The last time the Michigan Wolverines were national champions in 1997, the Nebraska Cornhuskers shared the title with them. A few decades later, they now are in the same conference and are on completely different trajectories.
Michigan is coming off consecutive College Football Playoff appearances and is primed to be one of the best teams in the country in 2023; Nebraska is coming out of a tumultuous Scott Frost era that amounted to six straight losing seasons. Frost was fired, and Matt Rhule is now tasked with rebuilding the program and returning the Cornhuskers to their once college football royalty.
Rhule hopes to waste no time. At his introductory press conference, he said the goal is to start winning immediately and that bowl eligibility “should be the bare minimum.” They will have to pull off an upset or two in year one to accomplish that. His first opportunity at taking down a giant will be in Week 5 when Michigan heads to Lincoln for its first road game of the season.
Week 5 - Nebraska Cornhuskers
- 2022 Record: 4-8 overall, 3-6 in the Big Ten (6th in the West)
- Head Coach: Matt Rhule, first season
- Key Losses: QB Casey Thompson, LB Ernest Hausmann
- Key Additions: QB Jeff Sims, WR Billy Kemp, C Ben Scott, TE Arik Gilbert, LB MJ Sherman
From head to toe, this team is going to look a lot different than last season. Obviously, Rhule taking over will bring a different approach to the offense. At Baylor, Rhule ran a heavy RPO offense to accommodate the high-scoring offenses in the Big 12. Prior to that, when he was with Temple, it was much more of a pro-style with I-formations including h-backs and fullbacks in play.
Plus, Rhule brings former Pitt offensive coordinator Mark Whipple with him, who runs a similar scheme. I suspect we see more of what was done at Temple with a touch of some of the RPO mixed in. It should compare to what Michigan is doing on the offensive end.
Fortitude of the offensive line is clearly important to this scheme, and Nebraska is in quite a rebuild at the position. Last year, they finished 102nd in the country averaging just 112.5 rushing yards per game. That will have to change for this program to start being relevant again, and hopes are high that Arizona State transfer center Ben Scott can help.
They also have two really talented runningbacks in Anthony Grant and Gabe Ervin Jr. Grant was just shy of 1,000 yards last season but was held to 57 yards on his final 41 carries of the 2022 season across three games (including only 22 yards against Michigan).
At quarterback, Casey Thompson elected to transfer to FAU instead of staying under Rhule at Nebraska. So, Rhule brought in former Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims. He’s got a big arm and some wiggle out of the backfield with about 2,500 passing yards and nearly 700 rushing yards over the past two seasons. There are some decision-making issues with 10 interceptions and sub-60 percent accuracy, though. And he’s struggled to stay on the field with injuries that have led him to play just 14 games over the last two seasons. There’s some promise, but he has a long way to go to adjust to Big Ten play.
As much work as there is to be done on the offense, the defense is even worse. Nebraska allowed 424 yards per game last season ranking 102nd in the country. That includes a staggering 190 rushing yards allowed per contest. In the Big Ten, you simply cannot win football games with that many holes in the defense.
To make matters worse, Ernest Hausmann, their best up-and-coming linebacker, transferred to Michigan. Luckily, Rhule brought in former SEC linebackers MJ Sherman and Chief Borders. They'll both have huge roles alongside Luke Reimer, the team’s leading tackler from 2022, in new defensive coordinator Tony White’s 3-3-5 defense.
But again, the trenches look a little shaky. They’ll likely be relying on true freshman pass rushers in Princewill Umanmielen and Cameron Lenhardt to get to the quarterback. Nose tackle Ty Robinson will be the anchor of the line after starting every game for the last two seasons. Still, this group is going to have to be ready to compete against some of the best offensive lines in the country for the Huskers to have a chance in 2023. They’ll have an uphill battle to contend with the run-heavy offenses that the Big Ten has to offer.
Last season, Michigan outran Nebraska 264 to 75 in a 34-3 blowout in the Big House. Blake Corum had 162 yards on 28 carries as the Wolverines dominated with long drives that killed the clock. Meanwhile, Nebraska could barely pick up a first down.
Week 5’s matchup could be a little closer, especially since it is in Lincoln. Michigan’s 1-1 at Memorial Stadium and was almost upset there in 2021 when it needed a field goal from Jake Moody with under 1:30 to play to win, 32-29.
It’s slightly concerning this is the first road game of the season against a team under a new head coach that has a lot to prove and plenty of newfound optimism. However, Michigan is the far more talented team, matches up really well against the Huskers and has the veteran experience to handle the environment and take care of business.