Next week, Nebraska's spring practice kicks off to little national attention. The Cornhuskers will not be considered 2014 national title contenders, nor are they bottom-feeders in danger of weekly on-field embarrassment. They exist somewhere in between in an unhappy medium, a four-loss purgatory that would be considered brilliant success for teams like Vanderbilt and Duke but is instead stagnant mediocrity for a historically proud program like Nebraska.
They are almost exactly where they were last offseason, meaning it's somehow become easy to forget about Nebraska football.
Nebraska's reputation still precedes itself. Ask a casual fan about the most appealing jobs in college football, and the Cornhuskers might still come up among the best of the best. But Nebraska hasn't finished in the top 10 since 2001, when it backed its way into the national title game despite failing to win the Big 12 North, and lost its final two games to Colorado and Miami by a score of 99-50. Since then, 35 teams have appeared in the top 10 of the final USA TODAY Coaches Poll, none of which were the Huskers. Meanwhile, players who just signed in Nebraska's recruiting class of 2014 were born in the middle of the '90s dynasty, meaning they're most familiar with a program that has famously lost four games in each of Bo Pelini's six seasons as head coach, acting as a top-40 type team instead of a superpower.
So after more than a decade of this now, it feels necessary to ask: Just what should the standard of success be for a program like Nebraska?
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Nebraska football feels like a throwback, the program that navigated its way into the national consciousness time after time: four straight top-10 finishes in the 1960s ... back-to-back national titles to open the '70s around the 1971 Game of the Century vs. Oklahoma… Johnny Rodgers' Heisman in 1972 … Mike Rozier's Heisman in the 1983 season that ended with Tom Osborne's doomed national title gamble in the Orange Bowl… eight top-10 finishes in nine years from 1993-2001, including three national titles, the "Flea Kicker" miracle at Missouri and the magic of Tommie Frazier… Eric Crouch's Heisman in 2001.
The Nebraska football story is perhaps one of the most remarkable in American sports, its success likely taken for granted. Nebraska has ended up intertwined in the game's biggest moments decade after decade, inventing itself as one of the preeminent national powers despite facing many inherent disadvantages.
The state of Nebraska ranks 37th in the United States in population, meaning West Virginia is the only major conference team located in a less populous state. Beyond that, the Cornhuskers are perhaps the most isolated major conference team in college football. By joining the Big Ten, Nebraska belongs to the only one of the big five conferences that doesn't have a footprint reaching into California, Texas and/or Florida, and of the 12 Big Ten teams, Nebraska is the most removed from the league's population centers and prep talent pools, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and the Chicago and Washington D.C. areas. It may be the marquee program of the Great Plains, but there's rarely much talent to mine from the expansive region. It exists sort of in its own world: at the center of the country, yet on the outside of everything.
Which means that, despite its decades of success, its five national championships and fourth-most wins in FBS history, in the modern era Nebraska is sort of an underdog, a label that doesn't mesh with the feelings of superiority the Cornhuskers spent half a century accruing. Nebraska fans and former players are accustomed to being the powerful ones, so from the inside it's always hard to accept that the status quo has changed, to the point where Nebraska left the Big 12 largely because it had become an outcast forced to cede power to Texas. From the outside, it's much easier to wonder if Nebraska is destined for an Iowa-type fate -- passionate fan base, occasional conference contender -- instead of reclaiming its status as a premier destination.
That storied history is not for nothing, but the further Nebraska is removed from that success, the less it matters. Nebraska's best claim aside from its history is its status as the only game in town, the sports team for almost everyone in the state. But that can go only so far. Eighteen-year-old recruits certainly aren't immune to being attracted to the game's shiny objects, and spending four years with Pelini in Lincoln, Neb., hardly qualifies, especially when stacked up against the dominance of SEC programs; the re-emergence of Florida State; the flashiness of Oregon; the forward-thinking offenses of Baylor, Texas A&M and Auburn; the coaching cachet of Ohio State and Alabama; the glamor of USC; and so on. Since 2002, Nebraska's average Rivals.com recruiting finish has been 26th, with one top-10 finish, results that fall about exactly in line with where the program has been on the field.
