Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Drake’s Takes: The Start of the Matt Rhule Era at Nebraska

December 02, 2022

Nebraska’s coaching search came to an official conclusion last weekend, as the Huskers decided on Matt Rhule to lead the program into the future.

This is the first coaching change I’ve covered, and it’s a very interesting one.

The logic around hiring Rhule makes sense. He was one of the best options out there, a mix of a safe pick and a bigger name. Trev Alberts even mentioned on Monday that “risk mitigation” played a part in opting for Rhule, or a more experienced head coach in general.

That’s not a bad thing, of course. The Huskers, in a constant state of drowning with six straight losing seasons, are in need of a coach that can at least pull them above the water. Rhule has experience doing so at both Temple and Baylor.

This hire isn’t one that generates excitement quite like Scott Frost’s did. It’s still crazy to think about the energy in the stadium prior to that canceled game against Akron. But that wasn’t just a result of Frost’s reputation either, rather the context allowed people to believe that Mike Riley’s failures were just a blip for a Husker program soon to get back to making bowl games every single year.

Currently, whether the Huskers can avoid being buried in the bottom half of the Big Ten is a legitimate question. Success isn’t that hard to envision with Nebraska’s resources, but someone has to actually bring it.

Rhule’s last season as a college coach came with Baylor. It was an 11-3 campaign — an 11-1 regular season ended by losses in the conference championship and the Sugar Bowl. The No. 7 ranking they had heading into bowl season is one that’ll make you a playoff team in a couple seasons.

That’s the eventual goal for Rhule. Given his track record of needing a few years to really get things going, there’s going to be some patience involved, but a 12-team field will feel infinitely more attainable for a lot of college programs than any previous format. The Huskers spent four weeks in the top 10 in 2016 under Riley. Bo Pelini’s teams mostly hovered in the bottom half of the top 25 when they were ranked, numbers that will be considered as the “outside looking in” soon. Success under the new coach down the line probably will involve being in the top 25, giving the hope that the Huskers could find themselves among the top 12 every now and then.

The distance between the top two or three teams and the 10-15 range is still likely going to be massive, but being in the same bracket will feel a lot better. It’s not worth talking about any further glory than that for the Huskers right now.

That being said, Rhule has to actually bring even a .500 season to Nebraska before that point comes. In a Big Ten which will only grow more challenging in future years, winning isn’t a guarantee. This stop is different from the others for the head coach. It’s also worth mentioning that his last coaching stop was an extremely rough one with the Carolina Panthers.

People will be quick to dismiss that stint. Understandably so. Plenty of college coaches fail in the NFL. That refrain has already been said a bunch.

My concern level is also fairly low regarding that part. But you wonder how ugly things could be, at least from an optics perspective, if Rhule struggles here. In his recent string of media appearances, he’s been pretty willing to deflect blame for his failures in Carolina. The truth of some of those deflections is also questionable (The linked article is a bit harsher than I’m willing to go, but you’ll get the point).

With many hires, there’s a lot of things you don’t really need to worry about until you do. Failures in big-time hires often are rough. Nebraska just saw that in the past five seasons.

The start in the case has been well-received. Rhule put together a great press conference. He’s assembling his staff now. Some of those hires will bring questions, too, along with whatever transfer portal and recruiting action happens in the coming months.

Nebraska football is a vulnerable spot. It’s insisted that it won’t be stuck losing in the Big Ten, while the on-field performance often disagrees. You see the sparks in wins over Iowa, and moments of individual greatness like Trey Palmer produced this past season. There’s a necessary patience with a coach who has done well when given it at this level, but also urgency as the future of college football develops. The thought of the Huskers continuing to sputter in an expanded Big Ten is crushing.

We could be years away from an answer, but it’ll be fascinating to see how — and if — this works.

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