Landon Wirt, senior sports editor: Nebraska 26, Buffalo 23
In multiple ways, Nebraska’s game against Buffalo is comparable to the last time the Huskers played an opponent from the Mid-American Conference, more affectionately known as the MAC.
Two years ago, in 2019, head coach Scott Frost and the Huskers welcomed Northern Illinois to Memorial Stadium in a game that went down as a 44-8 shellacking. The season prior to playing Nebraska, the 2018 Huskies reached the MAC Championship Game, just like Buffalo did in 2020.
Following that championship appearance, which Northern Illinois (NIU) won, the Huskies had to replace several critical pieces on their coaching staff. NIU lost its head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator from the 2018 to 2019 season. Buffalo, after losing the 2020 MAC Championship, replaced the same three positions on its coaching staff ahead of this season.
However, I cannot foresee Nebraska winning against a MAC foe in such dominant fashion on Saturday. There’s a very good chance that Saturday’s game against Buffalo comes down to the wire.
I’ve droned on and on this week about how good I believe the Bulls to be, but I’ll briefly provide the CliffsNotes version. Senior running back Kevin Marks Jr. headlines a Buffalo rushing attack that is capable of controlling the line of scrimmage, and more importantly the game clock. Senior quarterback Kyle Vantrease is a grizzled veteran, and should not be fazed by the hostile environment Memorial Stadium presents.
On the defensive side of the ball, Buffalo has more than enough pieces to make Nebraska sweat. Don’t be fooled, the Bulls are extremely capable of coming into Memorial Stadium and springing the upset.
For Nebraska to emerge victorious on Saturday, it must win the battle in the trenches. When Nebraska has the ball, its offensive line has to be able to protect junior quarterback Adrian Martinez and open holes for sophomore running back Markese Stepp and company. Buffalo’s defensive line, led by fifth-year senior and 2019 First Team All-MAC defensive end Taylor Riggins, will look to spoil those plans.
When Nebraska is on defense, it has to limit Buffalo’s effectiveness on the ground and force Vantrease to win the game with his arm. If the Huskers can force Buffalo away from the run early, they will have opportunities to really put first-year head coach Maurice Linguist’s team in a bind.
What’s more, Nebraska doesn’t exactly have a great track record under Frost as a double-digit home favorite against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents. According to oddsharks.com, the Huskers are 2-2 outright in his tenure, with losses to Illinois and Troy in that bunch. Buffalo, a 13.5 point underdog against the Huskers at the time of writing, should make Saturday very uncomfortable, but I think that Nebraska will pull away late to emerge victorious.
Martin Herz, assistant sports editor: Nebraska 24, Buffalo 20
As previously mentioned by Landon, the Huskers come in as a 13.5 point favorite. However, several metrics don’t buy this sentiment. ESPN staff writer and founder of SP+ ratings Bill Connelly has the Huskers winning 31-23 in his Week Two model predictions.
On ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) model, Nebraska and Buffalo are both within the 51-60 range in terms of national ranking. The Huskers rank higher by five spots, but that’s not enough to justify a two touchdown spread in favor of Nebraska. The FPI model gives Nebraska a 61.1% chance of winning outright, while Ohio State, a 14-point favorite over Oregon this weekend, has an 87.1% chance of winning outright.
For reference, the FPI model was the second most accurate last week in predicting the points spread, going 52% and one of few to beat the Vegas mid-week lines.
As the saying goes though, ‘All models are wrong but some are useful.’ This time, the models are useful, as this is a good Buffalo team coming to Lincoln.
The Bulls return Marks Jr., a part of the dynamic 1-2 backfield duo of 2020 with current Washington Football Team member Jaret Patterson, and can make the Husker defense’s life hard if they can’t win the trenches. Marks Jr. will be a good test on whether the Husker defense has improved from its Illinois showing.
With both teams looking to run the ball and temperatures in the high 90s, fatigue could become a major factor. Both offenses prefer to keep the ball on the ground so one match-up will be who wins the trenches.
This shouldn’t be a game with a lot of drives as both offenses will look to punish opposing defenses in the heat through grinding the clock down. The biggest question mark will be which quarterback shows better, Martinez or Vantrease, when asked to convert key plays and obvious passing situations.
Another Nebraska offensive question will be how it uses its running backs again. In the depth chart, freshman running back Gabe Ervin Jr. and Markese Stepp are both listed in the number one spot. Stepp looked better, going over 100 yards against Fordham, but both will get touches.
The ground games will get the attention of both defenses but the Huskers are just a bit better on the passing front. Martinez’s legs on pass plays breaking down or his connection with senior wide receiver Samori Toure can prove the difference between a win and loss.
Either way, this game should be entertaining to anyone watching. This should be a close game but with Nebraska playing at home, it should sneak out a win against one of the MAC’s best teams.
Jason Han, assistant sports editor: Nebraska 35, Buffalo 30
If I’m being honest, this game is too close to call, and if I’m going with my gut, Buffalo may very well have the edge.
The texture of the game will be decided in the first few Buffalo drives. Buffalo’s offense is rather eclectic, dynamic on the run while also being quick in tempo, something which sounds rather counterintuitive.
On one end, it may be the case that this is a kind of novelty which only works against bottom-tier teams. In such a case, Buffalo lines up and is blown out. In an aforementioned article, when Frost mentioned something approximating question marks present in the game against Buffalo, he was gesturing towards something very real. The matchup is unpredictable.
So, let’s say for the sake of argument that Buffalo’s interesting offense isn’t blown out at the start. In such an instance, Nebraska is reliant on its defense to adjust and adapt to the present situation.
One can game plan all they wish for Saturday, but plans rarely survive the field of battle.
Assuming everything doesn’t just go right immediately for Frost on Saturday, the game will be a real benchmark for his coaching acumen. While the game against Fordham was perhaps the same way, one can reasonably say the talent gulf between the two sides made the results rather cloudy or unreflective of Frost.
Nebraska has already seen an instance, too, where Frost and his staff’s coaching has failed the team: Illinois. Buffalo provides the next best opportunity to prove that the methodological mistakes made against the Fighting Illini could be improved upon.
Anybody can lose by a lot to Oklahoma, that game is far from instructive. Plenty of Nebraska’s Big Ten opponents are simply better than them; Saturday’s game ought not be where a season, or a coaching tenure, turns. Instead, it’s in moments like this, managing uncertainty, where one will see the team’s mettle.