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Nebraska Football's Cornhusker's Poised for Turnaround
After its program reached the depths under Bill Callahan, the Nebraska Cornhuskers are poised for a turnaround under new head coach Bo Pelini.
The 2020 season was a painful one for the Big Red faithful in which the team's 5-7 record only begins to scratch the surface of the program's troubles. The Cornhuskers entered the season poised for a breakthrough campaign in head coach Bill Callahan's fourth season. After a 4-1 start, Nebraska lost six of its last seven games mostly by decisive margins (41-6 to Missouri, 45-14 to Oklahoma State, 36-14 to Texas A M;, 76-39 to Kansas and 65-51 to Colorado).
Athletic director Steve Pederson was dismissed in mid-October and the program turned to legendary head coach Tom Osborne to become the AD. As Nebraska continued to lose games by decisive margins, Osborne's decision to dismiss Callahan as head coach became that much easier. Eight days after Callahan was sent packing, Nebraska hired LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini as its head coach. Pelini was the Huskers defensive coordinator in 2003, when he helped spur Nebraska's defense to improve from 55th in the NCAA in 2002 to 11th in 2003.
Pelini was named Nebraska's interim head coach for the team's 17-3 win over MichiganState in the Alamo Bowl after Pederson dismissed Frank Solich as head coach despite guiding the team to a 9-3 mark in 2003 and 58-19 in his career after taking over for Osborne, who retired, in 1998. Fans and players alike wanted Pelini as the head coach, even chanting "We want Bo!" the night the Huskers defeated MichiganState.
Instead, Pederson hired Callahan who was coming off two extremes in seasons with the Oakland Raiders. Callahan led Oakland to a Super Bowl appearance in 2002 but the Raiders plummeted to 4-12 in2003 in a season that featured injuries and player unrest toward Callahan.
Callahan went 27-22 at Nebraska but besides the team's record many things about him rankled its fan base (switching offensive systems from the option to the West Coast Offense, de-emphasizing the walk-on program, having a personality the fans could not seem to warm up to, etc.). During that four year span, Pelini was a defensive coordinator for an Oklahoma team that played for a National Title in 2004. Pelini spent 2005-2020 at LSU, where he was defensive coordinator of a Tiger team that won a National Championship in 2020.
Nebraska players have been working diligently in winter conditioning in preparation for the 2020 season. Spring practice begins on March 26 with the spring game taking place on April 19.
In Big Red Roundtable format, here's a closer look at the State of the Cornhuskers:
1. The 2020 season finished with a disappointing 5-7 record. Very few people expected this. What went wrong?
The question should be "what didn't go wrong?" It would take less time to explain.
For one thing, Callahan preferred loyalty over employment. By keeping Kevin Cosgrove as his defensive coordinator, Callahan showed friendship is thicker than a paycheck. Nebraska's defense ranked 112th in 2020. Those defensive issues were the major cause of the downfall this season, but that's only part of the equation as to why the Callahan experiment came to an end.
One could also claim that the team set itself up for failure when USC came to town. That game was supposed to be a coming out party for the Huskers to put themselves back on the national stage, and it ended when USC blew gigantic holes in the defense on the way to a 49-31 win that was not that close as Nebraska scored three garbage time touchdowns.
From there, the team lost confidence. The offensive line wasn't physical enough to run the ball which lead to three and outs. That lead to Cosgrove's inability to defend against a spread-based offense being exposed and the defense kept going further into the dumper.
This season also exposed some deep problems in this program in terms of developing players, both physically as well as with fundamentals. Guys like Adam Carriker, Zac Taylor, and Brandon Jackson masked those deficiencies in 2020 when Nebraska went 9-5 on the way to a Big 12 North title and Cotton Bowl appearance, but when they departed, the cracks became giant craters. USC exposed those weaknesses, and by the time October arrived, the team was in disarray.
The best thing about the season was that it ended.
2. Bo Pelini takes over as head coach. Good move or bad?
Time will ultimately tell but this appears to be a great move, one that most people believe should have happened four years ago. Then again, hindsight is always 20-20. Callahan's credibility was unfortunately shot because of the aforementioned problems but Pelini addresses many of the glaring needs on this team. He's a fiery leader who inspires his team to outperform the opposition. He's an accomplished defensive mind who's led top defenses at three different schools in the last five years. Nebraska needs just that to be taken seriously again.
