Nebraska Football: How Far Are The Cornhuskers From Clemson?


On January 01, 2009, a fourth-quarter goal line stand helped Nebraska beat Clemson 26-21 to give Bo Pelini a win in his first (non-interim) bowl game. Pelini’s Cornhuskers gave Dabo Swinney a loss in his first bowl game in charge of the Tigers, and at the time it seemed a good foundation upon which to base future success.

Well, we know how that worked out. By 2015, Swinney’s Tigers were a special teams unit away from beating Nick Saban and the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide for a national title. Pelini’s 2015 saw him finishing a 5-6 season in charge at FCS Youngstown State, with his former club needing a win in the Foster Farms Bowl to finish the year at 6-7.

So what’s the difference? Both Pelini and Swinney started at the same time. How did Clemson scale the mountain to reach college football’s elite, while Nebraska languished in the “others receiving votes” valley?


The most glaring difference between Nebraska and Clemson between 2008 and now is how the two teams have recruited. As Dave Bartoo from CFB Matrix has observed, talent level is a critical factor in a winning college football program. Fans don’t like to admit it, but teams that win on National Signing Day are the teams most likely to win over the New Year’s weekend.

So take a look at how Nebraska and Clemson have recruited since that fateful Gator Bowl matchup in 2009. All recruiting rankings are 247 Sports national composite team rankings. I’ve also included the team’s record for that year under each coach, to get an idea of how each team performed.

Year Clemson Recruiting Clemson Record Nebraska Recruiting Nebraska Record
2009 31 9-5 42 9-4
2010 28 6-7 27 10-4
2011 10 10-4 16 10-4
2012 15 11-2 30 9-4
2013 15 11-2 22 10-4
2014 17 10-3 36 9-3
2015 8 14-1 30 6-7
2016 (to date) 11 ??? 34 ???

As you can see, at the start of the Pelini/Swinney era, there wasn’t a huge difference in the recruiting profile between the two schools. Their records bore that out, with Pelini looking like he had the brighter future.

But beginning in 2011, Clemson kicked its recruiting into gear, going from outside the top 25 to well within the top 15. As of 2011, Clemson’s average recruiting ranking nationally was 12.6, while Nebraska averaged 28 in the same time period.

It’s no coincidence that Clemson’s ability to break out of the four-loss quagmire that Nebraska languished in under Pelini coincided with its establishing a top-15 recruiting presence on a regular basis.

A Difference-Making Quarterback

If you watched the national championship game on Monday, you know that Clemson’s ability to compete with Alabama hinged on the brilliance of sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. His 478 total yards (!) broke Vince Young’s record, and that was done against Alabama’s NFL-caliber defense.

Alabama was able to overcome Watson looking like the second coming of Russell Wilson only through big plays in the passing game and otherworldly special teams production. As Deadspin observed, Watson deserved better for the performance he gave.

We’ve seen that improved recruiting was able to move Clemson from an also-ran to a player on the national stage. But it was superlative quarterback play that vaulted Clemson to a true national title contender.

How has Nebraska’s starting quarterback play been since 2008? Well …

Name Comp. Att. Comp. % TD INT TD/INT ratio
Taylor Martinez (2008-2012) 575 962 59.8 56 29 1.93
Tommy Armstrong (2013-2015) 474 878 54.0 53 36 1.47
Overall QB output (2008-2015) 1049 1857 56.5 109 65 1.68

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, those numbers aren’t good enough to win the B1G West. They’re sure as heck not good enough for Nebraska to put itself on the national stage in college football. And, disturbingly, Armstrong’s performance on the two most important quarterback metrics (completion percentage and TD/INT ratio) are significantly worse than Martinez’s.

Yes, those numbers don’t take into account rushing yards, or the intangibles that a kid like Armstrong brings to the huddle. But the fact remains that Clemson found itself a difference-making quarterback and was two special teams plays away from lifting a national championship trophy. Nebraska has struggled with inconsistent quarterback performances and is stuck in the “also receiving votes” category.


It wasn’t all that long ago that Clemson wasn’t really taken all that seriously as a national title contender. Sure, the Tigers had an impressive resume since 2011. But Clemson also had a habit of getting everyone’s hopes up, only to fall flat against lesser opposition.

Thanks to The Solid Verbal (a brilliant college football podcast that you should be listening to on a regular basis if you’ve read this far), this phenomenon of disappointment became known as “Clemsoning.” And, social media being what it is, #clemsoning became a big deal over the years. A big enough deal, in fact, that Swinney went on a three-minute rant about how unfair it was to single his team out for toe-stubbing (according to USA Today).

Nebraska fans should shudder how similar this sounds. Indeed, when SB Nation’s Football Study Hall looked into which teams “Clemsoned” the most, Nebraska was no. 5 on the list when blowouts were factored in.

What does that mean? That it can get better. After Monday’s performance, Clemsoning as a thing is done. Nebraska’s 2015 season was full of Clemsoning (Illinois and Purdue being the two clearest examples). So if NU wants to duplicate Clemson’s rise in the college football world, avoiding the creation of #nebraskaing (thank heaven that doesn’t roll off the tongue) would be a good place to start.

