Nebraska Football: No, You Can’t Kick Players Off The Team For Kneeling During the National Anthem


On Saturday, prior to Nebraska’s game against Northwestern, defenders Michael Rose-Ivey, DaiShon Neal, and Mohammed Berry knelt during the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The action was a protest, inspired by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, to draw attention to the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police. Rose-Ivey described the rationale for his actions as follows (as quoted by the Omaha World-Herald):

As everyone is aware, this past Saturday, before the game against Northwestern, DaiShon Neal, Mohamed Barry and myself kneeled in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and many other athletes across the country, both professional and non-professional, who are standing together to use their various platforms to bring awareness about police brutality and the recent deaths of black men and women at the hands of police officers.

To make it clear, I am not anti-police, I am not anti-military, nor am I anti-American. I love my country deeply and I appreciate the freedoms it professes to afford me.

I feel I am obligated to stand up and bring awareness to the social injustices that are not limited to police brutality but also to the policies and laws that discriminate against and hinder the growth and opportunities of people of color, low-income people, women and other marginalized communities.

As a rule, I try to avoid politics and controversy here. While I have my opinions on the Kaepernick-style protests, I decided not to use this forum to share them with the world. If you want a really thoughtful piece on the protests themselves, check out Brandon Cavanaugh’s piece from Today’s U.

I even held fire when Rose-Ivey and the other players – and the predictability of this response was so disheartening – received racist death threats as a result of their actions. Such revoltingly ignorant and evil actions would seem not to need a response – “hey, how about not being a racist bully” doesn’t seem like a particularly hot take – but maybe in 2016 it’s becoming necessary.

Then I read about what University of Nebraska Regent Hal Daub had to say about the protest by the Nebraska players (according to Chris Dunker of the Lincoln Journal-Star):

It’s a free country. They don’t have to play football for the university either.

They know better, and they had better be kicked off the team.

They won’t take the risk to exhibit their free speech in a way that places their circumstance in jeopardy, so let them get out of uniform and do their protesting on somebody else’s nickel,

Those publicity seeking athletes ought to rethink the forum in which they chose to issue their personal views at the expense of everyone else.

(emphasis added)

In addition to following Nebraska football (although my wife would say there’s precious little time for much else, especially in the fall), I have some experience in the law. And when a Nebraska Regent – the elected officials responsible for the entire University of Nebraska system – says in public that football players at a Nebraska university should be kicked off a team, that’s a big deal.

Why? Because that’s clearly unconstitutional.

To understand why, we have to understand what is being asked of the players. Observing “standard” decorum for the National Anthem is asking players – commanding players, in Daub’s view – to make a political statement. There’s no getting around that position. If it wasn’t a political statement – if what you say and how you act during the national anthem doesn’t carry meaning – then the national controversy generated by Kaepernick would not exist.

Nebraska is a state university, which means when it takes an action, it ultimately carries the force of the state of Nebraska behind it. That includes what the university can require football players to do during the National Anthem. And the First Amendment (made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment) has very clearly been understood to mean that the state cannot mandate a citizen to make a political statement he or she does not want to make.

The most famous United States Supreme Court case about this is probably Wooley v. Maynard, where the Court said the state of New Hampshire could not require citizens to put a license plate on their cars with the state motto of “Live Free Or Die” if that message conflicted with their own personal views. But there are a host of other cases making it clear that the government cannot compel speech from its citizens.

That’s why Daub has it exactly backwards. Rose-Ivey and the others weren’t expressing “personal views at the expense of everyone else” (never mind the argument about how anyone else’s expression of patriotism was affected by someone quietly kneeling). They were declining to participate in a political statement by observing standard decorum for the National Anthem. They were doing so quietly, and in a way that was specifically designed after consultation with veterans to be respectful of the military while still reflecting the message  of the protest (according to Will Brinson of CBS Sports)

And Daub wants to use the power of the state to punish those players for failing to make the political statement he felt the players should make, seeking out the media to criticize the “publicity seeking athletes.”