Nebraska fans remember how successful Pelini was in turning around the defense in 2003 and now he has the chance to do the same with the entire team. Pelini kept just two Callahan holdovers (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson and recruiting coordinator/wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore).
That should ease the offensive transition to what Pelini wants to do, which as he said would be multiple sets.
Pelini will be hungry to prove wrong all those who doubted his ability to be a head coach. His blue collar work ethic and no nonsense persona is a perfect fit in the state of Nebraska. One couldn't question Callahan's work ethic and while one should not suggest he was a flake or a liar, he was filled with too much coach speak.
Out of the candidates mentioned, Pelini appeared to have the best chance of uniting the Husker fan base and getting the program moving in the right direction.
Though he was a Husker coach for only a single season, Pelini brought a fire to the team that didn't exist before and the obvious hope is that he can do it again.
Pelini and Turner Gill, who is a former Nebraska quarterback and long-time assistant coach, were really the only strong considerations for the job. Hiring either was a "no lose" situation. Hiring Pelini is strongly supported by most of the staunch Gill backers and hiring Gill, who is now the head coach at the University of Buffalo, would have been strongly supported by the staunch Pelini backers.
While Callahan did his share of things that ultimately sealed his fate, he was behind the eight-ball from the moment he got to Lincoln. The Huskers fired a coach (Frank Solich) whose team went 9-3 in 2003 and 58-19 under his watch as the head man. It took them 40 days to find a replacement, which ended up as Callahan (probably the fourth choice on our list). Callahan's success in Lincoln (27-22 record) was a lot like Ron Zook's time at Florida (23-15). Those records might fly at some programs but not at places like Nebraska and Florida.
While hiring Callahan left most of fans scratching their heads, hiring Pelini is supported by most of their fans. Callahan built his staff with recruiting in mind but that group failed to adequetely develop the talent they acquired. Scoff at the notion of parity all you want but in this day and age, the difference in talent between the haves and have nots is a much smaller gap than even a decade ago. With that in mind, you've got to be able to develop players and coach them up. This last Nebraska staff simply wasn't up to the task.
The question always begs of what means more "talent or coaching?" Bottom line, it's not an either/or issue. It's a package deal. No coach has ever won without having some talent but plenty of coaches have also messed up with talent. Many Nebraska fans bristled that the previous staff's ability to recruit got overhyped and conversely would praise the job Mark Mangino has done at Kansas with largely 2- and 3-star recruits. Mangino does great job at getting the most out of his talent and will continue to do so but if he keeps making a living off recruiting the type of players he has, don't expect 11-1 every year out of the Jayhawks either.
Granted, programs like USC, Oklahoma, LSU, Florida, Texas and Ohio State have a lot of talent but I would also contend that you'd be hard pressed to find better coaches than Pete Carroll, Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer, Les Miles, Mack Brown and Jim Tressel.
As the old saying goes, "Every thoroughbred needs a trainer and every trainer needs a thoroughbred."
3. Nebraska fans were divided after the last coaching change. Do you see fans finally uniting?
For the most part, yes but time will tell if they stay united. There will always be some fans who aren't happy for one reason or another, but Pelini will get the team playing a physical brand of football and with intensity. Those intangibles alone will produce results on the field that Husker fans can be proud of and that would qualify as a major improvement. What do those results mean from a win/loss ratio remains to be seen but point being, they should be much better.
Those who aren't supporting Bo should really question why they consider themselves a Husker fan in the first place. After all, it was Osborne who hired him and no one has the best interests of the program at heart better than him. Who is to question the man who represents what Nebraska football is all about? Granted, Osborne isn't perfect but who would trust more to right the ship: Tom Osborne or Steve Pederson?
Callahan might have salvaged his job if he would have made changes in September after the Ball State game in which Nebraska escaped with a 41-40 win, but allowing the defensive collapse to continue most of the season pretty much meant that his fate was sealed by mid-season.
The fans staying united, however, depends on two things: a) whether or not the fans choose to enjoy Husker football for what it is - a great joy in their lives - and put aside whatever foolish arguments they've had in the past and b) the program producing. The second answer might sound like an oversimplification but it's true.
If Nebraska goes 10-2 or better, most everyone will be happy just like the old days. If the team go 8-4 and are competitive in most every loss, it won't please everyone but it's the minimum of what they need to achieve in 2020 to sustain that unity. If they go 6-6 and look incompetent again with blowout losses, then they'll be the same disgruntled fan base as last year.
