photo and story by Patrick Runge
For the most part, Nebraska football fans aren’t unrealistic. Honest. They don’t expect to see Nebraska winning national titles like in the late nineties. They do expect, however, to see Nebraska competing for conference titles, especially seeing other schools in similar situations (such as Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Oregon) able to do the same.
This year, new head coach Mike Riley will be trying to do what three coaches before him were unable to accomplish. So what’s standing between Nebraska and a conference crown? Here are five of the biggest hurdles.
Consistent Quarterback Play
If the website would permit it, I would have this headline in bright flashing neon with a klaxon alarm blaring in the background.
(Hey, webmasters, get on that, wouldya?)
Throughout the Bo Pelini era, nothing held Nebraska’s progression back more than its signal-caller. In 2009, Nebraska’s defense was historically good with a once-in-a-generation talent in Ndamukong Suh. But a near-absence at quarterback (an injured Zac Lee) and an additional one second in Dallas doomed Nebraska’s chances for a conference title.
Starting in 2010, the Taylor Martinez era began. For the next four years, Martinez’s dazzling athleticism covered his deficiencies as a signal-caller, placing a ceiling on Nebraska’s accomplishments. And last year, Tommy Armstrong’s toughness and leadership were not enough to overcome his 52-percent completion percentage and his 22/12 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Combine that with the loss of Ameer Abdullah, who was arguably Nebraska’s best I-back since Ahman Green, and NU’s drought of conference titles since 1999 continued.
Riley has five scholarship quarterbacks to pick from in 2015. But there is no evidence—yet—to suggest that Nebraska fans can expect dramatic improvements from its signal-caller. If Riley can be the quarterback-whisperer and boost the performance of Armstrong (or whomever ends up winning the job), then Nebraska may finally have a shot at replenishing the trophy cabinet.
If inconsistent quarterback play was the primary reason for Pelini’s teams to struggle, mental mistakes might have been a close second. Consider these stats for the Pelini era (courtesy CFBStats.com)
|Year||Penalty yds/game, nat’l ranking||Turnover margin, nat’l ranking|
Ugly stuff. The numbers in bold italics represent the times (once in seven years for penalties, twice for turnover margin) when Nebraska was in the top half nationally. Or, put less delicately, when Nebraska wasn’t below average in two of the statistical categories most closely aligned with mental mistakes.
To win a conference title, Nebraska will be competing against schools with better talent. Until Nebraska can stop beating itself, there is no reasonable likelihood it can even hope to win at the levels necessary to win a conference title.
A Reliable Placekicker
As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, Nebraska has been blessed throughout its history with great placekickers. Last year was the first in some time that Nebraska’s placekicker could not be counted on to deliver in clutch situations.
It’s not that true freshman Drew Brown was horrible in 2014. Brown went 14-for-21 in field goals, for a respectable 66.7 percent. Overall, Nebraska was no. 80 nationally in field goal percentage, meaning it was slightly below average.
But as with mental mistakes, Nebraska’s talent deficiencies at the highest level mean that it must excel in other areas to win conference titles. And that means Nebraska must be able to count on putting points on the board, even from long distance, from its kicker.
What are those numbers? The aggregate final score and rushing totals of Nebraska’s four games against Wisconsin since joining the Big Ten.
There’s no way to sugar-coat it for Nebraska fans. Wisconsin has owned Nebraska since NU’s arrival in the B1G. Even with Nebraska’s victory over the Badgers in 2012, Wisconsin has utterly humiliated Nebraska’s defense on three separate occasions. There’s a good case to be made that the 581 rushing yards (!) that the Badgers hung on the Blackshirts in 2014 did as much to get Pelini fired as his legendary tirades.
And Nebraska can’t get to Indianapolis without going through Wisconsin. Yes, the Badgers come to Lincoln this year with a new coach and without Melvin Gordon. But unless Riley can do what Pelini could not and solve the Wisconsin riddle, Nebraska’s dreams of a conference title will go unfulfilled.
That School Down South
Assuming Nebraska can finally slay the beast from Madison that has been haunting it for the last three years, there’s another fairly imposing hurdle to clear. Under Urban Meyer, Ohio State hasn’t lost a regular season conference game, is the defending national champion, and could very well have gone two-for-three had the Buckeyes not chosen to play in the 2011 Gator Bowl and therefore been ineligible for the BCS the following year.
And they might have been a year early in winning the title last year, given the talent coming back.
Nebraska has a number of hurdles to clear to give some company to the lonely “1999” on the façade of the West Stadium on the “conference champions” line. But the biggest hurdle might be the scarlet-and-grey monster from Columbus.
(The “team down south” moniker, by the way, comes from the legendary Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, in which partisans from each school will refuse to call the other school by name.)