Now, it’s different if a professional sports league, such as the NFL or NBA, wants to put a rule in place with regards to the National Anthem. The First Amendment protects you from the government, but it doesn’t protect you from your employer (unless you work for the government, of course).

Since the story came out, Daub has now denied saying he said he thought the players should be removed from the team, prompting this headline from Deadspin (and meaning that Daub’s statement has gained national attention and that he probably isn’t going to put this particular cat back in the bag):

Nebraska Regent Calls For Kneeling Players To Be Kicked Off Team Then Tries To Deny It (Filed to: LIARS)

While it doesn’t sound like Daub is going to get a mulligan for this one, it is good that he recognizes his position was untenable. As a lawyer and long-time Congressman, Daub should well know the freedoms guaranteed to all citizens, and that the power of the state cannot be used to compel anyone – even a Nebraska football player – to make a political statement he or she does not want to make.

There’s plenty of room for conversation about the moral justification for the kneeling protest, and people of good faith on both sides can honorably take opposing positions. Pete Ricketts, Nebraska’s Governor, called the protests “disgraceful” but upheld their right to protest (according to Sam McKewon and Emily Nohr of the Omaha World-Herald).

Look, if seeing Nebraska football players kneeling during the National Anthem upsets or offends you, I’m sure it feels good to say that they should be kicked off the team. But the Constitution – the document that ultimately the National Anthem is celebrating – clearly says the state is forbidden to do such a thing.

Nebraska Football: NU Review, Nebraska 24, Northwestern 13


On Saturday, Nebraska went on the road for its first conference game and first game away from Memorial Stadium, defeating Northwestern 24-13. Nebraska survived two goal-line fumbles into the end zone and still managed to beat the Purples by eleven. So, for Nebraska fans looking back at the Northwestern game …

The Good

Tommy! And you thought Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong had a legacy-defining performance with his touchdown run against Oregon last week. Against Northwestern, Armstrong ran for 135 yards (!) on 13 carries, and went 18-29 for 246 yards and one touchdown. That’s 381 yards of total offense, one of the best performances of his Nebraska career.

More importantly, Armstrong was not responsible for any turnovers. He nearly was a victim of a pick-six towards the end of the game, but ultimately he was able to put Nebraska on his shoulders and grind out a victory on the road in a conference game.

Three-Headed Monster. Before Nebraska’s trip to Evanston, it looked like Devine Ozigbo was establishing himself as NU’s clear top I-back. But the Purples did a pretty good job bottling Ozigbo up, holding him to 42 yards on 13 carries.

But the depth of Nebraska’s I-back stable got shown off in Evanston. Terrell Newby had 71 yards on 10 carries (never mind the fumble), and Mikale Wilbon got his first real dose of work, going for 55 yards of six carries.

Oh, yeah, and Armstrong had a pretty decent day on the ground, too.

So Nebraska’s ability to find I-backs to be successful is an encouraging sign going forward.

Getting Home. Nebraska lodged four sacks against Northwestern (so, free Big Mac!), and got an additional two quarterback hurries. While much of Nebraska’s struggles last year against the pass should be laid at the feet of the secondary, and absence of a consistent pass rush was a part of last year’s struggles. So seeing more success in bring pressure against opposing quarterbacks, even with an opposing offensive line like Northwestern’s, is encouraging.

The Bad

Clayton The Jet. Last year, Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson had nine carries for 126 yards in the Purples’ upset of Nebraska in Lincoln. On Saturday, Thorson had 10 carries for 43 yards, including a touchdown. In 2015, Thorson’s rushing against Nebraska accounted for 31.7 percent of his entire rushing for the season. This year, it’s actually 2130 percent, as Thorson was at negative-two yards rushing before his 43 against Nebraska.

Clearly, Northwestern has been successful at finding ways to use Thorson schematically against defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s Blackshirts. And while Nebraska ended up with a (relatively) comfortable win, that has to be something highlighted for future contests.

