It's about more than just wins and losses, and it's obvious that the Bo Pelini-Nebraska marriage wasn't going to last forever. Seven years were apparently enough.
Despite beating Iowa on Friday to get to 9-3, Pelini was fired by Nebraska on Sunday morning, creating another high-profile coaching opening, joining Florida and probably Michigan this year, after Texas, USC and Penn State all opened last year. It's been a strange situation at Nebraska, where Pelini hasn't won a conference championship, finished in the top 10 or gone to a major bowl game, but also hasn't won fewer than nine games.
He finishes his run at 67-27, and oddly enough, getting fired now ensures that this will be his first season without exactly four losses. Like Frank Solich, he's fired after being good but not good enough, although the situations are different given that Solich won a Big 12 title and appeared in two BCS games, including the national championship. Pelini's ceiling has been the Citrus Bowl, and most notably his teams have repeatedly been embarrassed in big games, including the 59-24 loss to Wisconsin a few weeks ago in which Melvin Gordon rushed for 408 yards, with Big Ten West hopes on the line.
It's always been a tenuous marriage. Via Twitter, numerous current Nebraska players expressed their disgust with the decision made by athletic director Shawn Eichorst on Sunday, but beyond that Pelini has never seemed to quite fit in with Nebraska's history, most notably drawing criticism from Cornhuskers legend Tommie Frazier. He's often been openly combative, and there was also the infamous release of a recording of Pelini lashing out at Nebraska fans. While Pelini swung some support back his way in the offseason by embracing the lighter side of the job, every season brings reality again: On the field, Nebraska keeps making the same mistakes, with embarrassing defensive lapses in big games and inconsistency on offense.
Don't get me wrong, @FauxPelini is brilliantly funny, but when the most memorable thing about your tenure as the head coach of a high-profile team is a parody Twitter account and your response to it, maybe it is time for a change. Maybe the Pelini era has run its course. Nebraska cannot reasonably expect to be as dominant as it was in the mid-90s, but it's still big enough to expect to compete for championships and the occasional top-10 finish. It hasn't won its conference since 1999, and it hasn't finished in the top 10 of the AP poll since 2001. Firing a consistently decent coach like Pelini is always a big risk, but at this point it's reasonable to ask if Nebraska is capable of rising higher under his leadership, or if it just feels permanently stagnant.
Like Will Muschamp, Pelini will be in high demand as a defensive coordinator, with several high-profile positions possibly opening, but unlike Muschamp, Pelini could still easily land a head coaching job.
In Lincoln, any list of possible Nebraska candidates is going to be wide-ranging because of the program's unique combination of history, expectations and degree of difficulty, but here's an early look at coaches who may get a look:
Current Head Coaches
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State. Mullen seems like a stronger possibility for Michigan, but he would be a possible home run for Nebraska. At Mississippi State, he's had to identify and develop under-the-radar talent, and he's successfully done it to make the Bulldogs a top-10 team. He's a respected offensive mind who was Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator at Florida, and he could bring his version of the spread option to Nebraska, which, despite its disadvantages, is still a better overall job than Mississippi State, with more resources and more history behind it. It's a premier job in name, even if it's not in terms of consistent national championship viability. It's a better place to consistently win than Mississippi State, especially in the wide-open Big Ten West instead of competing with Alabama, Auburn and LSU every year in the SEC.
Jim McElwain, Colorado State. Mentioning McElwain comes with a significant caveat: His August contract extension includes a hefty $7.5 million buyout. Beyond that, McElwain makes a lot of sense for any major job opening. He was the offensive coordinator for Nick Saban's first two national championships at Alabama, and as head coach he's turned around Colorado State, with the Rams going from 4-8 to 8-6 to 10-2 under his leadership after three straight 3-9 seasons before he arrived. This year, the Rams have boasted one of the most prolific offenses in college football. That's just a big price tag, especially when the outgoing coach still has to be paid too.
Justin Fuente, Memphis. Fuente is only 16-20 in three years as a head coach, and on the surface firing Pelini after a 9-3 season and then hiring someone who went 9-3 would seem strange. But it's not hard to see the appeal. Memphis won the American Athletic Conference championship this season, even though it hasn't been to a bowl game since 2008. The Tigers have long been a struggling program, and Fuente -- who is from Oklahoma and was offensive coordinator at TCU during the Andy Dalton years -- has done a remarkable job building them into a respectable team that has only three losses, two of which were to UCLA and Ole Miss.
