Sunday, April 5, 2009

Reaching the Big 12 title game will be easier than winning it

“Expectations,” “progress,” and “process” are three terms that Nebraska football fans have heard ad nausea the past few years.

The context of those words have centered around how expectations were lowered in the Bill Callahan years and how winning the Big 12 North title in 2006 (its first since 1999) was considered progress. With Bo Pelini as the head coach, he has constantly talked about “the process.”

I remember in the moments after Nebraska’s 37-14 win over Colorado, players paraded around the field with the Big 12 North title trophy. You would have thought the Huskers won a BCS bowl game. I was happy as a fan because it was the first step necessary for the program getting back where it needed to be.

The Huskers then lost the Big 12 title game 21-7 to Oklahoma and then 17-14 to Auburn in the Cotton Bowl. The team plummeted to a 5-7 season in 2007, which would be Callahan’s last, and then rebounded with a 9-4 season a year ago in Pelini’s first season.

I remember conversing with many fellow Husker fans last year at this time saying that going from 5-7 to 9-4 is the easy the part. Going from 9-4 to 11-2 will be the hard part. There are two ways to look at that statement. Nebraska lost two games by less than seven points (35-30 to Virginia Tech and 37-31 in overtime to Texas Tech). So with a couple of breaks, Nebraska could have been 11-2. That said, the higher a team strives to climb the ladder, the smaller the margin for error becomes.

As for winning the Big 12 championship, “getting to” the title game should be the easy part but “winning it” will be the hard part.

With the Huskers developing their program the right way under Pelini, the team should win the Big 12 North division seven or eight years out of every ten. I say that because I do not see a program in the North that is going to go on a consistent run of success.

Iowa State will never be a long term threat and it certainly won’t be in 2009 since it is breaking in a new head coach. Yes, Iowa State upset the No. 12 ranked Huskers 19-10 in 1992 and bested Nebraska in 2002 and 2004 but let’s face it, aside from 1992; the Cyclones only beat Nebraska when it was down. The Huskers went 7-7 in 2002 and 5-7 in 2004.

Iowa State’s best chances to win the Big 12 North came in 2004 and 2005, it not only failed to win it but fell short when the division winner (Colorado) went 4-4 and then 5-3. Best case scenario, the Cyclones might have a few years where they go 7-5 or even 8-4 but they are not going to be churning out 9-3 or better on a regular basis because the Cyclones will get a lot of recruits that Nebraska or Iowa didn’t want.

Bill Snyder returns as head coach to Kansas State for a second stint. The Wildcats defense was rated a Kevin Cosgrove-esque 117th in total defense and had its starting quarterback (Josh Freeman) leave for the NFL. Best case scenario, K-State goes 6-6 in 2009.

Snyder deserves enormous credit for turning around a once moribund program that went 299-510 before 1989. Snyder posted a record of 136-68-1 at K-State but it should also be pointed out that the Wildcats went 9-13 his final two years. Plus, how many of these “coming home” stories really work? Not many.

I have to think that Colorado is not going to be bitten by the injury bug like last year during a 5-7 season. Yes, the Buffs have 15 starters returning but they still have the look of an 8-4 team at best – and that’s being charitable. Colorado won the Division four times from 2001-2005 but in two of those years they had conference records of 4-4 (2004) and 5-3 (2005). That’s not exactly taking control of the division.

I also do not think Dan Hawkins is the right guy. Hawkins went 53-11 at Boise State but is overmatched at the Big 12 level, going 13-24. Plus, CU football is not woven into the culture. When people think of football in Colorado, they think of the Denver Broncos.

We’ll find out how good of a coach Missouri’s Gary Pinkel really is because the Tigers lose seven players on defense, and its offense will be gutted with the graduation of Chase Daniel and Chase Coffman and Jeremy Maclin’s departure to the NFL.

Because Columbia, Mo., is between Kansas City and St. Louis (two fairly fertile grounds for talent), the Tigers will always have some talent but they just don’t strike you as a program that will put together runs like the last two seasons (22-6). While I wouldn’t consider the 2008 season a failure as the Tigers went 10-4, it was a disappointment given the preseason hype they had.

Kansas is perhaps the Huskers biggest threat for the 2009 season. For starters, the Jayhawks get Nebraska at home and have a returning starter in Todd Reesing at quarterback while the Huskers will have a first-year starter.

Kansas will be a “tough out” because Mark Mangino (45-41) knows how to maximize the talent he has. The Jayhawks football program, however, despite its success under Mangino is always going to fight the perception of being a “basketball school,” which means Nebraska will generally have a talent advantage.

As for the hard part of “winning the Big 12 title.” In the South division, Baylor won’t be a factor any time soon. Texas A&M will probably bounce back to some degree. Oklahoma State and Texas Tech have done a nice job under head coaches Mike Gundy and Mike Leach respectively. However, those two programs might have reached their ceiling because both programs will get their share of players that Oklahoma and Texas did not want.

As for OU and Texas? Both schools enjoy a recruiting advantage over Nebraska because of their success this decade and being in fertile recruiting areas. Texas has enjoyed a 115-26 record under head coach Mack Brown with a National title in 2005. Oklahoma has gone 109-24 under Bob Stoops with a National title in 2000.

What gives the Huskers hope is that both coaches have lost as many big games as they’ve won. And both teams should enter the 2009 season in the conversation of National title contenders.

Oklahoma is like the Atlanta Braves of college football. Yes, they have one title but they have been there three other times and had their doors blown off in the other one (55-19 loss to USC in 2004). Again, for as great as Oklahoma has been this decade, you can’t help but feel to some degree that it has underachieved.

As for Texas, which is 4-6 against OU this decade, you also get the feeling that with all of the talent, it acquires, it should have more than one title.

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