Just Get It There! On at least four occasions, Nebraska’s center Dylan Utter either flew or bounced a shotgun snap to Armstrong. Remarkably, none of them resulted in a turnover, but all of them either resulted in lost yardage or a less successful play. These are new struggles for Utter, and it’s hard to tell if it was the first road game, the natural grass surface, or something Northwestern was doing that threw him off. Regardless, though, that’s an an issue that Nebraska needs to fix ASAP.

And the Beginning of the Exorcism

OK, admit it, Husker Fan. With 3:54 left in the game and Nebraska holding on to an 11-point lead, you weren’t entirely confident. Last year left some marks on your college football soul. And when the Purples were able to, relatively easily, move the ball from their own 20 to the Nebraska 27, the ghosts of last year began to haunt you.

But then Josh Kalu’s interception ended Northwestern’s drive (and fundamentally, the game), the 2016 Cornhuskers won the type of game that the 2015 Cornhuskers lost over and over and over again. Just like they did last week against Oregon.

Nebraska is now 4-0 overall, 1-0 in conference, and in the top 15 in both polls. Sure, we’re only a third of the way through the season and there’s a lot left for Mike Riley’s charges to prove.

But this year’s squad is going a long way towards laying the ghosts of last season to rest.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 35, Oregon 32


On Saturday, Nebraska won a thriller in Memorial Stadium, taking the lead on a Tommy Armstrong rushing touchdown and holding off an Oregon comeback. My photos of the game are here. So, for Nebraska fans looking back on a famous win …

The Good

Dispelling Hobgoblins. Admit it. Deep into the fourth quarter, when you saw a speedy Oregon wide receiver five yards behind the Nebraska secondary, your scarlet-and-cream heart sank. Your mind flashed back to last year’s BYU. Or Illinois. Or Wisconsin. Or … well, you get the idea. The idea was the same – once again, you thought, Nebraska was showing consistent struggles in late-game situations against the deep ball.

Well, you know what they say about consistency. And thanks to a great play by safety Keiron Williams (and, in all fairness, an underthrown ball by Oregon quarterback Dakota Prukop), Nebraska could put a sword into the heart of that particular hobgoblin.

The Price of Hubris. Boy, it looked pretty sharp for Oregon at the start. The Ducks ate up yardage on their first drive, scoring a touchdown with alarming ease. Then, for the conversion, Oregon brought out the swinging gate play and got a two-point conversion, pushing the score to 8-0 early in the contest.

Seemed bad for Nebraska, so Oregon decided to try it again. And again. And again. And again. Four more times over the course of the contest, the Ducks tried for two and failed. That’s two points on five conversion attempts after touchdowns, leaving Oregon three points shy of where it would have most likely been had it just kicked the darn ball.

Which, of course, was Nebraska’s margin of victory. Two lessons to be learned here. First, never, ever chase points with two-point conversions unless you absolutely have to. And, two, do not tempt the Gods of Football Karma.

Impressing The Kids. No, it’s not about the DJ Khaled tifo unfurled by the Boneyard (as described by Erin Sorensen of Hail Varsity), Nebraska’s student section – although that was pretty freaking awesome. No, this is about how one day after Nebraska knocked off Oregon, it picked up the commit of Deiontae Watts, a three-star defensive tackle (according to 247 Sports) from Texas. That commit brings Nebraska’s overall ranking on 247 Sports to no. 23.

Sure, it’s reductive to think that the win over Oregon was why Watts signed. But the big-game atmosphere was one of Nebraska’s selling points. More wins mean more big-game atmospheres, and (theoretically) an easier sell to recruits. And, better recruits lead to more wins, which help lead to better recruits in a virtuous circle.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, it’s one game and a three-star defensive tackle. But it’s certainly encouraging news for Nebraska, both this year and going forward.

