The results of bowl games should never be given significant weight when projecting what will happen to a team the next year, but they can, if nothing else, provide needed morale boosts after disappointing seasons, especially for teams desperately in need of hope.
Just ask Nebraska.
Playing in the Fosters Farms Bowl last Dec. 26 was a risky proposition for the Cornhuskers. After a 5-7 regular season, Nebraska became one of only a few college football teams to ever appear in the postseason with a losing record, because there were not enough eligible teams with .500 or better records to fill the 80 bowl slots. Yes, the number of games a team plays in a season has increased, but had the Huskers lost to UCLA, they would have become one of only four Nebraska teams in history to lose eight games -- and the first since the 1959 squad went a program-worst 1-9.
In seven years as head coach in Lincoln, Bo Pelini never lost more than four games. In his debut as Pelini's replacement, Mike Riley nearly lost twice as many, raising more questions about what exactly Nebraska's expectations should be in the 21st century and whether Riley is the right coach to meet them.
Ultimately, Nebraska's 37-29 win over UCLA in Santa Clara did not change much. The Huskers would not have played in a bowl in any other year with that record, they still finished with a losing record at 6-7 despite the bowl win and this came after they fired a coach, Pelini, who was consistently decent with his end results, even if his abrasive personality and occasional big-game embarrassments were too much for Nebraska to stomach any longer. The last two Nebraska coaches to lose seven games in a season -- Bill Callahan and Frank Solich -- didn't last much longer.
Prior to the bowl win, it would have been hard for Riley's Lincoln debut to have gone much worse. But the good news going forward is that one of the most frustrating seasons in Nebraska history was partially a product of bad luck, and what happened in 2015 is unlikely to repeat itself in 2016. In fact, the circumstances are nearly impossible to ever repeat. Nebraska's seven losses came by a total of 31 points. For perspective, in Pelini's final season, Nebraska lost by more than that -- 35 points -- in one game against Wisconsin in which the Badgers' Melvin Gordon rushed for 408 yards. The 2015 Huskers could not avoid heartbreak, beyond the one game in which luck was mercifully on their side in their upset win over Michigan State.
They lost to BYU by five on a last-play Hail Mary by the Cougars' backup quarterback. They lost to Miami by three after erasing a 23-point deficit to force overtime. They lost to Illinois by one after horrendous clock management gave the Fighting Illini a chance to win the game, which they did with 10 seconds left after Nebraska held a 13-0 lead entering the fourth quarter. They lost by two to Wisconsin on a 46-yard field goal with four seconds left. They lost to Northwestern by two on a failed two-point attempt with 4:23 left. They lost to Purdue by 10 in a game in which they lost the turnover battle 5-0 with backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe throwing four interceptions in place of the injured Tommy Armstrong. And they lost to undefeated Iowa by eight despite out-gaining the Hawkeyes 433 to 250 with 22 first downs to 10, thanks to four turnovers.
Nebraska did get a lucky break when officials allowed a 30-yard game-winning touchdown against Michigan State after the receiver stepped out of bounds before the catch, but even with that late-game good fortune, it may have been the most snakebitten team in the country last season. The Huskers finished 113th in turnover margin, and any of their losses could have gone the other way. This was far worse of a season than anything that happened under Pelini's watch, but at least the Huskers avoided the multi-touchdown-loss meltdowns that contributed to the unease surrounding Pelini's tenure.
There's no doubt that 2016 will go down as one of Nebraska's worst seasons since the 1960s, but even though the record looked horrible, statistically it wasn't that far removed from the Pelini era, or at least the last couple of years. The following table shows how the 2015 Nebraska team stacks up with the rest of the last 10 years (F/+ is Football Outsiders' combined ranking of its FEI and S&P+ ratings, SRS is Simple Rating System from Sports-Reference and Sagarin is Jeff Sagarin's computer rankings):
It's not hard to see why Nebraska fired Pelini, even if getting rid of a coach who consistently wins nine games -- at an isolated school like Nebraska -- seems absurd. From 1969-2001, Nebraska finished in the AP top 25 every year and in the top 10 in 24 of 33 seasons. It won three national championships in the '90s under Tom Osborne and for three decades was a premier program. It's hard to let go of those high expectations, and it's impossible not to compare the present to the past, even if Nebraska's location makes it a harder job than its past would indicate.