Craig Bohl, Wyoming. There are many reasons why this would seem like a perfect fit. Bohl is from Lincoln, played at Nebraska under Tom Osborne in the late 1970s, has coached at Nebraska and won three straight FCS national championships at North Dakota State from 2011-13, losing just two games in that span. Like Jim Tressel, he has a track record of success in the same region, albeit at a lower level. Bohl's 4-8 debut at Wyoming shouldn't matter much, because he needs time to rebuild at one of the toughest jobs in college football. Not all of Bohl's time at Nebraska has been great, though. He was the defensive coordinator from 2000-02 under Frank Solich, a time when Nebraska played for a national title but got blown out by Miami in that game and also suffered high-profile blowout losses to Colorado, Penn State and Kansas State -- something that sounds a bit too familiar right now. Even if it was at the FCS level, though, it's hard to argue with Bohl's success as a head coach, combined with his understanding of the challenges Nebraska faces.
Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State. DeRuyter is 27-12 in three seasons at Fresno State after serving as Texas A&M's defensive coordinator under Mike Sherman. After going 9-4 and 11-2 with Derek Carr at quarterback, the Bulldogs fell to 6-6 this year in a rebuilding season, but they've still somehow managed to win a weak West Division in the Mountain West at 5-3, setting up a league title matchup with Boise State. He's probably a long shot, but he does have a few successful years as a head coach under his belt.
Jerry Kill, Minnesota. He'll be mentioned, but it's unlikely to happen. Kill has done a fantastic job at Minnesota, with back-to-back eight-win seasons, but moving up to the expectations of the Nebraska job doesn't seem like a great fit. A Kill-Minnesota marriage seems perfect the way it is.
Back to the Option
Troy Calhoun, Air Force. If Nebraska wants to recapture past glory, it can always try to duplicate that style. It apparently didn't work under Frank Solich, but 10 years later maybe the Huskers will go back to what made them famous, a system that can identify overlooked system fits and have great results by creating tough matchups that are tough to prepare for in the modern landscape. Calhoun has been successful at Air Force for eight years now, with the hiccup being last year's surprising 2-10 campaign. The Falcons have rebounded, though, going 9-3 with wins over Boise State and Colorado State, plus Navy and Army to take the Commander in Chief's Trophy. Only once in his eight years have the Falcons missed a bowl game.
Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech. Of course, if you want option football, you could always go for the most high-profile practitioner today. Johnson was an FCS national champion at Georgia Southern, went 45-29 at Navy with no losses to Army and now, with restlessness creeping in prior to this season, is heading to his third ACC title game and probably his third ACC coach of the year award. The Yellow Jackets just beat Georgia to move to 10-2, and they're 57-34 under Johnson.
Scott Frost, Oregon. Perhaps the most mentioned name. Frost started at quarterback for Nebraska in 1996-97, leading the Huskers to the 1997 national championship. From 2009-12, he was Chip Kelly's receivers coach at Oregon, and he's spent the last two years as Mark Helfrich's offensive coordinator. If Nebraska chooses to go the coordinator route, then Frost is the obvious name, as a famous Nebraska player who's gone on to have success as an assistant in one of the most innovative systems in football. Adapting an Oregon-style system to Nebraska might be the perfect idea. He seems like someone who will be a Nebraska coach at some point, but at 39 years old it doesn't necessarily have to happen now.
Tom Herman, Ohio State. This would probably be too big of a jump for the 39-year-old Herman, but he's been Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator for three years in which Ohio State hasn't lost a Big Ten regular-season game. This year, the Buckeyes went 11-1 in the regular season despite losing QB Braxton Miller, a preseason Heisman candidate, to an injury in August. He previously coached at Iowa State, Rice and Texas State, giving him ties to the heartland region. He'll inevitably get a head coaching job soon, but probably not one this big.
Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State. Narduzzi has turned down head coaching overtures in the past, but not one as big as this. He's 48 years old and has been Mark Dantonio's defensive coordinator since 2004, spending three years at Cincinnati and building great defenses at Michigan State ever since then. He'll be a great hire for someone, whenever he decides to make the leap to a top job, but it also might be hard to imagine Nebraska hiring another defensive coordinator with no head coaching experience.
Others who could be mentioned: Utah State head coach Matt Wells, former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano, Georgia Southern head coach Willie Fritz, Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Mark Hudspeth, Miami coach Al Golden (Eichorst, the Nebraska AD, was previously at Miami and worked with Golden.).