Is Nebraska stuck in neutral?


It has been 15 years since Nebraska won the national championship, and 11 since they played in the title game. The Cornhuskers haven’t won a conference title since 1999. From 2000-2011, they’ve only played for the conference crown three times. Since playing for the national championship at the end of 2001, Nebraska has an 11-24 record versus ranked opponents.

There were times, like at the end of 2009 and the first of of 2010, that sports analysts and fans alike pondered over the notion of Nebraska becoming a premier program again because, let’s face it, the “A Winning Tradition” saying has kinda lost its luster.

When the time came to prove they were a team to be reckoned with, more often than not the Huskers fell on their faces. In October 2010, they were undefeated and facing the worst Texas team in a decade on a beautiful October day in Lincoln. They didn’t score an offensive touchdown and lost 20-13.

They were able to rebound the following week and beat undefeated Oklahoma State on the road, but they unraveled down the stretch, losing three of their last four games.

The same scene played out at the end of 2011. After being blown out by Washington in their first ever Big Ten game, the Huskers rebounded by coming from behind and beating Ohio State, throttling Minnesota and holding No. 9 Michigan State to only 3 points in a dominating 24-3 game at home.

However, with the chance to seize complete control of the Legends Division race and force a rematch with Wisconsin, they were upset by Northwestern at home and stumbled to a 2-3 finish.

In the four years Bo Pelini has been the head coach of Nebraska football, they have won at least 9 games. They are one of five teams to win at least 9 the past four years. They won ten games twice. Through all the wins, though, fans and media pundits alike are wondering if the Huskers are stuck in neutral. They usually beat the teams they are supposed to but are mostly unable to compete with teams in the upper echelon of college football.

I can see where people are coming from, but I bring a different perspective to the table. How long ago was it that Nebraska was the laughingstock of college football? I distinctly remember the 49-31 beatdown at the hands of USC, the 38 points they gave up to Oklahoma State in a the first half, and, probably worst of all, the 76 points they allowed Kansas to score. These weren’t basketball scores, folks. Nebraska footall, in 2007, allowed those scores in football games. The Blackshirts were ridiculed and shunned their black practice jerseys. The offense couldn’t score enough meaningful points. Recruits fled the bloodbath left and right. Then, at the merciful end of a 65-51 loss at Colorado, Bill Callahan was fired. Bo Pelini was hired. That was five years ago. 2007. Look where Nebraska has come since then.

In 2009, they were literally one second away from winning the Big 12 and sending Texas to the Sugar Bowl instead of the National Championship Game. In 2010, they gave up a 17-0 lead to Oklahoma and lost 23-20 in the Big 12 Championship Game, their final game as a member of the Big 12.

In Pelini’s four years as coach, Nebraska has a 7-9 record versus ranked opponents. Three of those losses were in 2008, his first year as coach. In the three years since, the Huskers have a .500 record versus teams in the Top 25.

People will point out that Nebraska was 4-5 versus Top 25 programs in 2010 and 2011, years they should have been progressing. While that is a valid point, it is also important to note that the Huskers had distractions both years. In 2010, they were a vilified team leaving the Big 12. In 2011, they were adjusting to a new conference. Those may seem like transparent excuses, but they are worth something. It is difficult to win many football games when distractions about. Ask Texas.

This is the first year the offense, and, namely, Taylor Martinez, will have the same offensive coordinator for two straight years. Taylor Martinez, Rex Burkhead, Kyler Reed, a healthy offensive line, and a bevy of wide receivers return. The defense, Bo Pelini’s bread and butter, will have less star power but more unity than in previous years.

What will it take to prove that the Huskers aren’t stuck in mediocrity? Stating tradition just doesn’t cut it anymore. None of the kids on the roster remember Nebraska winning anything important. Most of them were less than 10 years old when Eric Crouch won the Heisman Trophy.

It will take wins. Big wins. Wins versus Wisconsin and Michigan. In the same year. It will take a conference championship. They must play for and win the conference championships.

Is all of that possible in 2012? Who knows. If so, it’s up to Pelini to put the Husker bus in drive.

By Nathan Walters

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