Nebraska's 2023 Season at the Midpoint: Analysis


After the Cornhuskers were blown out by Michigan 45-7 in a game that easily could have been 70-0 had Jim Harbaugh not pulled his starters in the third quarter, Nebraska won a much needed victory on the road against Illinois to enter this season's bye week at 3-3.

In response, former Nebraska linebacker Will Compton—ever the reasonable, level-headed fellow—quickly took to Twitter to proclaim that the Cornhuskers can win the Big Ten west:

I love how he coyly smiles at the camera and says "I'm not going to say Indy" even though it's pretty obvious that's what he's thinking.

Husker fans have a tendency after every win to rush for the kool aid and immediately dream up scenarios where Nebraska goes undefeated for the remainder of the season. I mean, technically, it is possible. Technically, the Big Ten west is still "up for grabs" with no clear favorite—although it will likely be settled with the match between Iowa and Wisconsin this weekend, which will put the winner in the driver's seat.

And yes, you can make the argument that both Iowa and Wisconsin have teams with very obvious flaws: the Badgers are implementing a new scheme with a new head coach and the Hawkeyes possess one of the most woeful offenses in the conference coordinated by Brian Ferentz. However, the Cornhuskers' flaws are discernibly worse and, following the span of recent history where Nebraska hasn't even won enough games to qualify for a bowl, no one should be entertaining thoughts about this team reaching the conference championship. At least not this year.

Besides, even if Nebraska does win the division, do you really want to see them offered up as the hapless sacrificial lamb in prime time on national television to one of Michigan, Ohio State, or Penn State? Whoever wins the East will almost certainly be playoff-bound and the fans of the West's representative will only feel like their team has a chance for close to ten minutes before they are inevitably taken to the woodshed and humiliated in front of the entire country. Remember that delicious thumping Iowa took to Michigan in 2021? Good times.

The focus for Matt Rhule and Nebraska should instead be on reaching an achievable goal that has eluded the program since 2016: going to a bowl game.

That is why this stretch of three weeks following the bye—where the Cornhuskers will take on Northwestern, Purdue, and Michigan State—is do-or-die.

It is absolutely critical that Nebraska wins these next three games. I really don't want to undersell this. As the loss against Michigan on Sept. 30 showed everyone, the Cornhuskers are not yet ready to compete with the top teams in the conference, nor are they anything close to what Husker fans remember from the 90s or even the consistent 9-win teams under Bo Pelini.

This is a program that has been languishing in the dumpster of the Big Ten for the better part of a decade, with only one season (2016) where the Cornhuskers found themselves ranked in the Top 25 for the majority of the year. That turned out to be an anomaly of Mike Riley's tenure, rather than the new floor, as he was unceremoniously canned after the program cratered a year later. And needless to say Scott Frost sank the football program even deeper.

I don't think there is any question that Matt Rhule has been a dramatic improvement from his predecessor even in the span of six weeks. Frost's teams looked either pathetic or undisciplined despite what was presumably a talent advantage over the rest of the division and the majority of their opponents. Now most of that talent is gone, and yet Rhule has the team showing considerably better notwithstanding some ugly performances.

Nebraska has two contests at home—Northwestern and Purdue—before they go to East Lansing to take on Michigan State. The Huskers will probably be favored in each of these games, at least slightly. Two feature interim coaches. Northwestern and MSU have each been beset by scandal and the locker rooms are just trying to stay afloat. Ryan Walters at Purdue is a first time head coach, and even if you want to argue that Rhule is in his first year at Nebraska he still should have the advantage in terms of experience—having previously shepherded two college programs and an NFL franchise. Every one of these match-ups is not only winnable, but I would argue that they are must-wins for the trajectory of the program.

With the final stretch of Nebraska's schedule featuring Iowa, Maryland, and Wisconsin—all teams who at this point look better than the Cornhuskers, at least cumulatively—a loss to even one of the teams in the next three weeks will put Nebraska's bowl chances in a precarious position, if it doesn't derail them outright.

