So, how are you holding up, Husker fan? Just when you thought the season couldn’t get more surreal, the Blackshirts get a fifty-burger dropped on them by a 1-6 Purdue team, losing 55-45. The loss drops Nebraska to 3-6 on the season, with games against undefeated Michigan State and Iowa and a road trip to Rutgers still to come.
To call this season a disaster does a disservice to disasters everywhere, and it’s put the fanbase in a frenzy. Many are convinced that the hiring of head coach Mike Riley was a disastrous mistake, and a signal that the Nebraska program was fading into the sunset of past glories.
After all, Nebraska hasn’t won a conference championship since 1999. It hasn’t been relevant on the national stage since a blowout loss to Miami in the 2000 national championship game. And in a low-population state in the middle of the country, the fear amongst the fanbase is that Nebraska’s inherent recruiting challenges combined with the current struggles means NU is destined to recede into the college football history books.
Sure, national relevance and the College Football Playoff (heck, even the top 25 at this point) look a million miles away from where Nebraska is right now. But is this the new normal for Nebraska? There’s plenty of reasons to suspect that it is not.
Before we get deeper into the discussion, I’ll go through all the reasons why this year could be considered an anomaly. Five of Nebraska’s losses were by a total of 13 points, and came with NU leading in the fourth quarter. Three were on the opposing team’s final offensive possession. And the loss to Purdue was without Nebraska’s starting quarterback (Tommy Armstrong), starting tailback (Terrell Newby), and most dynamic offensive weapon (De’Mornay Pierson-El).
More importantly, the Purdue loss demonstrated what a smart and particularly handsome analyst worried about earlier this season. Football is hard work. It’s a hard game to play, and it’s a hard game to prepare for. It’s a lot to ask a group of 18-22 year olds to absorb heartbreaking loss after heartbreaking loss and give maximum effort on the field. It’s a lot to ask those 18-22 year olds to continue believing in themselves and the process enough to perform confidently play after play.
I know, Husker fan, that you don’t want to hear any of that. You’re mad, and you’re hurt, and you’re scared, and you don’t want to hear any excuses. That’s fair. Riley may be a great guy and well respected in the coaching fraternity, but his job is to deliver wins on Saturday. He’s off to the worst start Nebraska football has seen since before Bob Devaney, and he’s responsible for that.
But is 2015 the harbinger of things to come? Is Nebraska football relegated to a program fighting for a win in November to earn a trip to Detroit in late December facing a third-tier ACC team?
Well, other programs have had their fallow periods. In 2007, Alabama was 4-9. In 2006, Michigan State was 4-8. In 2012, Iowa was 4-8. This year, Texas is 3-5.
Wait, let me say that again. This year, Texas is 3-5. That makes you feel a little better, doesn’t it, Husker fan?
The point is that teams have shockingly bad seasons, and rebound. A losing season does not destroy the foundations of a program. If the foundation is strong, then a bad season can be a baseline for a football revival.
So how do you tell if a program has a strong foundation? Well, at the risk of reprising an unfortunate John McCain quote, you first look to see if the fundamentals are strong.
Dave Bartoo of CFB Matrix believes that a program’s talent and coaching can explain almost all of a team’s performance on the field. So let’s take a look at what his numbers say about Nebraska’s program.
As of 2014, Nebraska’s overall talent ranking was no. 24 nationally, right between Oklahoma State and Virginia Tech. While that talent ranking certainly could be better, it puts Nebraska no. 3 in the B1G overall and no. 1 in the B1G West. That means, from a talent standpoint, Nebraska has enough raw material on the field to be competing for conference titles each year.
With regards to coaching, as of 2014 Mike Riley had a coaching effect of 1.50, meaning that a Riley-coached team could be expected to win 1.5 more games per year than an “average” coach based on relative talent. That coach effect rating was no. 11 nationally.
Yes, Riley’s coaching effect will likely go down after the results of this season. But that’s the danger of small sample sizes. The benefit of work like Bartoo’s is that you can take a longer view informed by more data to help make judgments. Riley’s inability to coach is taken as a given by many Nebraska fans – understandably so, if you just look at the results of this season. But taking more data and a larger sample size into account, the numbers suggest the opposite conclusion.
So, Nebraska has the talent to compete, and a coach with a track record over a number of years that would indicate an ability to over-perform based on his talent level. But there is one more element of the Nebraska program that suggests a disastrous season like 2015 will not be enough to swamp the boat.
Shawn Eichorst, Nebraska’s athletic director, is not the most popular man amongst the fans these days. Part of that is a function of his position – bosses in suits focused as much on spreadsheets as opposed to playbooks are easy villains when the football team struggles. Any athletic director who wasn’t previously a national championship winning head football coach is going to be the target of fan ire when things go poorly in football.
But Eichorst did something very important when he fired Bo Pelini – he set the standard high for Nebraska football. Here’s what he said at the press conference announcing Pelini’s dismissal (according to the Omaha World-Herald):
[T]here are standards and expectations at Nebraska that are high both on and off the field. And although we did win a bunch of games, we didn’t win the games that mattered the most … We have high standards and expectations, and that’s to play championship football … Nebraska has everything it needs to be successful at the highest level. We can go back and analyze the 80’s and 90’s and all that other sort of stuff but that is not going to help us out today. I think we are positioned to play championship-caliber football here at the University of Nebraska.
Of course, given a 3-6 start to the Riley era, it’s hard not to see those words as a reprise of former athletic director Steve Pederson’s infamous “gravitating towards mediocrity” line when he fired Frank Solich. But Eichorst very clearly set the expectations for Nebraska – championship-caliber football.
And those high standards demanded from a fanbase are, ultimately, what will keep a program strong. Both Eichorst and Riley will be held to those standards, even if the time frame as to achieving them will be the subject of debate.
But, ultimately, programs don’t fade into the history books because of failures on the field. They fade into history because those on-the-field failures break the will of the fanbase to demand better.
So for all of you calling for Riley’s firing at the end of this season or tomorrow afternoon – as unreasonable and irrational as that might be – keep it up. Well, maybe with a touch of reality sprinkled in. But as long as the man in charge of the program is setting the expectation at “championship-caliber football” – and the fanbase is holding the program accountable to that expectation – then the program will survive a lean year like this.