The Bad

Swinging. Nebraska had only one turnover, and that was awesome for NU. But the turnover itself was pretty cringe-inducing. It’s bad enough to not be able to execute a swing pass – which Armstrong has a disturbing tendency to execute poorly. But it’s even more disturbing when the throw goes backwards and becomes a live ball – particularly when Nebraska benefited from the exact same mistake by an opponent the week before.

“Not As Bad” Still Isn’t “Good.”  Sure, Oregon’s 13 penalties (!) for 126 yards (!!) was a huge factor in Nebraska’s victory. But Nebraska still had seven flags for 55 yards. The yardage wasn’t as damaging as in weeks past, and the only penalty that really affected the game was a mysterious offside call in the fourth quarter that helped keep Oregon’s drive to take the lead alive.

It’s unlikely to see a game where a team will have no penalties at all. But it would be nice to see a number lower than seven for Nebraska going forward.

Better Lucky Than Talented. OK, first let me say that Nebraska played an amazing game against a very strong opponent, and deserved every little bit of this milestone win. But Nebraska was helped by some by the Ducks, as well. The two-point conversion fetish of Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich we discussed supra. Oregon’s orgy of penalties, if nothing else, helped Nebraska see what life was like on the receiving end of all that yardage. And the injury to running back Royce Freeman certainly didn’t do Oregon’s offense any favors.

Yes, Nebraska had its share of hardships to overcome as well. Please don’t see this as taking anything away from Nebraska’s win on Saturday. But it wouldn’t be fair to at least acknowledge that Nebraska got a few breaks from Oregon on Saturday – and took advantage of them.

And the Beckoning Opportunity.

Sure, it’s easy to say after Nebraska wins. But in all fairness, this game carried far more upside than downside for Nebraska. A loss, while certainly painful, did not derail the primary season goal of winning the B1G West. And given how far Nebraska’s national perception has fallen, a loss to Oregon (other than a humiliation) would have just left NU in the national obscurity in which it has languished.

Instead, the game was an opportunity. Lose, and Nebraska really just stayed where it was. But win … well, a win for Nebraska gets a foothold back into the national spotlight. Almost assuredly Nebraska will return to the Top 25, the first time since the end of 2014.

And the upcoming schedule for Nebraska provides another opportunity. Nebraska should be favored in every game between now and Wisconsin, so if it can take care of business NU could find itself in the top 15 as it faces off against the Badgers. That kind of exposure and excitement is invaluable, not only for the confidence of the current squad, but for recruiting momentum.

Of course, it’s just opportunity. Nebraska had opportunities before, under Frank Solich, Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini. Nebraska could easily squander this opportunity and slink back to national obscurity.

But the opportunity is there for Nebraska. This year. Admit it – when Nebraska was 3-6 and coming off a loss to a truly dreadful Purdue squad – you didn’t really expect this kind of opportunity to be available for the scarlet and cream in 2016. Enjoy it, Husker Fan.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 52, Wyoming 17


On Saturday, Nebraska scored 28 points in the fourth quarter to pull away and beat Wyoming 52-17. My photos of the game are here. Early in the game, Nebraska seems like it would be able to pull away and get a comfortable victory over the Cowboys. But a Tommy Armstrong interception at the goal line taking points off the board put things on hold, and an end-of-half Hail Mary touchdown for Wyoming gave the Cowboys enough momentum to be within four as the fourth quarter started. Nebraska’s defense forced enough turnovers to pull away and balloon the score at the end.

So, for Nebraska fans against Wyoming (with apologies to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald for mimicking his numerical analysis) …

The Good

3.5. As in plus-3.5, which is Nebraska’s net turnover margin average over one game. That’s no. 1 nationally, according to Yeah, it’s two games against sub-par opponents. And yeah, Tommy Armstrong’s one interception at the goal line was not only horrible, but terrifyingly reminiscent of the mental errors that have haunted his career.

But we’re now one-sixth of the way through the season (!), and Nebraska is not only 2-0 but doing a much better job at taking care of the football.