It's not as if Nebraska is totally irrelevant, of course. The Cornhuskers advanced to the Big Ten title game in 2012 -- although they were blown out 70-31 by Wisconsin -- and Ndamukong Suh almost single-handedly led an upset attempt that fell short against Texas in the 2009 Big 12 title game. They've won 57 games in Pelini's six seasons, reaching as high as No. 5 in 2010. They're a threat to win any Big Ten game. Even next season, they return two of the Big Ten's five or so best players in Ameer Abdullah, the nation's leading returning rusher, and Randy Gregory, the Big Ten's sack leader. The cupboard is hardly bare as the team completes its transition from the once-promising but ultimately erratic Taylor Martinez era to Tommy Armstrong Jr. (barring an offseason QB race victory by redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton), meaning there's no reason Nebraska can't be a frontrunner to get to the conference championship game in the first season of the weaker Big Ten West, where the biggest challenges will come from Wisconsin and maybe Iowa or Minnesota.
The Big Ten's addition of Nebraska in 2010 made sense then and makes sense now. The conference added it for competitive reasons, not for television markets or access to fertile recruiting grounds, both of which were the reasons for the acquisitions of Maryland and Rutgers in the league's eastern push. Nobody's trying to get a foot into Nebraska for the number of television sets or high-profile recruits; Nebraska is in the Big Ten because it has a passionate fan base -- with 333 consecutive Memorial Stadium sellouts dating back to 1962 -- and one of the best historical résumés in all of college football. It's a big-name college football program, and even through rough patches, it remains one of the sport's most recognizable and valuable brands.
Which makes it rather surprising that Pelini has lasted this long. Little that Nebraska's defense has done has supported his defensive genius label. His temper has often gotten him into trouble, most notably in the infamous off-the-record "F--- you, fans" audio revealed in September. He lost Tommie Frazier, although Osborne stuck up for him. In the end, showing some personality by interacting with Faux Bo Pelini about a Photoshopped cat photo can muster up only so much temporary goodwill.
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The question becomes, what's best for Nebraska? It's unreasonable to expect yearly 12-win seasons, so what would be more acceptable: four straight 9-4 seasons, or maybe two .500 seasons and two major bowls? It's that boring, flat-lined middle ground that causes trouble, because the same thing year after year gets tiring when it's a step down from national prominence -- the same sort of problem that middling NBA teams face when they're not contenders but also not bad enough to pick near the top of the draft. They have little hope for a championship, but there's also no hope for an injection of newfound life.
By being so consistently decent-but-not-great, Pelini's temper has been the only thing to actually prevent Nebraska from being totally forgotten. That's not acceptable, of course, and the only thing that might break the dull 21st-century status quo is thinking on the edges: Either go full-on Stanford/Wisconsin power football, or hire someone like Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris who can out-scheme opponents with an innovative offense. Specialize in something and become really good at it, like Nebraska did for so long with the I-formation option. Give recruits a reason to want to come to Lincoln. Nebraska may have historical success behind it, but it can't live off of recruiting the best players at every position and developing them to reload every year, like Alabama, Florida State or LSU. Nebaska has always had to sort of masquerade as a national power, which has done incredibly well, and to successfully do that requires some sort of specialization behind coaches who exploit inefficiencies in the recruiting market. Lately, Nebraska hasn't been able to do that to full capacity.
While expectations are probably too high, becoming restless is not unreasonable. To this point, the Pelini era has both been a model of stability, but also rudderless. There's little sense that the program will elevate to a higher level. So in 2014, an ultimatum is justified: Major-bowl-or-bust in the weakened Big Ten is an acceptable goal, and in the likely event that it's not achieved, it's become pretty clear that a new breath of life is needed.
Never getting worse is admirable, but it's OK to become frustrated with never getting better, lest you be forgotten.
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