Brave New World

It is time to take a sober look at Nebraska's football program. A little over two weeks removed from the ignominious end to the 2023 season, the Huskers are faced with a lot of questions and more uncomfortable truths.

Aldous Huxley is back. You know you find yourself caring about Nebraska football again when a 5-7 season has you spitting mad on the offensive coordinator's job status instead of lethargically accepting the ennui of a 3-9 or 4-8 season where the team isn't even remotely competitive or disciplined enough to put a halfway viable product on the field.

It is truly staggering the level to which Scott Frost decimated this program, and the hole from which Matt Rhule is trying to dig it out. You remember the days of Mike Riley flying in from Corvallis, a place where a .500 record was okay because Oregon State is habitually the underdog with built-in deficiencies, and then he brought down the higher standard of Bo Pelini's teams to that level. It made you furious. You remember feeling like when Frank Solich started to fail to live up to lofty expectations, and the gasps you uttered when Bill Callahan's seasons slipped to the point where Nebraska did the unthinkable and missed a bowl.

But even that is nothing compared to what Frost did. His coaching was awful in so many ways he nearly sunk the program to pre-Snyder Kansas State levels. How he lasted more than two seasons in Lincoln is beyond many outsiders' comprehension since they don't understand the affection Nebraskans have for this man who quarterbacked national championship winning teams. The majority of that affection should be gone now. Scott Frost will stand as the worst head coach in Nebraska football history.

The current players in the locker room are so used to losing that it is a strange sensation what Rhule is trying to fix. I didn't see it right away, but now I think it should be readily apparent to everyone that this isn't like the jobs he undertook at Temple and Baylor.

The Owls were fully aware of what they were. They were used to being a bottom feeder, and they didn't lie about it to themselves or to their fans. They knew they didn't have the facilities, or the resources of big time programs (nutrition, training staff, health care, etc.), and they weren't getting talent with halfway decent offers. When Rhule was hired, his task in Philadelphia was to recruit overlooked gems (e.g. Haason Reddick) and then get the rest of the team, mostly made up of lesser athletes, to believe they could go on a run, even if it wasn't sustainable. At Baylor, all he had to do was make them focus on football again.

That is not the barrel he is staring down at Nebraska. This is a program whose fans still think they are one season away from repeating 1995 to 1997 again. They look at the college football playoff every year and imagine the current roster as just as good as Georgia and Alabama's best teams. It's the worst kind of delusion. And you know the players are feeling that pressure too. They don't think of themselves as a Temple-level program. They think they're up there, in the top echelon of the sport, and so the losing doesn't make any sense.

It's not hard to imagine these guys coming back to the locker room after a loss wondering, "What's the issue?" Aren't they training hard enough? Aren't they practicing hard enough? Aren't they hitting hard enough throughout the week so that Saturdays are easier?

But that's the problem. I think it's become pretty clear that there's an inherent presumption that they're the superior team, instead of one that needs to earn the win.

This is why they can't just look at themselves with unvarnished honesty and try to get better, as the Temple Owls would. A program like that knows there are bumps in the road—losses are going to happen—on the way to success. The Huskers, on the other hand, often act as if they think they're already there. This is Nebraska football! No improvement is necessary! Truly elite programs never falter! The jerseys have patches that say A Winning Tradition!—which at this point sounds more like painful irony.

If you were wondering how it was possible that Nebraska's winning streak suddenly turned into a losing streak, that's how. They lost their focus. They assumed they were going bowling. Hell, even the game threads on this website had some kind of playful title along those lines. Instead of keeping their attention on game preparation and working to minimize the very palpable flaws at certain positions, the Huskers were already thinking about swag bags in Florida.

Nebraska loses a game and you might feel inclined to immediately predict a win the following week and start talking shit about the next opponent and I'm here to tell you that you are part of the problem. This is not that kind of football program anymore. It's one that needs to reinvent itself, built up from the f—king ground, into a winner. The Nebraska way is dead, and Nebraska needs a new way. Rhule walked into a program that was basically Chris Ash's Rutgers that thought it was Pete Carroll's USC. This is why Iowa has won eight of the last nine, and why Wisconsin has only lost to Nebraska once since Big Red entered the Big Ten. The football program has been infected with a bizarre delusion of greatness which has not matched its play and Nebraska's opponents have ruthlessly feasted on it. It's like a drunken king who wears fancy clothes and challenges a bunch of dirty peasants to a foot race while forgetting he's drunk and his shoelaces are untied.

Scott Frost was the personification of this. He was the Nineties—an incarnation of the Osborne teams, physically manfiest on the sidelines, who made you think the Huskers would just wake up and realize that they were actually a dominant football team and had been the whole time.

Seven seasons have gone by since Nebraska played in a bowl game. Seven!

This program has become stuck somewhere between pathetic and inept and that is what Rhule is trying to overcome. You can scream and be angry all you want but to me it just speaks to the larger issue of what is wrong with Nebraska football.

Rhule's assignment was not to be the caretaker of a championship machine that just churns out the wins. He was hired to roll up his sleeves and set to work creating a winning tradition at Nebraska as if one had never existed. There is no swift Return to Glory. The days when the Cornhuskers dominated college football are long gone, and Rhule is trying to forge a new path to success. It will be long and arduous. The sooner everyone accepts that, the better.