10. That’s the number of receivers that caught at least one pass against Wyoming. Yes, Run The Ball Guy didn’t care for the game plan against Wyoming, but having that depth at receiver makes Nebraska exceptionally hard to defend. It can also lead to success in the running game, with teams unable to (as both Fresno State and Wyoming did) load the box and dare Nebraska to throw.

A deep pool of talent at receiver can be a critical element of Nebraska’s offensive success – if (and it’s a big if) Armstrong can continue to avoid interceptions.

2.89. That’s the average yards-per-carry allowed by Nebraska’s defense this season. While Nebraska’s pass defense was what terrified most fans coming into the season, it’s always critical to be stout against the run. And yes, Fresno State and Wyoming are no Wisconsin and Ohio State. But they’re no slouches either, particularly Wyoming.

So having such outstanding success against the run for Nebraska in its first two games is an encouraging sign for the Blackshirts in 2016.

The Bad

52.6. That’s the percentage of Nebraska’s points scored in the fourth quarter. After three quarters, Nebraska was only up by 11 (21-10) against Fresno State and by seven (24-17) against Wyoming. For those of you who haven’t blocked out most of the 2015 season as a defense mechanism, allow me to remind you that Nebraska has demonstrated a disturbing history of seeing teams roar back in the fourth quarter to win.

Now, maybe Nebraska’s new-found dominance in the fourth quarter is excising those demons. But it seems an unsustainable pattern to wait for the final period before exploding on the scoreboard.

7/96. That’s the number of penalties and the total yardage of those penalties Nebraska had against Wyoming. While at least Nebraska did not draw a targeting flag this week, penalties still loomed a large factor. Late hit calls on quarterbacks and unsportsmanlike conduct calls kept Wyoming’s offense on the field, and offensive penalties took two Nebraska touchdowns off the board.

Against teams like Fresno State and Wyoming, Nebraska’s talent advantage is sufficient to avoid disastrous consequences. But against teams with equal to or superior talent – like, say, a frighteningly-fast Oregon team coming to Lincoln this Saturday – giving up nearly a football field worth of penalties will likely be a hole too deep for Nebraska to dig out of.

Stop the Insanity. OK, this one is just for those in the stadium. In the third and fourth quarters against both Fresno State and Wyoming – when the game was still at some level in contention – the crowd inexplicably started the wave. Not just a little bit during commercial breaks either, but a full-blown variable-speed wave that was going while the game was in play.

Now, look, I’m really trying not to be That Guy who complains about people having fun at a game. If the result isn’t in doubt, I’m fine with the wave – and Nebraska fans have gotten pretty good at doing the normal-to-slow-to-fast wave, in all fairness.

But here’s a pretty good rule of thumb. If the starters are still in the game, then you have no business doing the wave, fer cryin’ out loud.

(Honorable mention to Mixed Loyalty Guy, of which there were a bizarre amount of against Wyoming, wearing gear for both teams playing, such as a Wyoming hat and a Nebraska shirt. Look, if for whatever reason you have ties to both teams, I get it. I’m an unabashed Jaysker, and the Nebraska-Creighton basketball and baseball games are confusing for me. But if there’s any rule to follow, it’s that you can’t try to wear both teams’ gear to a game).

And The Papering Over Of The Cracks

So Nebraska is 2-0, after outscoring its two opponents by a total of 65 points. All’s right with the world, isn’t it?

Nope. Nebraska was in a two-score game as the fourth quarter began against a frankly terrible Fresno State club, and within seven points going into the final period against a Wyoming squad that’s only marginally better.

Sure, Nebraska pulled away late and won both games comfortably – and believe me, that’s better for Nebraska than the alternative we saw over and over again last year. But that doesn’t mean Nebraska has been grinding minnows under its heel getting ready for the Ducks to arrive on Saturday.

Maybe these late surges are evidence of a confident squad ready to make a big statement on national television. The Ducks, also 2-0, have exhibited a defensive frailty that should provide some optimism to the scarlet and cream faithful. But Nebraska fans should not look at the lopsided scores of its first two games and lull themselves into believing NU is as good as those gaudy numbers would indicate.

