So, what are reasonable expectations for Nebraska in the Big 10 (plus 2), and what are Nebraska’s actual expectations? I think we can all answer the latter question.
NU misses its days of dominance, and feels it has a better chance of regaining them, or approaching them, in the Big 10. Now, is that reasonable?
This begs a couple other questions, namely- “could NU regain their mojo if they stayed in the Big 12?” and “is the Big 10 an easier environment for NU’s strategy?”.
I’ve posted before about how the existential struggle for Nebraska is being elite without an abundant local talent base. I want to show some numbers to put that into perspective. Here are the last couple of decades’ MNCs, the number of drafted players since 1989 for those teams (using a NFL draft database that goes back to 1989), and the number of drafted players from the schools’ home states (in parentheses). My assumption is that talent is distributed normally, and that the regions that have the most elite talent (as measured by being drafted) also have the most “good” talent, as well as the most “decent” talent. In other words, these regions are talent-rich, while regions with fewer drafted players are talent-poor.
2009 Bama – 90 (178)
2008 Fla – 121 (583)
2007 LSU – 96 (251)
2006 Fla – 121 (583)
2005 UT – 84 (624)
2004 USC – 127 (745)
2003 LSU – 96 (251), USC – 127 (745)
2002 tOSU – 130 (258)
2001 Mia – 143 (583)
2000 OU – 101 (78)
1999 FSU – 132 (583)
1998 Tenn – 130 (99)
1997 NU – 121 (43), Mich – 102 (158)
1996 Fla – 121 (583)
1995 NU – 121 (43)
1994 NU – 121 (43)
1993 FSU – 132 (583)
1992 Bama – 90 (178)
1991 Mia – 143 (583)
This shows a couple of things. First, the teams that have been winning MNCs have lots of players drafted. In other words, they have a lot of talent. If the survey were narrowed further for five year periods around the actual MNCs, you would see higher per-year draft numbers. BTW, anybody else surprised that Texas would come in last in number of draft picks since 1989 in this (admittedly exceptional) group? Guess what- Texas fall in the ‘80s and ‘90s was not a function of poor coaching strategies as much as poor coaching in recruiting.
Second, with two exceptions, MNC schools come from states that have a lot of talent. One exception is OU, which gets around the smallness of the Oklahoma talent base by claiming Texas as a recruiting territory. The other exception is Nebraska, and this chart highlights how well their strategy (documented in Part 1) worked. They had three times as many players drafted as their state produced.
But the formula was lost, and NU must now either find it, or a new one. What if they don’t? What if Nebraska has to rely on local talent, and the best coaching it can find? The Big 10 already has a program like that- Iowa. Since 1989, 45 Iowa schoolboys have been drafted, comparable to Nebraska’s 43 (yes, Iowa shares talent with Iowa State, but gets the lion’s share of it). Iowa is a good program. Since 1990, they have a 59.1% winning percentage, have played in the Rose Bowl once, the Orange Bowl once, and finished in the Top 10 five times. That’s good, but not what Nebraska is looking for.
There is another Big 10 program with a similar talent base- Minnesota (48 Minnesota schoolboys drafted since 1989). BTW, for those who argue that a Cornhusker bounce back is inevitable because all elite programs have natural peaks and valleys- the Golden Gophers had four AP MNCs from 1936 to 1960, and have been ranked only four times since. What happened? The talent base that served them so well in the middle of the century (large farm boys in a minimally integrated sport) proved unsuitable for the modern game. I would argue that if you rely only on a small local talent base and have good coaching, you get Iowa’s results. If you rely only on a small local talent base and have average coaching, you get Minnesota’s results. Programs like Texas, USC, and Alabama get to bounce back regularly because they are surrounded by elite players, and just have to do a better job of selecting them.
I expect NU to do better than Iowa. I expect them to do at least as well as Wisconsin, which had a recent revival led by (retired) Coach Barry Alvarez, who learned his craft at…Nebraska. Wisconsin has won the Big 10 and finished ranked consistently. Nebraska has a better national brand than Wisconsin and may do even better, if it can recruit nationally better.
Can Nebraska resurrect its old formula successfully- exceptional S&C, option football, partial qualifiers, and walk-ons? Let’s see:
1. S&C. I’ve posted before that NU has lost its position as the nation’s best S&C program. Can they get it back? Probably not. Every team in the nation is trying to get an edge here. TCU probably is the best right now, taking 215# running back recruits and growing them into 270# DL.
2. Option football- The option worked for NU before because it was a good offense that was run by only a few programs, making unique talent more available for Nebraska. Yes, it’s smart for Nebraska to run a good offensive scheme for which the talent is readily available. No, I don’t know if the option is still that offense. That’s Pelini’s job to figure out.
3. Partial (and non) qualifiers. The Big 10 has no limits on these. That’s because the Big 10 consists of universities where the Athletics Department is subordinate to the administration, and they just don’t recruit many. Like every school but NU, the legacy Big 10 schools just can’t keep these guys eligible.
Does anybody know if NU is recruiting the less gifted student for its 2011 class? Loading up on them is a risk, because if NU does so and has too much success, the Big 10 might pass a rule limiting them. If NU can recruit these guys successfully, it will go a long way towards getting their talent back to where they need it.
4. Walk-ons. This is on Pelini. Having the walk-on program that NU had before requires a real commitment from the coaching staff. Is Pelini doing this?
It will be interesting to see how Nebraska fits in the Big 10. They chafed in contact with UT in the Big 12, a lumbering behemoth mindless of how its girth affected everybody else. Now they have joined a conference with three UTs- PSU, Michigan, and Ohio State. These are the schools that have won most of the recent Big 10 titles, and are all located in talent-rich regions. They can succeed without trying too hard, and I suspect the Huskers will be disappointed to discover they really don’t spend too much time worrying about how their actions affect their smaller conference mates. Maybe NU will enter this alliance like somebody entering their second marriage- a little wiser, a little more experienced, and with tempered hopes and expectations. I don’t believe they will ever have a 40 year run like they did before. I don’t think anybody will. I think they can consistently be one of the Big 10’s better programs, and contend for conference titles most years, if they can find ways to maximize their talent again. They are kidding themselves, though, if they don’t recognize that there is just as real of a risk of dropping into mediocrity in the Big 10. This would be worse than staying in the Big 12, in that fewer would care. Maybe they figured the Big 12 was going to die anyway, so they needed to get out while they could.
I imagine they have a plan, and it goes beyond “We’ll have more money, and not have to put up with Texas’ BS anymore”. We’ll know in 5 years how smart a move this is for them. If they aren’t contenders soon, with a renewed enthusiasm and a clean slate, and people still remembering the Osborne Big Red machine, then we can consider those days gone for sure.