Season’s Second Half Will Tell the Story
Opinion • By Steve Beideck
Sometime this season Nebraska football will celebrate the 25th anniversary of its last national championship.
Scott Frost was still coaching at Central Florida, Dave Rimington was the interim athletic director and the 2017 season had already begun to implode – remember the 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois? – the last time the 1997 champions gathered for a celebration of those glory days at Memorial Stadium.
Milestone anniversary seasons for that most recent title team, with maybe one exception, have been forgettable campaigns. They also illustrate the coaching instability that has gripped the program since Tom Osborne retired following the Orange Bowl victory over Tennessee that secured Nebraska’s fifth national championship.
Here’s a quick review of those anniversary seasons:
• 2002 – Despite a 3-0 start, Frank Solich’s fifth NU team ended the season 7-7 with some tough-to-take, double-digit road losses at Penn State (40-7), Iowa State (36-14) and Kansas State (49-13). Despite a 10-3 record the following year with a revamped coaching staff, then-Athletic Director Steve Pederson made the catastrophic decision to fire Solich and sent the Husker program on a descent into mediocrity from which it has yet to recover.
• 2007 – As the program descended beyond mediocrity under the guidance of Bill Callahan and Kevin Cosgrove, ultimately ending in Pederson’s midseason firing by Chancellor Harvey Perlman, the Huskers gave up 76 points to Kansas and 65 to Colorado in their final two losses in a 5-7 season. Osborne, who replaced Pederson as AD, fired Callahan.
• 2012 – The 15th anniversary season produced Nebraska’s last appearance in a conference championship game, and it’s one Husker faithful would like to forget. Wisconsin scored 21 points in each of the first three quarters as Nebraska’s defense gave up a record 539 rushing yards in a 70-31 loss to the Badgers. There also was a 63-38 regular season loss to Ohio State, but Bo Pelini’s fifth team still posted a 10-4 record. That’s the last time Nebraska posted a double-digit number of victories.
• 2017 – On the 10th anniversary of Pederson’s midseason firing, AD Shawn Eichorst was fired by Perlman following the loss to Northern Illinois. The ’97 team gathered for the 20th-year reunion at the Wisconsin game, which ended in a 38-17 NU loss. That setback began a run of six losses in the final seven games, resulting in Mike Riley’s dismissal after four seasons. In the final three games, the Huskers lost to Minnesota 54-21, Penn State 56-44 and Iowa 56-14. Nebraska’s streak of five consecutive seasons without a bowl game appearance began this year as well.
So here we are in 2022. Not since the 1950s have the Huskers had such a difficult time winning football games. There has been plenty of optimism prior to each of Frost’s first four seasons, but all have ended in profound disappointment.
Athletic Director Trev Alberts has given Frost this season to show progress – a bowl appearance would be a good start – with a revamped coaching staff a la Solich in 2003. While everyone around the program is saying the right things during fall camp, there’s still plenty of reason to wonder if the Huskers can win six games in 2022.
A review of the schedule favors the Huskers chances of potentially winning two more games than they did in the 3-9 2021 campaign. Replacing Michigan State and Ohio State with Indiana and Rutgers as East Division opponents provides a ray of optimism.
It’s easy to envision a 5-1 start to the season. Nebraska thumped Northwestern 56-3 last season, so a loss to the Wildcats would put a cloud of doom over the program as soon as they board the plane in Dublin to return to Lincoln.
If the Huskers do beat Northwestern – Nebraska was a 12.5 favorite at the time of publication – they can’t get overconfident against their first two nonconference opponents. North Dakota and Georgia Southern are must-win games. If there’s a 2017 Northern Illinois slip-up in either of those games … let’s don’t think about that for now.
Picturing a 3-0 start heading into a home game with Oklahoma is the ideal – and for some, only – way to begin the season. A win over the preseason No. 9-ranked Sooners ignites genuine optimism not seen around Lincoln in close to two decades.
A loss to OU? It wouldn’t doom the season, because the final eight games are more important to the overall narrative. Those are the conference games to show if the Huskers really have learned how to win under a group of new coaches.
The three most important games in the first half of the season are Northwestern, Indiana and Rutgers. Winning those three puts NU at 3-0 in the Big Ten West heading into the second half of the season, which is the most concerning part of the schedule. The last time the Huskers played all six of those teams – 2021 – they lost. That’s true even for Indiana – the Hoosiers beat NU 38-31 the last time they met (2019) – but IU was 2-10 last season.
Yes, those setbacks to Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa all were by seven or fewer points. Nebraska hasn’t shown in recent years that they can consistently be competitive with any of those teams under a staff helmed by Frost.
That reluctant pessimism last season led me to predict a 4-8 finish for the Huskers. Even that was one game too optimistic.
Right now, I can’t get past this scenario for 2022 – a 5-1 start followed by an 0-6 second half and the streak of no bowl games growing to six seasons.
A loss to any of those first three Big Ten opponents, and the picture only gets more bleek. It’s easy, and lazy, to just assume Nebraska should beat Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota and any other West Division foe.
If this was 1997, those would be perfectly logical assumptions, just sub in Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State for those three. But this is 2022. On-field proof is needed. Hopefully that is what happens.