Nebraska Football: NU Re-View, Nebraska 43, Fresno State 10


On Saturday, Nebraska opened the 2016 season with a 43-10 win over Fresno State. My photos from the game can be found here. Nebraska only led 14-10 at halftime, with Fresno State missing a short field goal and missing a chance at a touchdown to end the half due to poor clock management. But Nebraska pulled away, scoring 22 in the fourth quarter to seal a comfortable win. So in looking back at Nebraska’s victory …

The Good

Picking Up Where They Left Off. Against UCLA, Nebraska ran the ball 62 times and threw it 19. Throughout the offseason, though, we were told about how the game plan was unique to UCLA’s undersized defensive setup and should not be expected to be repeated.

Against Fresno State, Nebraska ran the ball 51 times and threw it 13.

It was very clear that the game plan was to take the ball out of quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s hands. Out of Nebraska’s first 21 plays, 20 were runs. So whether this distribution can last the season (see below), at least for one game Nebraska kept with a winning formula.

Back in Blackshirts. It’s not like there wasn’t time to panic. The game was 14-10 at halftime, with Fresno State engineering an alarmingly-familiar march down the field at the end of the first half. Would déjà vu strike all over again and Nebraska see its lead slip away in the final frame?

Nope. Nebraska locked down Fresno State, shutting the Bulldogs out in the second half as a fourth-quarter flurry of scoring put the game away. Fresno State was unable to hit the big strikes downfield that were Nebraska’s downfall in 2015. So, again at least for one game, Nebraska seemed to have put its ghosts behind it.

A Two-Headed Monster. Nebraska’s wide receivers came into the season as the generally-accepted strength of the team. And, in fairness, they’re still really good, especially when Brandon Reilly returns from his one-game suspension.

But Nebraska’s running backs looked awfully good on Saturday, as well. Devine Ozigbo led the charge with 17 carries for 103 yards and two touchdowns. Terrell Newby, the starter, ran strong with 53 yards on 11 carries. And when you add in Armstrong’s running (42 yards on 11 carries with two touchdowns), and the appearance of true freshman Tre Bryant (36 yards on five carries) and Mikale Wilbon (16 yards on his single carry), Nebraska’s running back corps suddenly looks pretty salty as well.

The Bad

An Unsustainable Imbalance. You know that guy. The one who wears the faded red polo shirt and goes on incessantly about how Nebraska could start winning again if it would just get back to the option and give those walk-ons a chance to play.

Well, that guy has been loving Nebraska football the last couple of games. And with the success Nebraska has enjoyed, it’s hard to criticize. Wins are wins, and coming off a 5-7 season it’s hard not to fall into intellectually lazy traps like this being “real Nebraska football.”

Don’t fall for it. This ridiculous run-pass imbalance stemmed from specific matchup issues, against an undersized UCLA team and an undermanned Fresno State. It was successful in both, and could very well be just as successful against a team like Wyoming next week.

But teams that are better than Fresno State and Wyoming are coming. Against teams like Oregon, LSU-beating Wisconsin, and Ohio State, certainly Nebraska shouldn’t be channeling its inner Mike Leach. But Nebraska won’t be able to have a 51-13 run-pass balance against those teams if it wants any chance at victory.

Target Acquired. In the last three games, Nebraska has had four targeting penalties called against it. Now, one of those was rescinded on Saturday, but that still means Nebraska has had three ejections in three games.

Yes, I know you think it wasn’t fair. And I think there’s probably a good case to be made that the targeting flags were at best marginal. But the bottom line is that Nebraska’s been hit with those penalties. And we’ve seen the damage caused by those flags – Iowa scored straight after Nate Gerry was ejected, and Fresno State’s best drive of the game came right after Luke Gifford’s dismissal.

So whether the flags are fair or not, Nebraska needs to be taking steps to make sure it isn’t even getting close to such a targeting foul in the future.

