Why Nebraska Fans Should Not Give Up on Dreams of Glory

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I know it’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted anything. And yes, I am aware that there is a football season ongoing for Nebraska.

Some of it has been personal challenges, which you aren’t interested in reading about. But, honestly, most of it has been Minnesota. Watching Nebraska’s loss to Minnesota really shook what I thought about this program.

The Ohio State loss wasn’t fun to watch, but given where the Buckeyes are it was at least understandable. Heck, I even wrote about how to respond as a Nebraska fan.

Nebraska bounced back from the Ohio State loss with a gritty (some might say ugly) win over Northwestern at home, and it looked like maybe things had changed.

And then Nebraska went to Minneapolis, and got steamrollered by the Golden Gophers. Nebraska lost 34-7, in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as that score indicated. While head coach Scott Frost would later say that much of Minnesota’s ability to move the ball came from poor run fits rather than being beaten physically, it was inarguable that Minnesota was the better team.

In 2017, an ugly loss to Minnesota in Minneapolis was the final nail in the coffin of Mike Riley’s tenure as Nebraska’s head coach. With Riley’s firing after the 2017 season and Frost’s arrival, combined with the optimism that surrounded the beginning of this season, the one sure thing seemed to be that the 2017 debacle in Minneapolis couldn’t be repeated.

Well, the debacle was repeated in 2019, and the faith of many Nebraska fans (including myself) was shaken to the core. It wasn’t until Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald wrote this column that I really felt I had some perspective on where Nebraska is as a program.

Chatelain’s basic point is that Nebraska has been down for so long, stuck in this mire for so long, that the expectation of Nebraska as a national powerhouse is no longer reasonable. Here’s kind of the point of the column boiled down.

Nebraska football is the 60-year-old golfer who insists on playing the tees he played at 30. He can’t believe it when his drive doesn’t carry the bunker. Nebraska football is the guy at open gym calling for alley-oops on the fast break. And when the lob comes? It sails over his fingertips out of bounds.

How foolish would it be if Illinois or Purdue stood up in August and proclaimed their Big Ten championship plans? Yet we hear it from Nebraska every year and barely think twice. We encourage it. We see “College GameDay” roll into town and get intoxicated by ’90s flashbacks and then the game starts and, whoa, what happened here?

For years, I’ve told myself it was only a matter of time before Nebraska stumbled onto prosperity again. Even Kansas and Baylor and Northwestern and Minnesota have breakout seasons. Now I’m not so sure.

I share that uncertainty. I’ve written about how there are no guarantees of success, even if Frost is “the guy” for Nebraska. I’ve thought about how familiar Frost’s responses are when Nebraska loses. And, most uncomfortably, when I hear people say with certainty that Frost is “the guy” I’ve had to push away the thought asking myself “do you think that just because it’s what you want to believe?”

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Chatelain. It takes guts to write a column like this, just like it took guts to face down an irate Bo Pelini in his prime. Chatelain is the prime target of the ultras in Nebraska’s fanbase who can’t abide by anyone not serving up the Kool-Aid of inevitable success right around the corner.

Having said that, I’m not sure I’m willing to reach the same conclusion that Chatelain appears to draw at the end of the piece.

Nebraska football, for better or worse, is a rotten institution. Hollow at the core. The status quo isn’t nine wins and a Top 25 ranking. We’re living the new status quo. And the sooner we all recognize that Nebraska isn’t supposed to beat Indiana, the sooner it might.

First of all, I’m not sure what circumstance would constitute Nebraska football being a rotten institution as “for better.” And while he’s right that the status quo is no longer the nine-win plateau of the Pelini era, the conclusion he seems to draw is that Nebraska won’t pull out of the quagmire in which it is stuck until the expectations of success go away. If Nebraska fans would just be cool with mediocre football, then they could enjoy a once-in-a-blue-moon success story more. And, more importantly, if those expectations go away, then the pressures go away and (insert magic wand waiving here) the wins will return.

Not only is that nonsense, it’s dangerous thinking for the ongoing project of Nebraska football.

For the most part, the teams that are perennial powerhouses have some built-in advantages. Teams like Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, LSU, and Clemson are all nestled in recruiting hotbeds, making the acquisition of five-star talent much simpler. Oregon is a little bit of an outlier, but the Nike money flowing into Eugene helps compensate for that difficulty.

Nebraska … is not in a recruiting hotbed. There are only a couple of things that differentiate Nebraska from Baylor, Northwestern, Minnesota, and the other programs that Chatelain cites as having “breakout seasons.”

First, Nebraska’s tradition of success will always give it more benefit of the doubt if there’s even a possibility that the team could be competitive. Having College GameDay show up on campus for a team that went 4-8 the last two seasons and hadn’t beaten anyone better than Northern Illinois is evidence to that proposition.

