Nebraska, I’ve truly learned to love and appreciate your fanbase while living in Omaha. You’re some of the most loyal fans in America and you’re incredibly proud of the tradition that has been built in Lincoln. Being proud of that tradition is something your program and former players have earned, but we gotta have a talk.
Nebraska hasn’t won a conference championship since 1999, nor a national championship since 1997. Nebraska hasn’t even made a bowl game since 2016. We’ve reached a point where talking about a national or conference championship is sounding ridiculous and is also counterproductive.
“But it’s part of our history,” you may suggest. You are correct. However, it’s all that you talk about. It’s holding back your current players because they’re under an unfair amount of pressure to bring back a measure of “glory” to Lincoln that is simply not reasonable under the current landscape, nor the revolving door of coaches and systems being implemented since the turn of the century.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the Rome which was built under Devanney and Osborne is not the same anymore. Returning your program to national prominence is possible, but it’s not going to happen tomorrow, nor next year, or probably several years even. One or two recruiting classes are not going to bring your program back to competing with Alabama or Clemson.
Over the last decade, we hear year after year about highly touted recruits coming to Lincoln who will bring Nebraska back to the top. By the time their four years are over, they’re dejected because they think they’ve failed, while in reality, they had a pretty good career. Unfair expectations rendered their blood, sweat, and tears for Nebraska as a failure or disappointment.
The landscape in college football has changed. The only program outside of the Southeastern quadrant of America with a punter’s chance at winning a national championship today is Ohio State, and we’re quickly learning what strides Urban Meyer had to make to even make this possible. I’m not saying it will always be this way, but it’s where we are right now.
Programs within the region are also no longer patsies. Programs in Manhattan, Columbia, and Ames (to name a few) have committed to winning football games, unlike in prior generations. Recruiting from an already limited upper midwestern talent pool has gotten more difficult and Nebraska no longer has the pick of the litter.
In your new division, Wisconsin has built a phenomenal brand in the sport of football — so have the Iowa Hawkeyes. (it pains me to say that). They’ve developed a system that develops players from this region and division and consistently wins enough games to compete for division titles. Nebraska is not even there yet, and that needs to be the first goal. An Outback Bowl trophy is a lot better than no trophy at all.Embed from Getty Images
I know “just being Iowa” seems like an insult to what Nebraska once was, but it’s the logical first step. Iowa takes kids from Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio and has developed them from 18-year old twigs in Iowa to NFL Pro Bowl-caliber players. Their geography, facilities, and fan support are similar, and I’d even give Nebraska the advantage in all of these areas.
However, players at Iowa are not tasked with bringing glory back to a promised land. They’re not being told the expectation is a conference title or bust. They get better every day, they win the next game on the schedule, they’re in bowl games every year, and players wind up in the league.
Iowa doesn’t run an up-tempo offense designed for skill players who rarely commit to Big Ten West schools, nor any schools in this region. Wisconsin is starting to get these players, but they too are sticking to what they know works. Nebraska needs to follow Iowa and Wisconsin’s lead and commit to a physical, run-first offense that keeps the defense off the field long enough to stay fresh for the fourth quarter – where games are won. This current offense under Frost works at Texas Tech and Arizona, not in the Big Ten West.
Iowa and Wisconsin have clearly proven Nebraska’s model for success in 2021. If Nebraska develops a system similar to these programs and commits to it longer than three or four years before rinsing and repeating, the floor will rise once again for attainable expectations in Lincoln. Nebraska should never be out of contention for a bowl game, let alone go five years without a bowl berth. However, this consistent turnover of head coaches, assistant coaches, and fundamental system changes have essentially pushed the reset button every few years. Not even Devanney or Osborne would succeed with this quick of a trigger finger.
The future doesn’t have to be bleak for Nebraska. I truly believe Nebraska is still one of the great brands in the sport, but looking back is not going to fix the problem moving forward. Nebraska’s future is in the Big Ten Conference and requires a Big Ten system. Nebraska’s fans and administration need to have patience. Most importantly, fans and coaches need to stop bringing up conference and national championships until the program gets rolling again. It’s not helping.
If the fanbase and program follow these steps, true benchmarks of success will once again be clear and attainable. Players will not feel unwarranted pressure to bring back a level of success not seen in decades, and fans will be able to be happy as they see incremental progress finally being made.
Nebraska, it is ok to put the rings and trophies to bed for a while — at least down for a nap. You’ll be energized and refreshed once you do, and new ones may finally be in sight.