Yes, I realize this sounds like ramping up the pressure, but by blowing the opener against Minnesota, Nebraska has left themselves with very little margin for error. Granted, it is better to be sitting at 3-3 right now than 2-4, but the Cornhuskers don't have many opportunities left for wins on the schedule. There's no guarantee that Nebraska will beat Iowa on Black Friday even though the game is in Lincoln. And don't allow yourself to be placated with the notion that Nebraska might get a bowl bid at 5-7 because there might not be enough eligible teams. That's weak sauce.

The Huskers can and must be bowl eligible after they leave East Lansing on Nov. 4. They don't want to be a position where their only hope to play in a bowl game is to pull an upset. A loss in any of the next three weeks will mean that Nebraska will have to be praying for miracles. And while that may happen, it's not good if the entire season hinges on it.

Bowl eligibility is a realistic goal for this team. Okay, sure, I am willing to bet that if Nebraska sits at 6-3 after playing MSU then a lot of you will talk yourselves into believing that oh, yeah, Nebraska's definitely going to Indianapolis. No doubt Will Compton will be chomping on a cigar while sporting sunglasses talkin' bout how them boys be takin' over the west, baby. I don't want to make it seem like that's impossible, but unless Maryland, Wisconsin and Iowa all suffer severe setbacks in the coming weeks, it's better to save that kind of talk for seasons when the Cornhuskers have a plausible path to it. Ask Illinois, who thought in 2022 after sitting a surprising 7-1 they were cruising to Indy, until suddenly they weren't.

Because there is no obvious front-runner in the division it lends to the possibility that anyone can win it, no matter how improbable or how flawed that team is, which is how 8-4 teams like Northwestern and Purdue were able to do it in previous years. The results in the championship game then typically go as expected.

Once the teams from the Pac-12 move in and divisions go away altogether, there won't be this weak ass structure. That means that if Nebraska is going to play for Big Ten championships they will have to earn it rather than backdoor their way into it—which is a good thing.

Nebraska's defense this season is improved enough that the team can be in most contests against their remaining opponents, but the offense is severely flawed even if you want to believe Heinrich Haarberg is a gritty QB who doesn't automatically give away games. That means they're probably not going to Indianapolis—which, again, I don't know why anyone would even want them to after seeing how they played against Michigan—but given what Nebraska has shown this year they are good enough now that they're getting competent coaching under Rhule to get to six wins. That's an important milestone and we've seen other programs do it with fewer pieces.

Three wins over the next three weeks means that Nebraska can go into the final stretch of their season essentially playing with house money. The Cornhuskers will be an infinitely better position if they manage to do that than if they stumble against one of these beatable teams leaving fans and alumni biting their nails in the final weeks.

I know I mentioned this earlier, but let me reiterate how crucial a bowl bid is for the trajectory of the program under Matt Rhule. This exists on two fronts. Obviously the first thing you might think of is "Extra Practices!" and while yes this is important, there's more to it than that. This is a program that has a culture of losing. Players have come and gone, seniors graduated, without ever having had a thirteenth game in a season. Their entire collegiate careers have been spent going back to the locker room swallowing defeats and where the only trophies to get up for were the rivalry games. You might think it's silly to say this but bowl games matter.

The second aspect of why it's so important relates to legacy—or rather, momentum. Rhule's time at Nebraska can't have the same beginning like his predecessors did, not if he wants to last, let alone find success. Mike Riley and Scott Frost each got off to terrible starts. Riley lucked into a bowl at 5-7 after starting 2-4 with players used to winning at least 9 games and Frost's tenure as the savior started out historically bad at 0-6. It's no surprise that good players transferred out.

Rhule's first game as the head coach was a loss and the 0-2 start didn't feel great but Nebraska has successfully rebounded and is now sitting in a good spot at 3-3. Yes, this program is in the midst of a serious rebuild and there will still be more growing pains but the team looks better in most areas despite not having any bonafide stars on the roster. And Rhule's a good enough coach that Nebraska ought to be able to do what Frost couldn't for five years. Go to a damn bowl.

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