The second is related to the first. While Nebraska fans are quick to strain their shoulders patting themselves on the back, it’s also inarguable that the dedication Nebraska fans to their team regardless of circumstance (some might even say in all kinds of weather) is unique in college football.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed this out after Nebraska’s gut-punch loss to Colorado in Boulder.

Even more than other programs, Husker Fan, you are the beating heart of why Nebraska is considered a blue-blood of college football. From a distance, there’s no reason the Nebraska program should be considered alongside the royalty of college football.

Except for you. You’re the ones who painted Folsom Field red, and in doing so you were the spiritual heirs of all those red-clad faithful that boarded the trains and descended on the Rose Bowl in 1941. You’re the ones who have sold out Memorial Stadium since 1962. You’re the ones, ultimately, who provide the platform from which Nebraska has the potential to launch itself back into the college football stratosphere.

You know the tune. You’ve sung the words – probably about a half-count off the beat, because that’s how we Nebraskans roll.

We’ll all stick together, in all kinds of weather, for dear old Nebraska U

The problem with Chatelain’s conclusion – it’s the expectations that are sabotaging Nebraska – is the corollary of the above thesis. It’s because Nebraska fans care so damn much, and won’t accept anything less than excellence, that Nebraska can differentiate itself from the Baylors and Northwesterns and Minnesotas and other programs that can’t trip over five-star defensive ends on the way to Zaxby’s for lunch.

If that goes away, then the beating heart of what makes it true that There Is No Place Like Nebraska goes away, and Nebraska really does become another Iowa or Indiana or Minnesota.

Sure, that’s arrogant to say, especially for a program that’s been looking up at Iowa for a while and just got beat by both Indiana and Minnesota. But it’s still true. Nebraska’s ceiling – whether it gets there or not – is higher than those programs, and it’s higher in large part because of the rabid fan base that propels it there.

And while we’re at questioning Chatelain’s conclusion, there’s one predicate to his argument that deserve some scrutiny as well. Chatelain said that there is no other program that has gone through a drought like Nebraska. Let’s consider that, taking a look at the records of six programs:

  # of years W L T Pct.
Program 1 17 133 87 0 .605
Program 2 12 92 67 0 .579
Program 3 22 157 98 7 .607
Program 4 12 77 58 3 .564
Program 5 22 144 99 1 .591
Program 6 17 141 77 0 .647

Programs 1-5 look fairly similar, don’t they? Each one had over a decade of mediocrity on the football field. Care to know who these programs are?

Program 1 Nebraska (2002-2018)
Program 2 Alabama (1995-2007)
Program 3 USC (1980-2001)
Program 4 Oklahoma (1988-1999)
Program 5 Clemson (1991-2010)

What’s the point of this? College football programs, particularly ones rich in tradition, can survive long droughts of success. Nebraska football as a program is far more resilient than we are giving it credit for. Yes, this long run has been painful and difficult. But we shouldn’t fall victim to recency bias (even if the “recency” in this case spans several presidential administrations).

All the pieces are still in place for Nebraska to return to national prominence in college football. Once Frost – or the next guy, if Frost doesn’t succeed – starts seeing success on the field, the underlying pieces are in place to vault Nebraska back to that national spotlight its fans so desperately crave.

But wait, you say. Who is this Program 6 you included in your list? Well, that would be Iowa, from 2002 to 2018, the same sample size as Nebraska. Why include the Hawkeyes in this analysis?

Mainly for a sense of perspective. The period from 2002-2018 is generally looked at from an Iowa perspective as one of the golden eras in Hawkeye football, while the same period has been viewed as a desert for Nebraska. And yet the difference between the two is a total of eight wins – which works out to a difference of 0.471 wins per season over that time period.

You could make an argument that the Iowa perspective is healthier. But it is also an acknowledgment that their current run is a ceiling of success, and that the fans should be grateful for the wins they have, understanding their place in the college football universe. Nebraska fans are not willing to concede that point – and are willing to endure the heartaches of that frustration in exchange for the potential of greater glory.

Which side of that bargain would you take, Husker Fan? I’m pretty sure I know the answer.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Pierson-El’s Injury Won’t Doom Cornhuskers’ 2015 Season

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“Don’t Panic”

– Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy

On Wednesday, Nebraska fans heard the news that standout wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El is out six to eight weeks with a foot injury (according to the Omaha World-Herald). Teeth were immediately gnashed throughout the Nebraska fanbase, with the World-Herald’s Dirk Chatelain forecasting that NU could be 3-4 by the time Pierson-El is fully recovered and out of the hunt for a division title. Indeed, Chatelain seems to view Pierson-El’s injury in some pretty apocalyptic terms.