Nebraska Football: Five Things Standing in The Way of a B1G Championship


photo and story by Patrick Runge

For the most part, Nebraska football fans aren’t unrealistic. Honest. They don’t expect to see Nebraska winning national titles like in the late nineties. They do expect, however, to see Nebraska competing for conference titles, especially seeing other schools in similar situations (such as Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Oregon) able to do the same.

This year, new head coach Mike Riley will be trying to do what three coaches before him were unable to accomplish. So what’s standing between Nebraska and a conference crown? Here are five of the biggest hurdles.

Consistent Quarterback Play

If the website would permit it, I would have this headline in bright flashing neon with a klaxon alarm blaring in the background.

(Hey, webmasters, get on that, wouldya?)

Throughout the Bo Pelini era, nothing held Nebraska’s progression back more than its signal-caller. In 2009, Nebraska’s defense was historically good with a once-in-a-generation talent in Ndamukong Suh. But a near-absence at quarterback (an injured Zac Lee) and an additional one second in Dallas doomed Nebraska’s chances for a conference title.

Starting in 2010, the Taylor Martinez era began. For the next four years, Martinez’s dazzling athleticism covered his deficiencies as a signal-caller, placing a ceiling on Nebraska’s accomplishments. And last year, Tommy Armstrong’s toughness and leadership were not enough to overcome his 52-percent completion percentage and his 22/12 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Combine that with the loss of Ameer Abdullah, who was arguably Nebraska’s best I-back since Ahman Green, and NU’s drought of conference titles since 1999 continued.

Riley has five scholarship quarterbacks to pick from in 2015. But there is no evidence—yet—to suggest that Nebraska fans can expect dramatic improvements from its signal-caller. If Riley can be the quarterback-whisperer and boost the performance of Armstrong (or whomever ends up winning the job), then Nebraska may finally have a shot at replenishing the trophy cabinet.

Mental Mistakes

If inconsistent quarterback play was the primary reason for Pelini’s teams to struggle, mental mistakes might have been a close second. Consider these stats for the Pelini era (courtesy

Year Penalty yds/game, nat’l ranking Turnover margin, nat’l ranking
2008 99 108
2009 102 33
2010 115 61
2011 73 67
2012 95 108
2013 82 119
2014 56 75

Ugly stuff. The numbers in bold italics represent the times (once in seven years for penalties, twice for turnover margin) when Nebraska was in the top half nationally. Or, put less delicately, when Nebraska wasn’t below average in two of the statistical categories most closely aligned with mental mistakes.

To win a conference title, Nebraska will be competing against schools with better talent. Until Nebraska can stop beating itself, there is no reasonable likelihood it can even hope to win at the levels necessary to win a conference title.

A Reliable Placekicker

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, Nebraska has been blessed throughout its history with great placekickers. Last year was the first in some time that Nebraska’s placekicker could not be counted on to deliver in clutch situations.

It’s not that true freshman Drew Brown was horrible in 2014. Brown went 14-for-21 in field goals, for a respectable 66.7 percent. Overall, Nebraska was no. 80 nationally in field goal percentage, meaning it was slightly below average.

But as with mental mistakes, Nebraska’s talent deficiencies at the highest level mean that it must excel in other areas to win conference titles. And that means Nebraska must be able to count on putting points on the board, even from long distance, from its kicker.


204-102. 1407-818.

What are those numbers? The aggregate final score and rushing totals of Nebraska’s four games against Wisconsin since joining the Big Ten.

There’s no way to sugar-coat it for Nebraska fans. Wisconsin has owned Nebraska since NU’s arrival in the B1G. Even with Nebraska’s victory over the Badgers in 2012, Wisconsin has utterly humiliated Nebraska’s defense on three separate occasions. There’s a good case to be made that the 581 rushing yards (!) that the Badgers hung on the Blackshirts in 2014 did as much to get Pelini fired as his legendary tirades.

And Nebraska can’t get to Indianapolis without going through Wisconsin. Yes, the Badgers come to Lincoln this year with a new coach and without Melvin Gordon. But unless Riley can do what Pelini could not and solve the Wisconsin riddle, Nebraska’s dreams of a conference title will go unfulfilled.

That School Down South

Assuming Nebraska can finally slay the beast from Madison that has been haunting it for the last three years, there’s another fairly imposing hurdle to clear. Under Urban Meyer, Ohio State hasn’t lost a regular season conference game, is the defending national champion, and could very well have gone two-for-three had the Buckeyes not chosen to play in the 2011 Gator Bowl and therefore been ineligible for the BCS the following year.

And they might have been a year early in winning the title last year, given the talent coming back.

Nebraska has a number of hurdles to clear to give some company to the lonely “1999” on the façade of the West Stadium on the “conference champions” line. But the biggest hurdle might be the scarlet-and-grey monster from Columbus.

(The “team down south” moniker, by the way, comes from the legendary Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, in which partisans from each school will refuse to call the other school by name.)

Extra Points 08/07/14


Some of the best info about Nebraska football from around the web.

The importance of explosiveness for Nebraska (Hail Varsity)

Huskers practicing with GPS trackers? (Bleacher Report)

Tom Osborne adds his weight to the “field position is crucial” argument (Omaha World-Herald)

Simpler is faster, and faster is better, says Tim Beck about Nebraska’s offense (Lincoln Journal-Star)