Not Ready For Prime Time. Hey, remember this guy? After an injury-ravaged 2015, it’s easy to forget how electrifying De’Mornay Pierson-El was for Nebraska. And when Pierson-El was proclaimed healthy and ready to get back on the field, Nebraska fans were understandably excited at the potential.

Well, Pierson-El was back on the field. But his return was nothing he’ll want to remember. He touched the ball only once, fumbling a jet sweep handoff for a loss of seven. Although he was listed as the number one punt returner, it was Jordan Westerkamp that went back to field punts (somewhat shakily) throughout the game.

Maybe the fumble shook him. Maybe the coaches don’t quite have the confidence in him yet. But whatever it is, the Pierson-El we saw in 2014 isn’t back yet.

And The Unconvincing Blowout

Have you ever seen an unconvincing 33-point win? Well, if there ever was one, it was Saturday against Fresno State. Sure, getting the win is great – keep in mind, this is the first time Mike Riley has gone 1-0 at Nebraska. And for the investors among us, having Nebraska cover the 28-point spread wasn’t bad either.

But this was a game that was 14-10 at half – and very easily could have been a 17-14 Bulldog lead absent a missed chip-shot field goal and an inexplicable failure to call time out and waste a down while inside Nebraska’s 10.

Sure, Nebraska ultimately pulled away in the second half, and the fact that NU was able to do so speaks volumes compared to a team that lost to Illinois and Purdue last year. But the fact remains that a 33-point margin is utterly flattering to how Nebraska played.

A win is a win. If 2015 taught us anything, it’s that Nebraska is in a survive-and-advance mode as a program. But there’s still big questions left for Nebraska to answer if it wants a trip to Indianapolis in December.

Nebraska Football: What is Success for Mike Riley’s Cornhuskers in 2016?


Nebraska fans are part of a unique breed that understands how beautiful the phrase “it’s Fresno State week” is after a long off-season. This is the time of year where you’ll get game-by-game predictions for the upcoming 2016 campaign.

For the record, mine is 9-3, with losses to Oregon, at Indiana, and at Ohio State.

But that’s not really what I think is interesting as this new season dawns. I’ve been far less prolific in posting this year, which will happen when you adopt two boys. So, yeah, dumb reality is getting in the way of Nebraska football blogging.

But not thinking about the scarlet and cream, believe me. Ever since last season, I’ve been grappling with a question raised on Twitter by @CountIstvan. Basically, his argument in criticizing the Riley hire was that Nebraska fans shouldn’t have to wait two or three years for the program to get back to Pelini’s nine-win level. In the midst of Nebraska’s 5-7 regular season, he lamented that Riley’s defenders would take the struggles of 2015, use a seven- or eight-win season in 2016 as proof of improvement, and see Nebraska get back to nine wins in 2017. What’s the point, he argued, in hiring a guy that will take you three years to get back to the level of the guy you fired?

It’s a powerful argument, one that’s stuck with me throughout the offseason. It certainly seemed like it was where Nebraska was heading post-Purdue, although NU’s  win over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl has certainly put some wind in the sails of Nebraska fans’ hopes.

I’m a Riley supporter, have been even before he was hired at Nebraska. So I want to buy into his tenure, want to believe that he’s the guy that can get Nebraska back to national relevance. But how do I respond to this question about Riley’s tenure that’s nagged me since I read it all those months ago?

Well, for starters, it does assume that Nebraska won’t get to nine wins until 2017. After Nebraska lost to Purdue last year (which, if I would have been writing more this summer, would have been the focal point of a “worst Nebraska losses in a decade” column), it was more than reasonable to question whether Nebraska would win nine games – heck, would go to a bowl game – any time in the near future.

But wins over Michigan State and UCLA, coupled with a loss to Iowa that was gift-wrapped and handed to the Hawkeyes with a shiny bow by Nebraska, changed the perception. If you look at five-year recruiting rankings (as listed by SB Nation), Nebraska (no. 27) should only have inferior talent to two teams on its 2016 schedule, Oregon (no. 22) and Ohio State (no. 2).

