A lot has been written and said about the Big Ten championship game. It's impossible to understate how bad that performance was. It was epically bad, and should alarm and dismay anybody in Nebraska. But it is one game. One bad game that followed another bad game a couple of months ago where many of the same things happened. You can draw a lot of conclusions from those two performances - especially when combined with the UCLA loss.
A lot of people, though, are trying to draw long-term conclusions that may or may not make sense. Nebraska struggles on the road under Bo Pelini? Happened the last couple of years, but not before that. Falls flat in big games? Not in 2009 when Nebraska upset Oklahoma and then nearly kept Texas from the BCS title game.
We've also seen some endorse the completely irrational: Fire Bo Pelini (one of only five coaches to win 9 or more games each of the last five seasons). Hire Jim Tressel (who's still under NCAA sanctions through 2016). I even heard one person ask for Bill Callahan back.
So what are rational solutions to the problems that ail Nebraska football?
From my perspective, it starts on the line...with the defensive line being the biggest issue. The line has been an issue all season long, and really has been ever since Jared Crick was injured. Baker Steinkuhler really has been the only dependable tackle, taking nearly every snap since the Ohio State game...but now his Husker career is over. And things look awfully bleak behind him. Oh sure, there are bodies there...but nobody has emerged for one reason or another. 2011's incoming class had Todd Peat, Jr. (injury) and Kevin Williams. 2010's class had Jay Guy and Chase Rome. 2009 brought us the oft-injured Thad Randle and Cole Pensick (moved to offense). Last year's class brought us Aaron Curry, who played a little, and Vincent Valentine, who's getting kudos for his development while redshirting.
I've heard that the coaches have recognized the issues here and are hitting the junior colleges hard to find help on the defensive line. Considering the graduations of Cameron Meredith, Steinkuhler, Eric Martin, and Joe Carter, plus Randle's chronic injury problems, major help is needed on the defensive line.
Who's responsible for the depth issues on the defensive line? Bo Pelini ultimately...but let's not forget that Pelini has already made changes to respond to past problems. Ted Gilmore was out as recruiting coordinator after the 2011 class was signed, and Ross Els has gotten some good reviews for his work thus far. That doesn't fix the damage that was done prior to that, but changes have been made. Recruiting changes have a long latency before we see results on the field; we're now seeing the effects of past transgressions, which hopefully have been addressed.
Offensive line has some similar issues as well, albeit not as severe. Walk-on success stories like Spencer Long and Seung Hoon Choi are great, but where are prized recruits like Ryne Reeves on the depth chart? Nebraska shouldn't get into a Bill Callahan-style entitlement system where the prized recruits automatically get playing time until they fail, but shouldn't more scholarship players be contributing up front?
Linebacker is also a question moving into 2013. Gone are Will Compton and Alonzo Whaley. I'm cautiously optimistic that Sean Fisher will get a medical redshirt and be an anchor. Will Zaire Anderson's ACL be healthy enough next fall? Can David Santos develop enough? What about redshirting freshmen Thomas Brown and Michael Rose? Certainly this coaching staff has had to play catchup here in the transition from the spread-happy Big XII to the Big Ten.
Is it fair to expect some changes in assistant coaches? Probably, though it's unclear exactly where those changes should be made. Barney Cotton is everyone's favorite punching bag, and probably is someone who'll face a lot of scrutiny. It's probably safe to suggest that Ross Els should hand over coordinating special teams to somebody else since that's been pretty close to a debacle most of the season.
A lot of people point out that Pelini hires a lot of young guys, making Nebraska a training ground. You don't hear anybody questioning Rich Fisher as Nebraska's wide receivers coach anymore. Sure, hiring a guy who put his coaching career on hold to teach golf sounded funny at the time, but the results have long since vindicated that selection. Getting another experienced coach (especially on defense) could be a good move to bring some perspective. I disagree that Tim Beck shouldn't be offensive coordinator; if some Husker fans don't want him, it sounds like many other schools would love to take him off our hands. I like what Terry Joseph has done with the secondary (except against Wisconsin) this season, and would love to see him remain.
There's probably some need to rethink some schematic things as well. If the players in the system aren't capable of playing a two-gap scheme, maybe it's time to think about something different...or maybe mix things up more.
In the aftermath of the Big Ten championship game, a few more people have jumped off Pelini's bandwagon. The seat got warmer, and Pelini's critics are even louder than ever. Dirk Chatelain of the World-Herald tried to turn the post-game press conference into a final judgement on Pelini's coaching career, and condemned him and Nebraska to "purgatory". (H/T: No Coast Bias)
Bo isn't good enough to get over the hump. He isn’t bad enough to fire.
He's right about the latter. Nebraska had enough trouble hiring a replacement after the first time a 70+% winning coach was fired; one can only wonder how many people will be interested in coming to Lincoln if the school does it again. It'll take more than market price to get someone with a better resume to take a chance under those circumstances.
He's being incredibly presumptive about the former. People said the same thing about Tom Osborne in the 1970's when he couldn't win a Big Eight championship. They said the same things in the early 1990's. Remember the old joke about Tom Osborne having to eat Cheerios off a plate? "He loses everything in a bowl." We know how that turned out.
People throw out statistics on Pelini that are carefully crafted to illustrate their point, such as Pelini's defenses give up an average of 34.5 points in losses. Statistics can be awfully easy to manipulate, though. Osborne's offenses in one five year stretch averaged under 15 points a game in losses; obviously that's just as much proof that Tom Osborne was no offensive guru when it melted down in the crutch.
Except that the five year stretch I used is Osborne's final five years, and Osborne went 60-3 in that stretch. Those three losses? 18-16 to Florida State in the Orange Bowl, 19-0 to Arizona State, and 37-27 to Texas.
Want another statistic? Only three 1-A coaches have won nine or more games each of the last five seasons: Alabama's Nick Saban, Boise State's Chris Petersen, and Bo Pelini.
It was a bad beatdown in Indianapolis. But Bo Pelini has done too much good at Nebraska to this point. Doesn't excuse what happened in the Big Ten title game, but it points that, when you look at the entire body of work, Pelini has done a pretty darn good job at Nebraska.
At the very least, he's more than earned the opportunity to pick himself off the floor, dust himself off, and give it another shot. It all starts right here: