Nebraska Football: The Double-Edged Sword of Expectations

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It has not been easy to be a Nebraska fan in the last couple of decades. After three national titles in four years at the end of the 1990s, Nebraska’s football fortunes have fallen to the point where NU had three losing season in the last four years.

That’s been really hard on a fanbase, particularly when you add that failure on the field to the arrogance of Steve Pedersen, the immaturity of Bo Pelini, and the incompetence of Mike Riley. The football played, as well as the recruiting levels and (particularly) the development of talent has steered the program into a steady decline.

The arrival of native son Scott Frost as head coach pumped life and hope into the fanbase, but it didn’t result in immediate change on the field. Nebraska started last season at 0-6, and ended the season at 4-8.

These ongoing struggles would cast down into the hearts of any fanbase. Is the new landscape of college football really such that Nebraska’s time in the sunlight of national relevance is over? Is it time for Nebraska fans to finally give up the ghost of glories past and accept its new, lesser standing in the pantheon of college football?

Frost doesn’t think so, as he said in an interview with BTN (and quoted by Saturday Tradition):

“You know, I hear people worried about expectations for us,” said Frost. “I’m not too worried about it. I actually think it’s good for our football team. I think expectations have been way too low in Lincoln for way too long. Having expectations was just kind of life around here. I think it helps our guys. We need to be confident. We need to expect a lot out of ourselves.”

Why are expectations for a team like Nebraska so important? How can expectations of a fanbase – which, let’s be clear, has been the source of suffering throughout this new millennium – help a football program be successful?

Take a look to Nebraska’s neighbors to the east to find the answer.

https://twitter.com/TalkHuskers/status/1163821777954443264

Now, let’s be clear. Since the turn of the century, Iowa has been a better football program than Nebraska. Iowa has won more games, won more conference championships, and both gone to and won more bowl games than Nebraska. The Hawkeyes hold a four-game winning streak over their scarlet-and-cream neighbors to the west.

But there’s little question that Iowa and Nebraska simply have different perspectives of their place in the college football world. Iowa fans are comfortable with their place winning eight to nine games in a season, and enjoying the occasional run for glory when the stars align properly.

And sure, after what Nebraska fans have been through, most would move heaven and earth to get back to that level of success. But let’s be honest, that’s not the expectation level Nebraska fans have for their program in the long run. It’s not the expectation level that Frost has.

If you step back, Nebraska really has no business being amongst the giants of college football in the 21st century. Nebraska is a small, rural area with no natural recruiting bed upon which to rest. Without that, how could Nebraska hope to compete on that national stage?

The two things that at least give Nebraska a plausible chance at a higher ceiling are its history and its fanbase. Nebraska’s place as a historical blue-blood of college football acts as a magnifier for its success on the field – if a blue-blood like Nebraska (or Alabama or Notre Dame) begins winning, that program’s history will increase its visibility.

The other element that provides a higher ceiling for Nebraska is its fans. The expectation of a championship-level program is what drove a powerful local son like Pedersen out of the athletic director’s position. The expectation of success is what made the dismissal of a man like Pelini – who, let’s not forget, never won less than nine games – possible.

Nebraska fans have not waivered in that expectation, to have a championship-level football program. Those expectations are energy, the same energy that drove swarms of red-clad fans to take trains west in 1940 to see their mighty men play in the Rose Bowl, and have led Nebraska fans to sell out the last 368 consecutive home games.

That energy has been the source of great pain recently, of course, as the football team has fallen woefully short of expectations. But the energy of those expectations are what drove painful change within the athletic department – change that could have been avoided had those expectations not been present.

Of course, the challenge is to balance long-term expectations of a program with short-term expectations of a season’s outcome. It is possible to hold those lofty expectations for the program as a whole and still hold measured expectations for the coming season.

(This may or may not be foreshadowing next week’s season prediction column.)

But in the main, Frost is right. Expectations for any program – but particularly for a program like Nebraska – are a critical difference between a program that has a championship-level ceiling, and one that does not.

GBR, baby.

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