Is it too early for doomsday talk? Probably. Does DPE’s injury impact Riley’s chances of a building a conference champion long-term? Probably not.

But barring an astounding coaching job, 2015 looks like an ambush, followed by a slog to the finish line. It’s not about winning a championship, it’s about competing with passion and dignity. It’s about avoiding dissension and humiliation. It’s about building momentum for 2016.

Hold on tight, Husker fans. The past few seasons were rough. But it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.

Look, Chatelain is one of the smartest and best reporters covering Nebraska football. He was the guy who had the guts to do his job and challenge Bo Pelini when circumstances required, regardless of the blowback from the fans (and the coach) he received.

And Pierson-El’s injury is bad, there’s no doubt. Pierson-El was easily Nebraska’s most dangerous and dynamic weapon on offense. With the departure of Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska was looking for a game-changing threat offensively, and Pierson-El was the most likely candidate to fill that role.

But let’s slow the train down about Pierson-El’s injury single-handedly crushing Nebraska’s ability to compete in 2015.

First of all, let’s look at the schedule. If we assume the worst-case scenario of eight weeks out, that puts him on track to return by October 10, when Nebraska hosts Wisconsin. Before then, Nebraska has a relatively arduous non-conference schedule, hosting BYU and traveling to Miami.

BYU is a terrifying opening opponent because of quarterback Taysom Hill, whom both Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports and Mike Huguenin of NFL.com call a sleeper Heisman pick for 2015. Stopping Hill will be a huge task for Nebraska’s new-look defense.

But Pierson-El wasn’t going to be tackling Hill – good thing, too, given the size difference. He was going to help Nebraska attack a BYU defense that ranked no. 58 nationally in total defense last year (according to CFBStats.com). Nebraska may struggle with the Cougars on opening day, but that’s a defensive struggle, one the loss of Pierson-El won’t directly affect.

The game against Miami is a little trickier for Nebraska, of course. The Hurricanes ranked no. 14 nationally in total defense last year (again according to CFBStats.com), and it would be really nice for Nebraska to have Pierson-El on the field to help move the ball in South Beach.

But a loss against Miami isn’t catastrophic for Nebraska. It does nothing to harm NU’s chances to win a conference title, of course. And if Nebraska can take care of business otherwise, coming out of the non-conference season at 3-1 – particularly with Pierson-El’s injury to handle – should have no detriment on NU’s confidence.

Then, we get into the conference season. Nebraska gets a trip to Illinois to start the conference campaign, and given the Illini’s struggles (not to mention their embattled head coach), a win in Champaign for NU should still be expected.

After Illinois, Nebraska gets Wisconsin in Lincoln. If the eight-week timetable holds, Pierson-El should be back for this game. It’s fair to expect, though, that he’ll be limited and not the dynamic weapon from last season. The Badgers are always solid and should pose a stern test for Nebraska’s divisional title chances.

But the game is in Lincoln. The Badgers are also undergoing a coaching change with Paul Chryst taking over in Madison. Melvin Gordon now wears a lightning bolt instead of a motion-W on his helmet. Joel Stave will still likely be Wisconsin’s starting quarterback. And if this is Pierson-El’s first game back, Wisconsin will still have to account for him regardless of how limited his injury might make him.

In other words, there’s reason to believe that Nebraska can hang with this year’s Wisconsin squad even without a fully-healthy Pierson-El.

Next for Nebraska comes a trip to Minneapolis. At this point, Pierson-El should be recovering, and hopefully at least close to full speed. The Gophers, of course, have a two-game winning streak over Nebraska, so it’s not unreasonable to think this game without a fully-functional Pierson-El could be problematic.

But as a smart and particularly handsome analyst has observed, much of Minnesota’s recent success against Nebraska is a result of a peculiarly-good matchup of the Gophers’ power-rushing attack against Pelini’s defensive structure. Nebraska’s new defense should neutralize that matchup advantage, allowing the relative talent of the two sides (Nebraska no. 24, Minnesota no. 64 in 2014 according to CFBMatrix) to shine through.

After Minnesota, Nebraska has a home game against Northwestern and a road game against Purdue. Even with the Purples’ history against Nebraska, both of these games would have to look favorable for Nebraska even without Pierson-El.

Nebraska’s next game would then be against Michigan State. That game is in Lincoln, on November 07, nearly three months after Pierson-El’s injury. Barring setbacks, there’s no reason to think Pierson-El won’t be fully fit to take the field against Sparty.

Nebraska’s task to win the B1G West in Mike Riley’s first year was going to be arduous even before Pierson-El’s injury. Losing its best playmaker makes Nebraska’s job harder this year, no doubt.

But there’s no reason to lower Nebraska’s 2015 goals to “avoiding dissention and humiliation” just yet.