On to Part 2.
So, how has Nebraska fared in the Big 12? Here’s a timeline, noting key events…
1995: Last year of Big 8. NU wins MNC, its second in a row.
1996: First year of Big 12. NU finishes 11 – 2, losing at ASU, and to Texas in the B12 CG. NU finishes #6 after winning the bowl game. Note- NU’s at large BCS invitation took a spot previously intended for North Carolina. UNC coach Mack Brown ponders the lack of national respect.
1997: NU is back, finishing 13 – 0 and winning the Big 12 and sharing the MNC with Michigan. Tom Osborne retires, and is replaced by longtime assistant Frank Solich. In another noteworthy hire, Texas hires Mack Brown.
1998: NU finishes 9 – 4, ranked #19. Sagarin ranks NU at #9 (89.37). OU hires Bob Stoops.
1999: NU finishes 12 – 1, #3 in the AP and #2 in Sagarin (97.5), wins Big 12 (beats Texas)
2000: NU finishes 11 – 2, #8 in the AP and #4 in Sagarin (95.63)
2001: NU finishes 11 – 2, #8 in AP and #5 in Sagarin (93.58). Despite not winning the B12 North, NU plays (and loses) in the BCS CG. QB Eric Crouch wins the Heisman.
2002: The bottom falls out. NU finishes 7 – 7, #36 in Sagarin (78.66).
2003: NU finishes 10 – 3 with new DC Bo Pelini on staff. NU is ranked #19 in AP, but Sagarin only has them at #28 (82.12). They have a very weak SOS (71.28). Solich is fired and replaced by Bill Callahan (ex NFL head coach)
2004: NU finishes 5 – 6, and Sagarin has them at #76 (68.6, ouch)
2005: NU finishes 8 – 4, ranked #24 in AP, but #31 in Sagarin (79.49)
2006: NU finishes 9 – 5, winning the Big 12 North (losing to OU in B12 CG). NU is unranked, but Sagarin has them at #23 (81.64).
2007: NU finishes 5 – 7, #60 in Sagarin (71.77). Callahan is fired and replaced by Pelini, fresh off a MNC as LSU’s DC.
2008: NU finishes 9 – 4, #25 in Sagarin (80.16)
2009: NU finishes 10 – 4, and wins the B12 North (losing to Texas in the B12 CG). NU is ranked #14 in the AP but #5 in Sagarin (89.64), its highest since 2001.
Looking at this, it seems pretty clear that the program changed course for the worse after the 2001 season. Prior to that, NU was still one of the nation’s best programs, and after that it was…just another program.
How and why? My opinion is that Nebraska, from 1962 to 2001, maximized its potential as much as any program ever has. Most traditional powerhouses are located in talent-rich regions. Nebraska isn’t. It is in a state that produces about as much talent as Iowa, or Arizona. In Part 1, we explored how the Huskers’ system found and developed elite talent without the recruiting territory of other elite programs. Let’s look at those components in the period of the downturn…
1. Strength and Conditioning. NU used to have the best S&C program in the nation. Unfortunately, this is one of the areas where a competitive edge is most difficult to maintain. Rivals can hire your personnel, or develop their own techniques and knowledge. Other programs caught up with Nebraska.
2. Partial Qualifiers. NU used its academic support program to educate athletes considered lost causes by other schools. When Texas agreed to join the Big 12, it had a condition- limits on partial qualifiers. It came to a league vote (the other schools understood Texas wanted out if it lost the vote), and to its surprise, NU lost 11 – 1.
I don’t know how many PQs NU usually took. I assume it was more than the 1 per year allowed by the new rule. 4? 5? My guess is that these guys were some of the most talented athletes in Nebraska’s class. If they took four 4-stars per year as PQs, they could expect one superstar, one regular starter, and one reliable backup out of that group.
Was this fair to Nebraska? To me, the only good argument for allowing them is that NU seemed able to educate these guys, at least to the satisfaction of the university. That’s a good thing for society, right?
But, on the other hand- if Nebraska is the only school able to educate these guys, but all schools were allowed to recruit them, isn’t there a threat of a lot of these guys being used, and discarded? Don’t universities with reputations to uphold have a right to call for higher standards? UT (the school, not the team) has a real problem right now where it has to reject applications from exceptionally qualified students for lack of space, and the school is really wondering why some of the athletes are allowed in. Doesn’t it have a right to insist that it only belong to a conference that has standards for admissions?
3. The system. NU had a great offensive system, designed by Tom Osborne. Frank Solich had the misfortune of being a good coach who replaced a great coach, and as Earle Bruce, Fred Akers, and John Robinson will tell you, that never ends well. Solich was fired after NU dropped to a lower plateau, and NU made a horrible hire in Bill Callahan.
Know what the single most important strategic decision a coach makes is? What offense he’ll run. NU hired Callahan for his offense- an NFL style offense. They made this move just as the spread was starting to dominate the college game. Callahan was not necessarily a bad coach. He was just the wrong coach. NU would have been far better off changing to a spread option. It’s OK, NU. Notre Dame made the same mistake, and a year later (TAMU did too, but Mike Sherman was smart enough to abandon his NFL offense for the Lake Travis spread). There is only one program that was successful with a pro offense- USC, which also had the nation’s best talent. Hint- it may be easier to copy USC’s offense than their talent, but it won’t get you as far.
4. Texas recruiting. NU relied on Texas for maybe a half dozen recruits per year at its peak, generally very blue chips. Texas was not its main territory, but it was a significant one. Mack Brown changed the state’s recruiting calendar, which knocked all the out of state schools for a loop. Schools like to issue their offers in an orderly manner, and Nebraska had to either start recruiting everybody earlier, or go out of synch with the Texas recruiting schedule. The impact on NU recruiting was small, perhaps, but negative.
Looking at this, I see Nebraska football weakened by several small cuts, rather than one big kill shot. The talent is down a little, the coaching is a little worse, the conditioning advantage is gone…it all adds up to a weakened program. Know what Nebraska looks like to me, now? Iowa Hawkeye football. In other words, they look like a sound team from a low population state, usually good, rarely great. Unfortunately, the program’s supporters all remember being great too well.
Want an eye opening stat to show how far NU has fallen from elite ranks? Get ready. From 2004 to 2009, Nebraska is 6 – 14 versus teams from the Big 12 South (this includes two losses in B12 CGs). Of those 6 wins, 4 were against Baylor. Yikes. In other words, if NU had been a member of the Big 12 South the last few years, they would have been better than only Baylor. I think this is what Osborne meant last week when he said that the Big 12 football style was a poor match for the Huskers.
But wait! Isn’t Nebraska back now? I’m not sure. For all his failings, Callahan was a good recruiter, and the new Nebraska is dependent on traditional recruiting metrics in ways the old Nebraska never was. Let’s see what Pelini does this year, with the talent he recruited, before we get too crazy (Pelini is 3 – 4 versus the Big12 South, with 2 of those wins against Baylor). As ugly as the B12 CG was for the Texas offense, it was worse for Nebraska’s, and I think the Huskers’ near upset is as telling an indicator of relative program strength as Texas’ 37 – 27 win in 1996.
The next, and last, part of this series will take a look at Nebraska’s prospects in the Big 10.