcats’ three nonconference games are Indiana State, Ohio and Duke. Its Big Ten crossover games are similar to Nebraska — both play Michigan and Michigan State — but Northwestern draws Rutgers instead of Ohio State.

» Michigan is down at No. 40. The Wolverines are headed for a rebuilding season with a 6.4-5.7 projected record.

» Illinois at No. 87 comes in last for the Big Ten. Nebraska opens the season with the Illini. Buffalo, NU’s home opener, is 64th. Southeastern Louisiana, the Huskers’ third nonconference foe, is an FCS team and not included in the rankings.

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