The Cornhuskers have not won a conference title since the Big 12 in 1999, and they have struggled to get over the hump and win big games. Riley comes from a West Coast/pro-style offense background -- the Bill Callahan era will make any Huskers fans skeptical of that style --- which came with mixed results upon installing it at Nebraska. The Cornhuskers finished 37th in yards per play and 43rd in scoring, with the chief problem on offense being the turnovers, including a Big Ten-worst 15 interceptions thrown by Armstrong, and the team's biggest problem being the pass defense.
In the Foster Farms Bowl, Riley merged his philosophy with more traditional Nebraska football. In its first 12 games, Nebraska ran the ball between 29 and 39 times every time. Against UCLA's beatable run defense, Nebraska ran 62 times for 326 yards and four touchdowns, getting a boost from the emergence of 230-pound running back Devine Ozigbo (20 carries for 80 yards) while finally letting Armstrong use his legs to the tune of 10 carries for 76 yards and a TD. Armstrong is a three-year starter but is not a precision passer, having never completed more than 55 percent of his attempts in a season. A nimble runner, his rushing production was modest much of the season, with the bowl game standing out as his best performance.
It remains to be seen what Nebraska's philosophy will be this fall. Ozigbo, a sophomore, teams with senior Terrell Newby and sophomore Mikale Wilbon to give the Huskers a promising set of running backs when paired with Armstrong's running ability. The entire receiving corps returns, including standout wideout Jordan Westerkamp, a stellar tight end in Cethan Carter and the explosive De'Mornay Pierson-El, a punt return ace who missed most of last season because of injury issues. Armstrong has his flaws, but he will be a four-year starter with another offseason of work under Riley under his belt. The big question is the line, which loses three starters after imposing its will on UCLA the last time we saw them.
The progress of the line will likely determine just how far Nebraska goes, because it needs to be able to run the ball to take some pressure off Armstrong, and it needs to put him in favorable situations to help limit his mistakes as a passer. Despite being in the weaker Big Ten West Division, Nebraska has a tricky schedule, but it has some time to develop in the trenches because most of the tougher defenses come late in the season -- road trips to Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa in the last five games -- beyond a trip to Northwestern on Sept. 24.
The game that will be circled early in the season is in nonconference play, when Nebraska hosts Oregon on Sept. 17 in a test for two defenses that ranked among the nation's worst against the pass last season. Another win over a Pac-12 opponent would be huge for Riley, but how this season is perceived will be dependent upon how Nebraska competes in a winnable Big Ten West. It hurts that the games against divisional foes Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa are on the road, but if Nebraska can take care of business at home, it can be in the thick of the division title race.
Riley entered a strange position when he was unexpectedly brought in as Pelini's replacement. Most coach firings happen when a program is at or recently hit rock bottom. Nebraska annually performed below its colossal expectations, but it was far from bottom. Given that Riley has never had a season with fewer than four losses in two decades as a head coach at Oregon State and with the San Diego Chargers, it's reasonable to wonder what Nebraska is actually expecting and whether he's the coach who can make Nebraska competitive on the national level again. Having a personality that's far less abrasive than Pelini helps, but being lauded for being nice will only take Riley so far at a program hungry to taste some sort of national success again.
Nebraska is the historic powerhouse that for years has been performing as a top-30 team instead of a top-10 team, creating an identity crisis that has been going on ever since the Cornhuskers were blown out by Colorado and Miami to end the 2001 season. Patience is hard to come by when things have been amiss for so long, but Nebraska can't afford to panic. For how frustrating it was, Year 1 under Riley had a lot of fluke characteristics, and if the Huskers can rebuild their offensive line and find a pass rush, it's easy to see significant improvement in terms of wins and losses, even if the team isn't actually that much better than last season.
Just as one bowl game isn't enough of a sample size, one season isn't either, especially as Riley is still working on getting his own players to Lincoln -- including an increased recruiting pipeline to California -- while merging his system with players he did not recruit. There are ample reasons to be skeptical of where Nebraska will ultimately end up under Riley, but one season of misfortune is hardly enough to indict a coaching tenure before it even really begins.