4. What about the coaching staff?
Watson and Gilmore are staying. Some Husker fans want the West Coast Offense gone but Watson's plan is to keep I think it in place but streamline and modifying it (i.e. emphasize playing to your strength). For those who think the WCO de-emphasizes the fullback and tight end, think again. The great San Francisco 49er teams had a border-line Hall-of-Fame tight end in Brent Jones and a fullback that got more than his share of carries and catches in Tom Rathman, who was also a punishing lead blocker.
Many Nebraska fans love the "Spread Offense." However, for those that wanted to dive straight into that system need to be reminded that part of the previous staff's undoing in 2004 was making a 180 degree change in the system when we had players ill-suited to run it. That drastic change alone cost us a bowl game that year and while the team rebounded to some degree in 2005 and 2020, it was a slow-developing progress.
The bottom line is this, the guys they have were recruited for the WCO. If one reads Pelini and Watson right, the WCO will stay in place while we gradually transition into becoming the type of offense they desire. And why not? The offense did a lot of good things despite their inconsistency. Granted, some of the points and yards we accumulated were in garbage time but when you average 33.4 points and 468.2 yards of total offense, they can't all be taking place in garbage time.
The problem was that the defense was a sieve. Defensive staff changes were a requirement and Pelini cleared out any Cosgrove remnant.
Nebraska might not be a Top 10 defensive unit like 2003 but if the offense stays on track and the defense can improve in the range of say a 25-40 ranking, this team will be fine.
As strange as this sounds, the offense might actually be a bigger concern than the defense.
With Pelini's pedigree, one should feel fairly confident the defense will be light years better in 2020. On the offensive side, the questions become: How much of the "West Coast Offense" will remain? Will they have a cohesive group of coaches? Then there are some more specific questions. How do they replace receivers like Maurice Purify, Frantz Hardy and Terrence Nunn? That's a lot of experience at receiver. And most importantly, what happens with running back Marlon Lucky now that he opted not to forgo his senior year to enter the NFL draft? Lucky is a great talent in the open field, but hasn't been exploited because he's been used primarily as a I-back. Is there a way to better utilize him and get him the ball in space?
The main thing is that this staff will inspire the guys to play harder, with more intensity and just be physical. That already counts for a lot. In addition, this staff is embracing the program's tradition, an area where the previous staff failed miserably.
The names don't matter. What matters is that they win most of their games, that they graduate the vast majority of their players, that they recruit good kids and develop them into fine young men.
5. What do you think the expectations are for Bo Pelini? Do you think he needs to win x amount or do x by a certain date?
Pelini said he's not here to rebuild, he's here to win -- and win now. That statement is refreshing to hear in the eyes of fans. After a disappointing 5-7 season, Pelini will be given a longer leash than Callahan received as long as the team plays harder. Obviously the style of play will be something that is noticeable immediately and one area of improvement that is a must. Nebraska fans should see a team that creates turnovers, plays team defense, and one that is very physical. There's no reason that the Huskers can't win the Big 12 North title next year. Missouri and Kansas figure to be good again, but both teams will be losing key players and I have a hard time believing either is on the path of a dynasty like run that will go 10-2 or 11-1 on a regular basis.
You can also make the argument that coaches shouldn't have specific requirements to win a certain number of games because many variables come into play. Callahan possibly could have survived a 7-5 or 6-6 season in 2020 under certain circumstances. For example, several close losses and a lot of injuries forcing him to play younger, inexperienced players. Back in the preseason, the expaactation would have been to win 10 games, and that was mostly to show progress. If there had been several injuries at quarterback and Patrick Witt started most of the games this season, I probably would have been more receptive to 5 or 6 losses.
With that in mind, Pelini's team should show consistent progress, winning the games he should win and not getting blown out by someone he should beat. In this day and age of college football, winning ten or eleven games each and every year is tough. Keep in mind, Florida only won nine games this season. Even the best programs are occasionally going to have a bad season or two - by their standards.
More than wins and losses though, it comes down to how the team plays. The Huskers figure to make a big leap forward in competitiveness because there is talent on the team now. In many ways, that talent has not been developed and utilized effectively. Pelini will be able to recognize this talent and utilize it to Nebraska's advantage. It should be an exciting season for fans of the Blackshirts. The good news is that Callahan left us a fair number of good players.