Monday, August 1, 2011

What is the State of the Program?

“State of the program.” You hear the term so many times when evaluating anything. Ask any Nebraska football fan “what is the state of the program?” and most will give a forthright answer to such an open-ended question.

After posting a 44-32 record from 2002-2007 (which spanned the last two years of the Frank Solich tenure and the entire Bill Callahan regime), the Huskers have gone 29-12 in Bo Pelini’s three years at the helm. Nebraska has definitely made progress under Pelini, just not BCS Bowl game material progress. The reasonble thinking fans knew it would take time for Pelini to get Nebraska to the prominence it enjoyed from 1961-2001. However, “patience” and “Nebraska football fans” go together like oil and water.

This is also a much different era of college football. Everyone has their theories such as scholarship limitations creating more parity. That angle can be overstated but it has some truth.

That said, the Nebraska football program appears poised for big things. In this day and age of college football, there are plenty of good teams with plenty of talent who can trip you up over the course of the season. Over the past three years the Huskers definitely shown a propensity to let those teams stick around and, in some cases (Iowa State’s 9-7 win in 2009) SU at home) those teams have beaten Nebraska.

That set of circumstances has to change but I think it’s fair to predict that as Pelini grows as a coach and the staff develops together, that there will be improvements on that front. What I do see as a huge positive is that even though Pelini’s win-loss success is similar to Solich’s 58-19 mark from 1998-2003. The reason that Frank got fired )rightly or wrongly) was that in his last three years, the team looked completely outclassed at least twice a year.

In the past two years, Pelini’s teams have shown that they can compete with anyone on a given day. The only losses in the last two years that couldn’t have been a win if one play had gone differently was the Texas Tech game (31-10 loss) in 2009 and the 19-7 Holiday Bowl loss to Washington last December. During that stretch, Nebraska took the No. 2 team (Texa) in the country to the last second before losing 13-12. The Huskers also led Oklahoma 17-0 in last year’s Big XII title game before losing 23-20. The Huskers also lost 18-15 in 2009 a eventual ACC champ Virginia Tech.

In this day and age in college football, the first thing a top program needs to do is be in every game. Clearly Nebraska needs to win those games and its track record in those situations has not been good but we only have a sample of two years to examine considering how bad the 2007 team Pelini succeeded happened to be.

The reason the Huskers haven’t been far more successful the last two years has been the offense, which has been absolutely putrid at very important points of the season. The posters who have pointed out the fact that the biggest contributors to that failure are still around have a great point. The offensive line has not been able to pass block for two years and has been supremely undisciplined, false starting way more than is acceptable. For an offense which is so weak that it needs down and distances to be favorable, this is not promising. Additionally, for the naysayers, it’s not like we revamped our offensive staff and brought in a proven coordinator with a track record of success. So, overall, I understand arguments against our improvement on offense.

However, I have more hope than the antagonists. I think that the Huskers performance over the last few years has been as bad as it can possibly get. Sometimes a situation can evolve where otherwise capable individuals fall into a trap of stagnation. More than anything I thought that former offensive coordinator Shawn Watson got too caught up in his own head and became a terrible playcaller. I hope that a fresh face will improve things and that the addition of John Garrison will result in more eyes on the offensive linemen watching their bad habits and identifying the things that confuse them so that those things can be rectified. If Nebraska’s offense progresses to middle of the pack Big 10, which there is no reason not to expect, its fortunes will change significantly.

As for our defense, I think that Pelini has assembled a staff of great defensive minds capable of game planning for any opponent. As long as the loss of defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders does not prove disastrous (and it could considering how amazing our secondary has been), the Huskers should be able to count on that unit to keep us in every game.

So overall, I think Nebraska’s prospects are bright. I think that the Huskers will be competitive against everyone and should be able to win their division more often than not. I think that their biggest competition will be Michigan and they will have a slight advantage there because Michigan’s cross-division rival, Ohio State, is slightly stronger than Nebraska. The years to be concerned will be when Iowa is (Nebraska’s main rival), plays Purdue while Nebraska plays Penn State. At least the Huskers will have the opportunity to play Iowa in the last game of the year, though, so they’d have to build a two game lead to eliminate Iowa’s chances of a division title before the end of the season. Once you win your division the conference becomes a one game crapshoot.

There are, obviously, points of concern. The Husker offense may not progress as hoped. The defense may not be as rock solid every year. Northwestern is scrappier than they have any right to be. Minnesota has no business being as bad as they are considering their large population base and excellent facilities. Overall I think that the Huskers are poised to be very successful in the new conference. Again, success in my mind is measured by winning the Division at least five out of every ten years (if not more) and winning the whole thing at least two or three times every ten years. That can be done. The State of the Program is probably better than we could reasonably expect it to be.

The dismal collapse at the end of last season along with the attendant negative publicity generated when Pelini went ballistic on the sideline in the 9-6 loss to Texas A&M, followed by the mail-in at the bowl game led to an extremely negative offseason both locally and nationally. Imagine trying to look forward to another season in which the offensiive coordinator attempts to prove his cleverness at the expense of winning games, while everyone else tries to figure out what happened to the electrifying Taylor Martinez that disappeared after Missouri.

Instead, Nebraska is in a new conference better suited to to it in a myriad of ways who actually seemed to embrace what the Huskers bring. Nebraska has new blood to help offensve line coach Barney Cotton, a new offensive coordinator (Tim Beck), fresh energy in the form of new coaches, vastly improved national exposure and respect and a badgered conference badly in need of positive press into which the Huskers fortuitously slipped.

Oh, and by the way, Nebraska has a defense and speed. I’d say the State of the Program is looking good.

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