Line Items: It's OK to think Nebraska should win and other Week 8 picks in the Big Ten
The Huskers are the biggest favorite they'll likely be for the rest of the season, and that comes with some baggage from previous years.
The challenge for Nebraska football, as coach Matt Rhule sees it, is consistency.
“We want to be the same every week,” he said Monday. “That’s hard to do. Either you’re so talented that you don’t have to do that—some teams are so talented, they have to get up for three or four games—we have to get up for every game.”
The Northwestern game may offer the perfect test of that idea. As of Thursday, the Huskers were favored by 11.5 points. (Nebraska won’t be double-digit favorites again this season, barring something crazy.) ESPN’s FPI gives the Huskers a 70% chance of winning outright. Saturday’s game is not a tossup. If Nebraska plays to its ability, it should win by about 10 to 14 points.
If reading that sentence made you anxious, you’ve been following Nebraska football closely for the past six seasons. During the Scott Frost era, including the nine games he didn’t coach in 2022, the Huskers were just 16-13 straight up and 10-19 against the spread as a favorite. That means that over five seasons there were six games where Nebraska simply won as expected (or better than expected). Nearly twice as often, Nebraska didn’t look as good as the models expected them to look.
Compare that with those Frost era teams when expected to lose. The Huskers were 3-24 straight up and 16-11 against the spread. Even as underdogs Nebraska lost more games than it probably should have, but it arguably played better when expectations were lower.
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What’s the famous Mike Tyson line? “Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the mouth.” It often seemed during those seasons like Nebraska didn’t have a plan until it got hit in the mouth.
One of the big things Rhule is trying to reverse in this program is whatever led to that. He’s a great motivational speaker, but I think he wants to get Nebraska to a point where it is post-motivation.
Or, as he put it on Monday, “…we can’t be the type of team that lost to Colorado and we’re embarrassed, and we come back and we win” over Northern Illinois. Favored again the following week, “we play okay, not very great, against Louisiana Tech, then we go out and we get embarrassed by Michigan, and then we go out and, now we’re embarrassed, we play great against Illinois.
“We just can’t be that team. I don’t want to coach that team and our players don’t want to be a part of that team and, so, that’s what it is.”
Simple enough idea, but if you’re still iffy about the Huskers’ ability to play to that idea, I get it. Nobody, coaches included, has seen enough yet to know it’s in the past. And it’s not like a spread in the 11-point range makes Nebraska a prohibitive favorite to win the game (it’s about 80% historically across college football).
The 50-plus models at The Prediction Tracker are all over the place on this game, from a low of Northwestern -1 to a high of Nebraska -15 with an average projection of Nebraska -6.5. The FPI ratings, assuming a 2.5-point home field advantage, would have the Huskers by 7.5 and SP+ puts it at Huskers by 14.
I’ll take Nebraska to cover the number this week for two tangible reasons: The Huskers strong run defense will enjoy matching up with a less-than-average Northwestern run game, and I think Nebraska will get to the quarterback when the Wildcats inevitably have to turn to the pass to move the ball.
But there’s also a less tangible reason. One of my observations from attending the Illinois game was how excited Nebraska looked for each drive, how big they celebrated simply good (not even great) plays. It stood out. Maybe that was just because the embarrassment button Rhule mentioned above had been pushed. Maybe it was a sign of progress.
I’m betting on the latter, though I do it as nervously as anyone else. For a more complete breakdown of Saturday’s game, check out the preview below, then on to this week’s Big Ten picks.
The Conference of Broad Shoulders
Season Record: 30-26-3 (.534)
Buckle up, I hate this week from a lines perspective. I went 2-4 last week, completely missing on Illinois-Maryland and Michigan State-Rutgers. The other two losses (UMass-Penn State, Indiana-Michigan) were “meh, huge spread, a couple of plays nobody watched probably swung it.” I only felt good about one win—Ohio State over Purdue. That leaves me at .534 on the season, and 53% is about what you need to even think about making a profit if you’re actually playing these games. For what it’s worth, the average of all the projections at The Prediction Tracker is only hitting .487 against the spread on all games.
Penn State at Ohio State -4.5 (Prediction Tracker Average: OSU -3.5)
There’s not a lot to be upset about with James Franklin’s tenure to date at Penn State except, if you’re a Nittany Lions fan, it’s clear Franklin’s squad is clearly very good but still the third-best team in the division. Here’s a chance to change that perception. The TL;DR on Ohio State so far is that the offense is down a bit, but the defense is taking up the slack. Despite that, it’s the Buckeyes’ offense that likely has the edge this week. Penn State is still better defensively, so the more this looks like a classic Big Ten game, the better I think it is for the Nittany Lions. I’m guessing Penn State will get the type of game it needs. Pick: Penn State +4.5
Rutgers -5 at Indiana (PTA: Rutgers -8)
Stakes are actually high for this game few general football fans will be watching. If Rutgers wins, it’s bowl eligible after eight games. If it loses, it will have to upset a team on the remaining schedule to get there. This is also Indiana’s best remaining chance at a win. I’m a little scared of Tom Allen, probably coaching for his job from here on out, conjuring something, but Rutgers is just better at running the ball, stopping the run and defending the pass. The Hoosiers have an edge against the Scarlet Knights’ pass defense, but I don’t think that’s enough to get under the number. Pick: Rutgers -5
Minnesota at Iowa -3.5 (PTA: Iowa -11.5)
If there’s an upside to Iowa losing its starting quarterback two weeks ago it might be that losing tight end Erick All, the team’s leading receiver, for the season might not matter that much without a quarterback who can complete more than 40% of his passes. (Quarterback Deacon Hill is at 38.6% on the season.) That said, the Hawkeyes are very used to winning in spite of a toothless offense. The play here is that Iowa’s defense makes things hell on Minnesota quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis—he’s already not having the best time this year—and somehow sleight-of-hands points from nowhere to cover a line that seems like a slight overreaction to the All news, though most of the models point me in the other direction. Pick: Iowa -3.5
Wisconsin -2.5 at Illinois (PTA: Wisconsin -7)
This might be the toughest one of the week. If Illinois hadn’t beaten Maryland last week, it would’ve been easy to assume the Illini were more interested in getting to their bye week than in beating Wisconsin. But the Illini did beat Maryland to revive their season to a degree, and the Badgers will be without starting quarterback Tanner Mordecai for a while. That might only help clarify things (i.e. run the ball) for a slightly adrift Wisconsin squad, though momentum is on the Illini’s side Saturday. Pick: Wisconsin -2.5
Michigan -24 at Michigan State (PTA: Michigan -24.5)
All of Michigan’s lines have been huge so far, and this was the easiest one in which to take the Wolverines. At least that was the case until Thursday’s news that Michigan is being investigated by the NCAA for stealing teams’ signals. It’s a distraction and probably changes the perception of a season that had been unassailable to this point. The news arrived late enough in the week that I think the Wolverines will be able to use it in their favor against a rival they already want to obliterate, but this investigation might cost Michigan down the line. Pick: Michigan -24