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Offseason Musings: Which Will Be Northwestern's Most Difficult Game In 2013?

Covering college sports in the offseason tends to turn into an exercise in creative frustration. When there’s nothing going on in the real world – on the field or court, where real people engage in real interscholastic competition – we like to talk about conceptual or speculative things, things grounded in analytical thought or reaction. We’re opening up our window of our collective offseason stream of consciousness with a new little feature called “offseason musings.” Original, right? You probably don’t need further explanation, but the crux of the idea is for yours truly to relay a random Northwestern-related thought, question or conversation tidbit in extended form.

Any particularly compelling NU-sports related subject is fair game here, and want to hear from you, too: if you have anything you’d like addressed, feel free to tip us on Twitter (@Insidenu) or head on over to the contact page and shoot us (or your writer of choice) an email. This is a purely fun and spontaneous endeavor, and the topics could get wacky from time to time, but hey, what else is year-round Northwestern sports coverage if not diffusely entertaining? Consider this an official invitation into our offseason thought box.

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It’s never too early to start looking ahead to the next college football season. Especially not now: in case you didn’t realize, the countdown to opening kick has nosedived below the 100-days mark, which means were slowly but surely creeping up on Northwestern’s August 31 season-opener at Cal. The Golden Bears offer a unique set of challenges – a new coach, for one, an explosive offense, for another, and an underrated mix of offensive talent obscured by recent losing seasons. It could wind up being the most troublesome fixture on Northwestern’s conference slate. Maybe Syracuse is a better choice. Whatever the case, neither game has a place in the larger argument of Northwestern’s most difficult game on the 2013 schedule.

This type of argument requires deep personnel and scheme analysis and other football-whizzy minutiae better saved for a game-week preview. I won’t get into that in this space; the argument that follows is basically a distanced spitballing of two realistic alternatives: home against Ohio State on October 5 and at Nebraska on November 2. You can angrily disagree and furiously scan the internet for statistical evidence and storm around your kitchen drumming up a scornful comment-section retort on how utterly incomprehensible my omission of Northwestern’s October 12 away game at Wisconsin is, or the Nov. 16 home game against Michigan. That’s cool and all – hey, each to his own, right? – but before you totally disregard the whole purpose of the debate because of two choices you might not totally agree with – well, just don’t, k?

First, a simple declarative statement: Ohio State is better than Nebraska. The Buckeyes return a Heisman Trophy-challenging quarterback in Braxton Miller, eight other offensive starters, a versatile crop of running backs, the first glimpses of Urban Meyer’s loaded defensive line recruiting bounty of 2012 and a bunch of other pieces that make Ohio State, unquestionably, the Big Ten’s best team heading into the 2013 season. A lot of folks seem to agree OSU has a very real shot to not only win the Big Ten, but throw their weight at the monolithically unimpeachable SEC’s (ahem, Alabama’s) seven-year national championship streak. Ohio State will be good, the best the Big Ten has to offer, and the onus will be on everyone else in the league to rise up, catch the Buckeyes’ stumbling on one blustering Saturday, and take down Meyer’s BCS-hungry group.

Then you look at Nebraska, and you know what? Their offense blows Ohio State’s right out of the water, a unit stashed with elite playmakers like quarterback Taylor Martinez – who, let’s be real, must be on his, what, like, seventh year of eligibility? – running back Ameer Abdullah, receiver Kenny Bell and a solid offensive line anchored by rising seniors Spencer Long and Jeremiah Siles. We watched Martinez and the Huskers roast Northwestern for 342 yards and three touchdowns (plus 65 yards and a score on the ground), and their offensive attack – which returns basically every weapon of note and will no doubt be subjected to added hyperbolic praise once rumors of Martinez’ “improved throwing motion” and “tireless offseason work ethic” make their way around the college football preseason rumor mill – should improve from last year’s lofty standard. The other side of the ball, the side Bo Pelini was brought in to upgrade, the rationale behind the “Where have the blackshirts gone?” question you hear every so often, is where the Huskers are most vulnerable. Their defensive line and linebacking corps remains young, inexperienced and devoid of outwardly encouraging playmaking ability. When you approach Nebraska’s 2013 season, it’s almost as if the Huskers belong in the offense-only Big 12, or like they really did once belong to the Big 12. Weird.

Again, to recap, before each game, we’ll delve deeper into the nitty-gritty of each matchup. These descriptions are meant to give you a rough sense of where each team stands as we tick down the days before week 1.

Now, back to the question. On a neutral field, Ohio State would be the simple answer. The Buckeyes, offensive warts admittedly acknowledged, are just plain better in every measurable sense. Nebraska can put up points in a hurry, and their defense almost has to get better at some point under Pelini, right? If it does, and Nebraska does nudge itself closer to Pelini’s once-canonized reputation for fashioning strong defenses, then ok. I’ll listen.

That argument doesn’t really hold water, because these games aren’t played on a neutral field. The Ohio State game will take place at Ryan Field, on Homecoming night, and Northwestern will face Nebraska in Lincoln. The location element obviously favors Nebraska; say what you will about Nebraska’s football prospects, their fan base is unrelentingly maniacal, and they will, undoubtedly, stuff Memorial stadium to the gills with red and white overalls and corn costumes and whatever else Nebraska fans select for their gameday attire. Northwestern won’t be forced to endure the same hostile environment – an environment in which, just two years ago, the Wildcats stunned Nebraska in a bowl streak-preserving 28-25 upset – at home against Ohio State. It will face something more tangibly adversarial: a really good football team with what’s almost guaranteed to be an undefeated record and a laser-eyed vision of posting a pristine win-loss record and reaching a national championship game.

Home-field advantage can have a weird and often outsized influence on college football games, but Northwestern isn’t scared of Memorial Stadium. It won there just two years ago with what we all can agree was a less-capable all-around team who saw its record-setting starting quarterback (Dan Persa) miss the second half with a shoulder injury.

The other option is more challenging historically – Northwestern has beaten Ohio State one time (2004) since 1971 – and more talented and athletic and physically equipped to outlast Northwestern on any field, under any circumstance. Homecoming hype (and the small possibility of ESPN’s College Gameday visiting Evanston) and a possible undefeated record going in can’t change the unavoidable fact that Ohio State is, whatever your preferred method for evaluating college football teams, simply a better team than Nebraska is. I know that’s really basic and unsatisfying and sort of narrowly stated, but it’s true! If you can find a better reason to make this argument, I’m all ears. Ohio State is the best team in the Big Ten, and maybe one of the five or so best teams in the country. Nebraska isn’t. What else is there to say?