The evidence still suggests he's capable of doing it.

"Ahead of schedule." I remember making this comment a few weeks back and was promptly challenged by a keyboard warrior who racked up the recs expressing the predictable message board disgust. How can Rhule be considered ahead of schedule when the team is losing?

I suppose I could just reach for the obvious low-hanging fruit and state that Rhule's first seasons at a program rebuild typically go the way of 1-11 or 2-10, and his first year in Lincoln instead saw 5 wins. That by definition is ahead of schedule.

But no, let's be more concrete. The team is improved. Nebraska was 12th in total defense in the Big Ten last year. This year, they are 5th. Rhule and Tony White got that kind of improvement largely because of the mentality of the defensive players. They knew coming in they weren't very good. So they listened, they bought in, and they accepted that they needed to get better. They didn't talk about Blackshirts. There were no nominal tokens or presumptions of prestige. When the players focused on nothing but their play, the results showed.

The kicking game also became serviceable. How many seasons under Scott Frost did he field a special teams unit that was complete and utter garbage? Rhule has removed that minus in one season. Even the offensive line is steadily improving. It's not going to win any Joe Moore awards, but it doesn't need to. It just needs to be average.

Rhule had the team on the cusp of a bowl even without any headliners. There are no star players. There is no Adrian Martinez on this roster, no Wandale Robinson, no Omar Manning or Samori Toure. So the fact that they were even that close to the postseason instead of flopping to the expected 2-10 is actually pretty remarkable.

I realize that when I say this stuff it may sound like a contradiction given that I declared midway through the season that getting to a bowl game was both realistic and attainable. And yes, it was. Nebraska was good enough to go bowling this year. The fact that they didn't is not because of Marcus Satterfield. It's because of the same Scott Frost infused delusion mixed in with Rhule (admittedly) making a royal whiff on the sport's most important position.

Speaking of quarterbacks. This is fixable. You can lie awake at night wondering whether Casey Thompson would've taken this team bowling, or if Chubba Purdy would have if he'd been the starter for the majority of the season. At the same time you probably would have been clamoring for Sims or Haarberg to be given a shot if you hadn't seen them play. Again, it's sort of pointless to entertain those ideas because hindsight is 20/20 and you're still getting away from the state of the program when Rhule took it over.

Obviously he needs a quarterback, and can get one. There was a lot of talk a few weeks back regarding Rhule's comments where he said a quality transfer QB "costs $1 to $2 million," but you have to think a Husker fan-driven NIL collective is more than capable of meeting that.

Via Amie Just at the Journal Star:

As Rhule said on Wednesday, the asking price for the sought-after transfer portal quarterbacks is steep.

"Make no mistake, a good quarterback in the portal costs a million, a million five, to $2 million right now," Rhule said. "Just so we’re on the same page, right? Let’s make sure we all understand what’s happening. There’s some teams that have $6 or $7 million players playing for them."

OK. And? I know he said it like it was a bad thing, but if that’s the going rate, that’s the going rate.

If Nebraska wants to compete with the top programs, then Nebraska and its donors are going to need to embrace what makes the top programs successful.

I initially shared in the reading that Rhule's comments were indicative of him not wanting to pursue a quality transfer QB—instead preferring to go the "development" route with a high school recruit or with one of the guys on the roster—until I saw the news that Ohio State's Kyle McCord announced he's entering the portal and Nebraska is in contact with him.

(And there's also this bit we shouldn't forget: Jeff Sims was lured to Lincoln with a six-figure NIL package. Even if you think that Nebraska got burned on that deal, it doesn't mean they should give up on the strategy altogether.)

If McCord ends up at Nebraska, the quarterback room sees a massive upgrade instantly. I know opinions on McCord are split, but Rhule and Satterfield don't need a Heisman caliber QB, just a competent one, and McCord more than fits that bill.

[Update, Dec 17: McCord is headed to Syracuse.]

The other thing Rhule is very likely to do is hire a dedicated quarterbacks' coach. Marcus Satterfield, who was originally set to coach tight ends, was only put into that role because Nebraska lost out on Jake Peetz. It makes more sense to give that role to someone a bit more suited to it than it is to toss out Satterfield entirely and search for a new offensive coordinator in the process. Of course the bad news here is that Nebraska may end up losing its coach for special teams since there is a limit to the amount of coaches you can have.

Expectations for next year. Without knowing whether Nebraska can get one of the quality QBs in the portal, it's tough to say. College football is changing rapidly. The playoff goes to 12 teams in 2024. The Big Ten brings in Oregon, Washington, USC, and UCLA. Needless to say I think everyone in Lincoln would be feeling better if the Huskers had access to those coveted bowl practices, but it just didn't work out that way. A bowl match-up even at a less than ideal location would still give fans something to talk about. But that's what happens when you lose the must-win games.

Rhule's staff should be absolutely ruthless utilizing NIL and I think McCord should be the prime target. I remain a little less sold on Donovan Raiola as the OL coach but that unit wasn't as abjectly terrible as it was during the Frost years so there may have been some progress made. Could Nebraska be holding out for Dylan Raiola to flip his commitment? I know a lot of people say that ship has sailed but Nebraska should still be putting on the full-court press until he signs.

[Update, Dec 20: It happened. Dylan Raiola flipped to Nebraska.]

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