It’s hard to describe just how bad Nebraska football is at the moment.
The Huskers are worse than they look – a pregame graphic reminded me that Nebraska was somehow still fourth in the West Division entering Saturday – and, even worse, worse than they should be.
Saturday’s trip to Penn State looked like what you’d expect if Rutgers or Indiana went to State College to face the Nittany Lions. Except Indiana only gave up 45 total points in this same stadium, Rutgers 35.
Nebraska? It gave up 42 points in the first half for the second time this season and 56 against a mostly indifferent second-half Penn State offense.. That includes the second game of the season and the second-to-last, fitting bookends for a 2017 season that should go down as much worse than the most recent bottoming out you thought you had seen in 2007.
The Huskers, despite the talent advantages they should have over most of the West and East also-rans like the Hoosiers and Scarlet Knights, look like they belong in the basement of the Big Ten. That’s why what has been won’t stand for much longer. One game, not even a full week, actually.
The rumors and reports of a change at Nebraska are gaining credence. Why wouldn’t they? How could you not make a change if you’re new Athletic Director Bill Moos? Saturday looked as though everyone involved knew that this season, and this regime, was over for the first 30 minutes and then as though a fighter punched in the mouth has but no choice to punch back over the second 30.
The blame doesn’t belong on any one person. Things like this are almost always the result of some sort of snowball effect, and Nebraska’s snowball has been gaining size since 2004.
Ending its descent will likely be the job of someone else, and that’s a helluva job. Nebraska hasn’t finished a season ranked in the final Associated Press poll since 2012. The Huskers’ 48 all-time appearances in that poll, which dates to 1936, is tied for sixth nationally with USC and behind Michigan, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Alabama and Notre Dame. Five of those six teams, minus maybe Michigan, will add to their totals this year. The Huskers haven’t in a half-decade.
That’s the challenge facing whoever leads Nebraska next. It’s rare for a college football blueblood to fall from the ranks of the elite permanently. Resources, fan investment and expectations almost demand that a heavyweight get off the mat and continue fighting.
But Nebraska is right on the borderline right now. You take almost 20 years without a conference title – only Tennessee has a longer streak among traditional powers – add a bunch of coaching changes and inherent disadvantages to the mix and you have at least the ingredients for a descent to long-term mediocrity. I’m not talking the 15 years (or so) of relative mediocrity Nebraska has experienced, but forever mediocrity.
Over the first 100 years of college football Minnesota ranked 13th in winning percentage, and that’s behind four programs you’d no longer consider “major”: Yale, Princeton, Army and Harvard. Add in the last 48 seasons of college football and Minnesota ranks 41st. Most of you reading this have never thought of the Gophers as a football power.
And that’s what is at stake for Nebraska football now. A 10-year slide? That’s common for a top-10 program. A 20-year slip from relevance is a sign that maybe the game itself has passed a program by.
These aren’t hard deadlines. Nebraska’s next head coach doesn’t have to win a conference title in the next two years – what it would take to prevent a 20-season streak – to prove that Husker football is still relevant in today’s landscape. He does, however, have to try to prove that such relevancy is possible as soon as possible.
While the list of programs that have gone AWOL for a decade or so isn’t bad company to keep, the list of programs that have come back from 20 years of irrelevance . . . well . . . it isn’t very long.
These are the stakes for the next Nebraska football coach, and it’s going to take a pretty special coach to acknowledge those stakes and accept them.