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: Burning Questions for the Holiday Bowl

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans may have forgotten a bit about the upcoming Holiday Bowl amidst all of the drama, but there are a number of questions to be answered that will tell how NU will perform this post-season. After the firing of Bo Pelini, more questions that normal surround Nebraska as it prepares for the bowl. Here are three of the biggest ones that will help define Nebraska’s performance in San Diego.

What Will Nebraska’s Motivation Be?

Bowl games are always tricky to forecast because of the motivation question. How hard will a group of college kids, nearly a month removed from the regular season and with the holidays in between, really want to work? Will one team be more willing to pay the price in preparation, and therefore have more chance to be successful?

That’s for any bowl game. Add on top of that a popular head coach being fired. Add on top of that the fired coach being 9-3. And add on top of that a farewell speech from the fired 9-3 coach that further stoked the “us-versus-them” mentality that was one of the defining traits of said fired 9-3 coach’s career.

You could imagine almost anything in terms of how Nebraska will show up for the Holiday Bowl. Nebraska could be razor-sharp and wanting to put on the game of its life in honor and support of Bo Pelini and his staff. Nebraska could be completely flat and listless, feeling like their seasons were stolen with Pelini’s firing. Nebraska could come out like wild horses, riding an emotional high, but falling apart at the first sign of trouble.

Each of those scenarios are plausible. Indeed, over the course of Pelini’s career, we’ve seen each of those Nebraska teams take the field. So finding out what Nebraska team comes out of the locker room will be one of the biggest questions to answer in finding out how the Holiday Bowl will play out.

What Will The Game Plan Be?

While Pelini is getting comfortable in Youngstown, the rest of his staff will be preparing Nebraska for the Holiday Bowl. That means that defensive coordinator John Papuchis will be in full charge of the Blackshirts, and offensive coordinator Tim Beck will be able to call the game he wants.

Throw in a month to prepare—and coaches who will be looking to make a good impression for future employers—and Nebraska could look fairly drastically different than it has at any point this year. How effective that will be, of course, will be anyone’s guess.

How Healthy Will Nebraska Be?

Without the coaching change, this one might have been the biggest question to answer coming into the Holiday Bowl. Ameer Abdullah’s status will be the biggest question, of course, as it was his injury during the Purdue game that really changed the course of Nebraska’s season. But Kenny Bell has struggled with injuries all season, as have a number of other Nebraska stars.

With a month to heal, Nebraska will be as healthy as it has been since the start of the season. That will make a significant difference, particularly given the talent level of an opposing team like USC.