The offseason is very nearly a memory now. We have arrived at the much-discussed, dissected-to-death, will-they-or-won’t-they present. It’s football season in Nebraska.
Can the Huskers run the ball more efficiently, like Mike Riley claimed to want? Can a no-name (for now) defensive line be better than anyone expects thanks to the coaching of one of Nebraska’s favorite native sons? Is experience the key to avoiding explosive plays on defense? Can Tommy Armstrong Jr. avoid throwing an interception once in every 24 attempts, currently his career average? If he can’t, can Nebraska’s staff recognize that the dependent variable in the propensity-towards-picks equation then becomes the number of attempts?
Those are all valid concerns, but they probably miss what this 2016 season is really about: We’re going to find out how good this Nebraska staff really is.
If you perceive even mentioning that as a slight, know that it’s not intended to be. It’s just that nothing matters more in college football than how good the head coach and his assistants are and I don’t think anyone can say how good Riley’s Nebraska is yet.
Unless they’re total egomaniacs, coaches like to pretend this isn’t the case. They’ll say it isn’t about “Xs and Os, but Jimmies and Joes.” Half of that statement is true. It isn’t about Xs and Os. But it isn’t just about Jimmie and Joes, either. Find a winning program in college football and you’ll almost always find a coach that was a master motivator and creator of culture more than he was a top-notch recruiter or whiteboard wizard.
When Alabama is coached by Bear Bryant, Gene Stallings or Nick Saban, it’s pretty damn good. When the Tide had Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione and Mike Shula patrolling the sideline it was pretty damn pedestrian. Between 1997 and 2006 — which includes however many days Mike Price served as head coach — Alabama had a .481 winning percentage, 67th nationally over that span. Alabama was completely average when coached by Mikes (and one Dennis).
The Darrell Royal, Fred Akers and Mack Brown Texas teams? National powers, no doubt. David McWilliams’ (1987-91) and John Mackovic’s (1992-97) Texas teams won about as often (.571) as Oregon did during that span, and that was before the Ducks were the uber-trendy Ducks.
Michigan? With the Wolverines in the preseason top 10 and Jim Harbaugh delighting fans of the maize-and-blue by planning to stay for the next 20 years, it looks like Michigan is pulling out of its low period relatively quickly. It might wish it could redact just the seven years of the Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke eras. During that time, 2008 to 2014, the Wolverines won exactly as many games (46-42) as Riley did at Oregon State.
The list could continue. Oklahoma, Notre Dame, USC and Tennessee all had their lost decades, too. When a program has a good coach, it’s good. When it doesn’t, it isn’t and that’s as true at the top of the all-time-wins list as it is at the bottom.
Nebraska’s lost decade is entering its 15th year, depending upon when you want to start counting, and nobody really knows which direction Riley is yet headed. Up or down? Perhaps neither?
You could say that Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst made a big bet that it will be up. You could even support the idea with some of the unique circumstances surrounding the hire.
Frank Solich was largely a logical choice to replace Tom Osborne. It made sense to try to keep that era going. Plenty of top of assistants have done it, including Osborne himself.
But when that didn’t work out, it’s hard to make the same argument for Bill Callahan. Nebraska flubbed that one, got left at the altar more than once. It only took four years to realize that.
The Bo Pelini hire, in retrospect, was interesting in that it was a targeted strike meant to address Nebraska’s biggest flaw in 2007 — defense. Pelini fixed that quickly and kept Nebraska’s low period, at least in terms of wins and losses, from reaching the lows of some of its blue-blooded peers. But the comprehensive program view, either never fully developed or never fully took.
The Riley hire, then, was a response to that. He offered the opposite of what the Huskers had in almost every regard. He was an out-of-nowhere pick and it was all based on one big idea: He overachieved with meager resources, so let’s see what he can do with everything Nebraska has to offer.
All football coaching hires are big bets at this level, but what differentiated the Riley hire was that it was essentially a value pick. Michigan was always after Harbaugh and willing to open the checkbook to get him. Florida went the traditional SEC-experience plus Group-of-5 winner route. Schools like that weren’t looking for Riley.
Nebraska? It went and found him on the road during a recruiting trip, that’s how much it wanted him. Eichorst effectively said “we think we see something here that everybody else is missing.”
Year one didn’t prove that Nebraska was wrong or right about that, but year two should get us much closer to an answer.
The following numbers get cited so ofter that they’re basically common knowledge at this point, but when you reverse engineer how successful coaches became successes at tradition-rich programs, you often see a jump in that second season.
Saban inherited a 3-8 LSU team in 2000, went 8-4 the first year out and then jumped to 10-3 in year two. He did it again at Alabama; 6-7 before he got there, 7-6 first time out, then 12-2. Bob Stoops’ national title at Oklahoma in year two is the purest example — 5-6 to 7-5 to 13-0 — but you can do this for all of the coaches in the top 10 on this list and find very few exceptions. The winning percentage at those programs was .528 before their current coaches showed up, .629 in year one and then .779 in year two.
Nebraska and Riley are in an interesting spot entering year two because, at least based on record, the Huskers took a step back in 2015. Maybe the program had to. Maybe it needed a hard reset. Maybe the cost of rebooting a culture was a 5-7 record, even if Nebraska was probably good enough to be an 8-4ish team.
It doesn’t matter now. That’s all been explained away by a combination of randomness — I prefer that term to luck — and transitioning to a new staff and scheme. So the Huskers enter 2016 with a mostly clean slate and largely the same caliber of team.
That’s good. It means that the unknown variable here is what was a year under Riley worth? We can talk about talent and turnovers, scheme and schedule, but this is really the only thing that matters in college football: How good is the coach?
I don’t know right now, but I’ll have a much better idea in about 14 weeks.
Welcome to season two.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.