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Nebraska Football: “It’s Over, Mike”

An op-ed: It’s no longer a question of “if” Mike Riley will return in 2018, but rather “when” the announcement that Riley won’t return is coming this month.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Riley came to Nebraska looking for “one last adventure,” but I’m not sure that “adventure” is the right word for what this has become. Nebraska football is adrift. Lost. Frankly, Husker fans can’t even tell if we’re in the middle of the ocean, a forest or a desert. All we know is that we don’t recognize where we’re at, and we don’t see any way out.

And perhaps more importantly, Mike Riley isn’t the guy to get us out of this spot.

Some came to that conclusion sooner than others. It doesn’t really matter who was first, if someone instigated this, or if someone finally realized it this weekend.

I admit I was an early critic of Mike Riley, starting with those awful 2015 losses to Illinois and Purdue. You may have agreed or disagreed with me then. That was then, but this is now.

By all accounts, the majority of Nebraska fans have come to accept that Mike Riley’s adventure is just about over. Nebraska sits at 4-5, with road games at Minnesota and Penn State before finishing at home against Iowa. In order to have a winning season, the Huskers would have to win them all. In order to make a bowl game, they’d have to win two.

Advanced stats suggest that Nebraska will be an underdog in every game... or finishing the season 4-8. That would be two losing seasons in three years, and if Nebraska does indeed finish 4-8, Mike Riley would be the first sub-.500 career coach at Nebraska since Bill Jennings.

Jennings was fired in 1961.

We’re beyond the point of arguing whether three years is enough for a coach, or whether Mike Riley had enough talent to win a conference championship. The bigger problem is that Nebraska keeps losing to teams with lesser talent, and then looks disinterested in trying to compete with teams with better talent. Talent on the field isn’t the biggest problem with Nebraska. (Compare that to the carnage Iowa imposed on Ohio State on Saturday if you want evidence that the game of football isn’t just a battle of “Jimmies and Joes”.) Talent matters, yes. But so does development and coaching, and Nebraska has regressed in just about every area the last three seasons.

Nebraska fans still debate whether Frank Solich or Bo Pelini should have been fired or not. Those debates aren’t helpful to the current state of the Huskers; let’s just finish those debates by saying that while their coaching records may have been good, they weren’t good enough at a place like Nebraska. Nebraska shoots for higher than that.

Very few people argue anymore that Bill Callahan was the right guy to lead Nebraska football. And it seems that very few people are still trying to make the case for Mike Riley. In fact, nobody is buying into his version of the Huskers. Two weeks ago, the secondary ticket market for Nebraska football tickets collapsed. $135 tickets to the Ohio State game fell to under $20. The same thing happened this week for Northwestern tickets. The sellout streak isn’t at risk for this season; the tickets for this season were already sold.

Next season, though, is another matter entirely. When Nebraska’s fourth down pass in overtime hit the ground, there weren’t any boos in the stadium. There weren’t any groans. There weren’t any screams. It was just resignation. People picked up their things, and headed out of the stadium.

Some people want Mike Riley fired immediately. I’m not sure what that solves. Scott Frost or any other coach isn’t coming to Lincoln this week, or even signing a contract to leave their current school until the end of their season. (For Frost, that probably won’t be until after the American’s conference championship game on December 2.) That would seem to leave us either Bob Diaco (who apparently doesn’t believe his defense was going to work this week, if not this season) or Danny Langsdorf (who hasn’t grasped the fact that he still hasn’t successfully implemented a screen pass, a staple of this offense, in three seasons) to take over.

Talk about making a bad situation worse.

So unless Mike Riley does something worse than losing football games (such as claiming death threats or burning redshirts for no reason other than he can), he should finish the season. Three more games won’t make any difference whatsoever.

That being said, it would be good to go ahead and make what we already expect official. In an ideal world, Mike Riley will come to the podium sometime in the next two weeks and announce that the Iowa game will be his final game in his coaching career. He’s been a respected member of the football world throughout his career, and he deserves the chance to make the announcement.

But as Thanksgiving approaches, time will be of major importance. If Mike Riley isn’t ready or willing to accept his fate, new athletic director Bill Moos will have to act. With an early signing day coming up, plus vacancies at Florida and likely Tennessee, a decision will need to be made quickly.

That decision will be who Mike Riley’s successor will be, because the decision about whether Mike Riley could return in 2018 has already been made.

It’s over, Mike. It’s time for everyone to move on.