Great programs on hard times.
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Technically, Nebraska is not so far removed from some degree of success since Tom Osborne retired ten years ago, having won two conference titles, played in eight bowl games and appeared in the Big 12 Championship game as recently as 2006. The last six years, though, since 2002, is easily the program's worst stretch since the start of the 1962 season, Bob Devaney's first in Lincoln, before the Kennedy assassination. Bill Callahan managed to guide the Huskers to two losing seasons in four years, when none of his three predecessors had even lost more than three games twice in any four-year period (even Frank Solich took five years to lose four and seven, respectably). In the 40 years covering 1962-2001, Nebraska won five mythical championships and was the only team in the nation with a winning percentage over 80 percent (it was well over, at .832). Since 2002, that number has dropped to .579, barely treading water in a tie with Purdue for 42nd-best in that span.
What Went Wrong: In 2007, the defense. Everything related to the defense, up to and including the linebackers' choice of desert at pregame meals. The front four was not exactly young, but it was inexperienced (the entire D-line rotation had one career start between its members entering the season), and ultimately dead last in the Big 12 in rushing defense, total defense, scoring defense and even sacks, just two years removed from leading the nation in sacks and tackles for loss in 2005. It was almost literally half the unit it was in 2006: opponents' rushing yards doubled, scoring doubled, total yards rocketed up 50 percent, sacks were cut in half, turnovers were virtually nonexistant. This despite returning four senior linebackers (two of them, Bo Ruud and Corey McKeon, returning all-Big 12 picks from 2006) and four senior starters in the secondary.
Mere inexperience cannot begin to account for the decline up front, where powerhouses Nevada, Iowa State and Kansas State (all teams with losing records at year's end) met some resistance but the Huskers' other nine opponents (all bowl teams) met virtually none whatsoever - USC easily went over 300 yards rushing in September, followed by Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Texas in consecutive weeks in October, by which time the former Blackshirts had pretty cleary mailed it in. No full effort at this level could result in allowing 76 points to Kansas and another 65 to Colorado in the finale, with Kansas State scoring 31 in between the two for good measure; no full effort could yield an astonishing 38 rushing touchdowns. Even against a healthy, motivated USC, no full effort could be shoved around like this:
If you look here and here and here you'll see a pattern of confusion, indecisiveness, overpursuit, blown coverages and plain bad angles that serve well the highlight reel interests of opposing offenses, and scheme and ill-timed blitzes and the like played their role in the historic demise. But when a largely veteran group with a previous track record of competence turns in the worst performance in school history by a mile, the first problem is that, somewhere along the way, it just accepted its fate and waited for it to be over.
What Went At Least Moderately Right: The offense stalled along with the defense in October but in the end was not terrible, and in fact ended on an extremely positive note with this year's quarterback, Joe Ganz, who threw for 405, 510 and 484 in the final three games, as well as 15 touchdowns, en route to the Huskers racking up 39, 73 and 51 points. Of course, all of them were wild shootouts that required virtually non-stop passing just to keep pace as the defense descended into the furthest depths of its black hole, and Ganz also threw seven interceptions that helped the score get way, way out of hand in the losses to Kansas and Colorado. He did deliver one of the season's best single-game performances against Kansas State, though (30-40, 510 yards, 7 TD, 0 INT), and would have easily smashed every school passing record if he'd played in more than three games.
Changes, Building Blocks and Other Cautious Optimism: The Huskers are still dramatically out-recruiting the rest of the Big 12 North, having pulled in the best class in the division four years in a row, guys who have had some success before last year and who will be hard to keep so far down under a completely revamped administration. Ganz is back with his best skill player, Marlon Lucky, and a slew of characteristically huge linemen with significant starting experience; as bad as the front four was last year, it was completely green, and returns intact. And it can't be worse.
Bo can moonlight however he wants, as long as he beats Missouri.
But the new administration is the thing: Bo Pelini has never been a head coach, and in fact may in reality be the faux-German actor from those ridiculous Volkswagen commercials, but new blood is new blood, and the enthusiasm of change and audacity of hope, etc., on a roster with more raw talent than three-fourths of next year's opponents might have a lot of the prognosticenti projecting Nebraska right back at the top of the North, behind Missouri. My guess - it's only a guess - is that the "New Day" theme and the Husker brand will probably give the Big Red the drop on Kansas again in the preseason. (Nebraska Football: We Hope We'll Be Better Than Kansas! Catch The Fever!) One year removed from a division title, with a new, fairly high profile coach should lend itself to the familiar mania again by August. August? Hell, they'll sell out the Spring game.
Obstacles: Whatever it's worth, the Nebraska "mystique" is finished; if the Solich Experiment didn't kill it, Bill Callahan's nondescript mediocrity was a death blow. Even if the defense gets its old black shirts back, it will have to earn the status all over again from offenses that most recently feasted on its lethargy. The division is Missouri's now, the Tigers having finally made the leap and returning the second-most balleyhooed quarterback in the country, and Kansas no doubt expects to be right there, quietly whispering "76" into Big Red ears like horrible ghosts. The 'N' on the helmet guarantees a lot of pomp, ambition and attention, but it's really just another team at this point.
The reliance on an annual junior college infusion doesn't help much long term; for an established team, a JUCO can be the missing link, but in rebuilding mode, they are typically stopgap-only kinds of guys who can help turn the ship in a new direction in hopes of luring talented freshmen on board. If they can't, JUCOs aren't nearly as likely to dig a program out of the sand over the long run.
Target Date For Reacqusition of Mojo: The roster is too young in 2008, which shapes up as a slow-starting, growing pains season that hinges on competitive efforts against Oklahoma and Kansas to start November and a fast closing stretch that builds momentum into a bowl game. As for 2009, though, there will be huge turnover with no young stars apparently in the wings. JUCO guys may have to carry the day, which is another way of saying, "Wait and see." Unlike some other places, though, there is no apparent path to turnaround: if there's little progress after the first weekend of October 2009, when Nebraska plays at Missouri two weeks after playing at Virginia Tech, the first wafts of malaise will begin to descend anew.