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

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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.

Hope.

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.

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5 thoughts on “Nebraska Football: What is Success for Mike Riley’s Cornhuskers in 2016?

  1. We will easily win 9 games! Are you guys kidding? You don’t see it? Typical Nebraska fans…just like farmers, crying all the time.

  2. First of all, I’m just going to say, any prediction of record is meaningless. Especially given how last year played out (no one in the world had us losing to Purdue or beating Michigan State, let alone both happening). I’m feeling a bit more confident after last night’s game, but the fact still remains that if someone time traveled back from the future and told me that this team finished 5-7, I’d believe them. If they told me this team finished 11-1, I’d believe them too. That’s what makes this season fun!

    Second, really good thoughts here. This post I think had a much different tone than your others and I really enjoyed it. I really enjoy your other posts, too, don’t get me wrong, but this one just seemed so much more thoughtful and reflective.

    I think you have hit right on the biggest mistake most people make in talking about the Pelini firing and Riley hiring: focusing on the floor instead of the ceiling. And I think most fans like to talk about how great the floor is (“Man, Pelini won at least 9 games 7 years straight! Only X number of coaches have done that!”), but what we actually care about, when push comes to shove, is a coach’s ceiling. That’s why Michigan State fans are on the whole happier with Dantonio than Oklahoma fans have been with Stoops, despite Stoops delivering a national championship. Of the two, Dantonio is the one who seems to be making his team better each year, while Stoops’ teams have seemed doomed to good-not-great ever since that championship run. Stoops’ overall record is better, his floor is higher, but Dantonio’s ceiling is higher still. You can say exactly the same about Mark Richt and his 9-to-10 wins per season or Les Miles, who won a championship less than a decade ago and might yet get himself run out of Baton Rouge.

    • Thanks for your response to this — sorry it took me a little time to get back to you on it, reality is definitely not allowing me to stay on top of things as much as I would like. It was nice to get back to a little “think-piece” writing, and this question really has been nagging me all summer. It took me a while before I came to the conclusion that it was the whole ceiling/floor issue that (at least in part) is how we can look at Riley and Pelini differently regardless of their records. Of course, the comeback to that is that it’s a contest of the known versus the unknown, which is fair. But I’m not sure that makes a difference.

      D’Antonio is really a fascinating case study, I’m glad you brought him up in comparison to Stoops. It will be interesting to see what happens when (or, in fairness, if) Sparty takes a step back for a couple of years. It still kinda blows my mind that both Michigan State and Oklahoma were playoff teams last year — and that Iowa was about a minute away from taking Sparty’s place.

      I know there’s going to be a lot made of Nebraska’s game against Oregon, but quite honestly I don’t think this is a make-or-break scenario for Riley. Sure, it would be great to win, and Nebraska can’t get themselves embarrassed. But if NU stays close and loses late, everything is still in front of Nebraska to win the B1G West and get to Indianapolis. That, more than anything, I think is really the barometer Nebraska fans will be looking at in the next couple of years.

      Thanks as always for the thought-provoking replies, I really appreciate them!

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