Thursday, February 27, 2014
Can Nebraska escape the middle?
By Adam Rittenberg
Maybe it's a convenient term because of Nebraska's geographic location or its current place in college football's pecking order, but I was struck by this headline from Sports On Earth: Stuck in the Middle. Perhaps the more accurate (but too wordy) phrase for Nebraska would be: Stuck in the area above the middle but clearly not at the top.
Matt Brown takes a deeper dive into some of the macro questions surrounding Nebraska football as spring practice creeps closer in Lincoln. The big two:
1. Can Nebraska elevate from "four-loss purgatory," as Brown calls it, and recapture the glory it enjoyed for much of the 1990s?
2. Is Bo Pelini the right coach to elevate the Husker program?
As Brown notes, Nebraska has fallen from the elite before and found a way to return, like when the Huskers won national titles in 1970 and 1971 after a 21-10 stretch, pedestrian by their lofty standards. Nebraska has overcome geographic challenges throughout its storied history.
Brown writes about how Nebraska might be becoming more like Iowa -- "passionate fan base, occasional conference contender" -- but still retains some regional relevance after reaching three conference championship games between 2009 and 2012. There's little doubt Nebraska can make another run to the Big Ten title game this coming season in a wide-open West division.
The question becomes, what's best for Nebraska? It's unreasonable to expect yearly 12-win seasons, so what would be more acceptable: four straight 9-4 seasons, or maybe two .500 seasons and two major bowls? It's that boring, flat-lined middle ground that causes trouble, because the same thing year after year gets tiring when it's a step down from national prominence -- the same sort of problem that middling NBA teams face when they're not contenders but also not bad enough to pick near the top of the draft. They have little hope for a championship, but there's also no hope for an injection of newfound life.
That's where Pelini comes in. A lot of coaches gladly would take his consistency, but Nebraska demands more and, given the history and the resources, should do so. I've always enjoyed the openness with which Pelini's players discuss championships (Big Ten or national). But until the Huskers are hoisting a trophy, it feels a little empty.
As Brown writes, perhaps the issue comes down to having a clear identity. What is Nebraska's signature under Pelini? Elite defense? Up-tempo offense? At times, Pelini's teams have shown flashes of both, but the Huskers' hallmark often has been unpredictable play and predictable end-of-season records.
Which is why the coming season means so much. Nebraska could have a very good defense, led by All-Big Ten end Randy Gregory. The Huskers undoubtedly have a great running back in Ameer Abdullah and some other exciting pieces on offense.
This is the pivotal point, the time for answers.
We know what Pelini and the Huskers have been. Can they become something else?