New Year, Old Questions for the Huskers

Tuesday’s Capital One Bowl was never about a win or a loss. Not for Nebraska fans.

On the heels of one of the more horrific losses in school history, what the Nebraska faithful really needed was a statement on where the program stands now and where it’s going.

Instead, Husker fans got many of the same questions that plagued Nebraska throughout 2012.

With that season officially in the books, now everybody gets a chance to answer. Those answers will be perhaps the dominant source of conversation in the state of Nebraska for the next eight months.

Here’s Bo Pelini’s:

“There’s no question we can play with any football team in the country,” he said following the 45-31 loss. “We want to make that jump, we want to win them all, we want to play for a national championship. I don’t think we’re very far away. We’ll be a better team next year. I believe that.”

Here’s mine:

The Huskers really weren’t outclassed against Georgia. Despite some of the final scores, the Huskers weren’t really outclassed in any of their four losses this season. In that way, the Capital One Bowl was nearly the perfect coda to the 2012 season. It confirmed a season’s worth of observations in one 60-minute chunk.

Nebraska’s offense is almost excellent. For much of the game, offensive coordinator Tim Beck had a Georgia defense that aces the eye-test on its heels. Only Tennessee (the second-best offense in the SEC) and Alabama put up more yards on the Bulldogs than Nebraska did. It wasn’t enough yards because of Nebraska’s own sloppiness.

You heard this so much during the season, that it fades into the background but it’s true: The only certain defense against the Huskers’ offensive prowess this season was the Huskers themselves. Costly turnovers and penalties were more effective against Nebraska than any opponent’s scheme.

Defensively, Nebraska is a total enigma. Of the ten worst defensive performances in school history, three of them came this year. Georgia almost became the third team to put up 600 yards or more against Nebraska in 2012. Instead, they put up only 589.

How does that happen? How does it happen with a coach that made his name on defense? Those are tough ones to answer. In some cases it’s talent. Mistakes get magnified if you’re a little short in raw physical ability and Nebraska is in some spots. When Nebraska got gashed this year, it got gashed deeply.

In other cases, it really is about execution. That’s a Pelini buzzword but watch the lowlights from 2012. There were numerous plays this season where, either by design or through breakdowns elsewhere, the Huskers had a player in a position where he had to make a one-on-one play defensively. Nebraska lost a lot of those battles for whatever reason.

But if you take out the UCLA, Wisconsin and Georgia losses, the Blackshirts gave up an average of 287.9 yards per game. That’s purely a hypothetical, but right now that average would rank eighth nationally, one spot ahead of LSU.

So how do you fix a team that at times, even the majority of the time this season, really is among the best in the country?

The one key ingredient the Huskers are missing is consistency and you don’t recruit that, you coach it.

That’s Bo Pelini’s challenge heading into the 2013 season. On offense, Nebraska has the pieces in place to be great. On defense, the Huskers have a schedule that will allow the seven or eight new starters time to grow. When Pelini says that Nebraska’s not far off, I believe him.

But the reason the Huskers aren’t “there” isn’t new. That’s a troubling idea for Nebraska fans. Great teams are consistent teams and Nebraska has yet to be that under Pelini.

The new year is only a day old but in that regard 2013 already feels very familiar. The Huskers have 241 days to figure it out.