That means, in terms of talent on the field, Nebraska should be looking at a 10-2 season. Now, obviously, there’s more to it than who has the best players. But that’s a big part of the equation (as Dave Bartoo from CFBMatrix will consistently prove).

We all know that 2015 was defined by Nebraska finding new, ridiculous, and excruciating ways to lose football games in the fourth quarter. We also know that those kinds of bounces and bad plays aren’t sustainable, and that Nebraska’s 5-7 record significantly undersold how good NU was last year. While the quote probably isn’t wise to make given its history, I do think it is fair to say that for Nebraska football the fundamentals are sound.

As a result, I think a nine-win season for Nebraska in 2016 should be the baseline expectation. But as we saw last year, stuff happens. Nebraska might only win eight games this year. Maybe even seven. Anything less than seven will likely have the villagers coming to Memorial Stadium with their pitchforks and torches.

But let’s say it’s 7-5 or 8-4 this year. Heck, even if I call it right and Nebraska goes 9-3, that’s just back to where the program was before Riley arrived. Can we say that Riley is a failure, that firing Bo Pelini was a mistake?

With all the caveats that it depends on how the team looks in getting to its final record, I would still say no. There’s a huge difference between a nine-win season in year seven of Pelini’s tenure and a nine-win season in Riley’s second. And it can be summed up in one word.


Maybe some of it is just because Riley is the new guy. But let’s be honest. Yes, Pelini never won fewer than nine games. But he never lost fewer than four, either. And the culture he created in Lincoln was becoming so poisonous that it was hard to see how Nebraska could ever move forward.

I don’t want to re-litigate the Pelini era, but the one vignette from his tenure that will always stick with me is the meeting he had with his players after he was fired. You can read the transcript from the Omaha World-Herald here, but you all know what he said. How he vented his spleen and settled his scores, regardless of how it affected the kids that were staying and living in that program going forward. You know, the kids that he was supposed to be leading, mentoring, teaching.

Riley may be many things, but he’s not that. Sure, he overachieved at Oregon State, which I don’t think he’ll ever get sufficient credit for. But there’s no guarantee he will be able to take a stagnating national giant like Nebraska and return it to national relevance.

But he’s a professional. He’s done this before, both in college and the NFL. He can learn from his mistakes. He can bring people in who know more than he does about something. He can cut loose an under-performing coach, and show loyalty and protection to a high-performing coach who makes a big, big mistake. He can create a culture and an atmosphere that doesn’t pit his players against the fans, the administration, and the rest of the world in an unsustainable cycle of self-righteous offense.

And yeah, at least from the early returns, he can recruit. I know, I know, that was the defense of Bill Callahan. But it is nice to see some five-stars coming to Lincoln, instead of having the guy in charge just complain about how hard it is to get them here.

Contrary to popular belief, Nebraska fans on the whole aren’t unreasonable. They don’t expect a return to the nineties and winning consecutive national championships.

But Nebraska fans do expect that their team should be in the mix for a conference title pretty much every year, with a reasonable shot to win one most seasons. That “1999” on the West Stadium façade on the “Conference Championship” line is looking awfully lonely.

Riley’s career path and his current recruiting should demonstrate Nebraska is on an upward trajectory. There’s a path Nebraska fans should be able to see, fairly clearly, that ends up with a scarlet and cream swarm in Pasadena on New Year’s Day.

So that’s why a nine-win Mike Riley Nebraska is different than a nine-win Bo Pelini Nebraska. Under Pelini, most Nebraska fans concluded that nine wins was Nebraska’s ceiling. And, as Shawn Eichorst made clear when he announced Pelini’s dismissal, that’s not good enough at Nebraska.

That’s a tall order for Riley – or any coach – to fulfill. But there’s enough evidence, 5-7 notwithstanding, to legitimately hope Nebraska can get to that promised land soon.