Even the most die-hard Nebraska fan would admit the Husker football program has slipped from its dynasty days of the mid-to-late 1990s. Then again, even the most pessimistic Husker fan would admit things are a lot better now than at the end of the Bill Callahan era.
Pinpointing Nebraska's place in college football's pecking order isn't easy to do.
An average of 9.6 wins during Bo Pelini's seasons as coach makes Nebraska undoubtedly a good program. The lack of a conference championship since 1999 prevents Nebraska from being categorized as an elite program. Four consecutive finishes in the final AP poll make Nebraska a good program. None of those finishes in the top 12 prevents Nebraska from being called great.
There are undoubtedly elite elements about Nebraska's program. Few programs in the country have facilities like Nebraska's. Although many programs have passionate fans, Nebraska's are unique in their dedication and devotion.
But how strong is the Nebraska brand?
Dirk Chatelain addressed the topic -- as it relates to football -- in his column the day after Nebraska's Capital One Bowl loss to Georgia.
Without a dominant defense, who is Nebraska? What does it do better than anyone else? How does it stand out? What does it recruit to? These are the questions I keep coming back to.
What is Nebraska's edge?
Look around college football today. Look especially at the nationally relevant northern schools. All have established an advantage. All have an identity. Something that defines them. Something that separates them.
I discussed the Nebraska brand Tuesday with the school's new athletic director, Shawn Eichorst, who officially took over Jan. 1 after making the move from Miami in October.
From where Eichorst sits, Nebraska's program is in good shape both on and off the field.
"Our brand is as good as ever," he told ESPN.com. "People understand how we go about doing our business the right way, really based on fundamental core values. And we've been competitive. We're competing for championships, particularly in football, and I also think joining the Big Ten has grown the brand. Hopefully, it's grown the brand on both sides. There's always room for improvement, but I like where we're at.
"We're at the pinnacle of the game."
Nebraska hasn't had trouble reaching the so-called pinnacle, at least in conference play. It has competed for league championships in three of the past four seasons (2009, 2010, 2012). But it has fallen short each time, most recently in humiliating fashion against Wisconsin at the Big Ten title game.
Along with some other big flops on big stages, Nebraska is a program that leaves some wondering whether it can take that next step under Pelini. Nebraska fans clearly want more.
"I've yet to be at a place that doesn't want that," Eichorst said. "This place is no different. High expectations. We're there. We’re playing for championships in football, and we're playing on Jan. 1. Unless you’re that team that wins the national championship, you've got room to improve. We all recognize that. But we're there. Folks talk about the next level and all that sort of stuff. I have a hard time getting wrapped up in trying to define that, but I know we're where we need to be. We've got to keep winning. We’ve got to win one more game, two more games, those sorts of things.
"We're not far away."
Eichorst has had "great conversations" with Pelini since arriving at Nebraska and looks forward to working with the coach in a more defined role.
"He's highly regarded," Eichorst said. "He's a very smart, intelligent, disciplined football coach. His players like playing for him. The team concept, we're graduating our kids at a high level, good character. All the things you want in a leader of your football program, or any program for that matter. ... The thing that I can do is let him do his job and provide him with the resources necessary for sustained success. At Nebraska, we have the ability to do that."
Eichorst, a native of Lone Rock, Wis., who served as deputy athletic director at the University of Wisconsin from 2009-11, sees some parallels between Nebraska's athletic program and the Green Bay Packers -- the way both connect all who live in the state.
"That's what makes the great [emotional] swings on Sunday for the Huskers, or on Monday for the Packers," he said. "Everybody's invested."
Eichorst received criticism at Miami for not being visible enough with boosters, fans and media members. Some even referred to him as the "invisible AD."
He'll likely have to change his approach at Nebraska because of the year-round focus and the fans' investment, not to mention the fact he's following a program icon in Tom Osborne.
"You need to create a situation where information is flowing to those people who are most interested in Husker athletics," Eichorst said. "... Nebraska's a place that generates a lot of interest, and with that comes a different set of challenges and opportunities. You do have to be out and about in the public eye. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to put in good work behind the scenes. At the end of the day, this is not about me. This is about the University of Nebraska."