How long will Husker Nation continue to be a house divided?
When will the clamor about Mike Riley finally die down? At times, Nebraska fans seem like two nations at war. Can we reach a consensus on the nice guy from Corvallis who makes brilliant off-the-field decisions and proved that you can indeed persuade four- and five-star high school prospects to take a serious recruiting trip to Lincoln – but who already has a losing season at NU, and whose winning percentage as coach of the Big Red (.577) is only a shade north of his career winning percentage at Oregon State (.538)?
As Abraham Lincoln once said, Nebraskans cannot continue to exist half pro-Riley and half anti-Riley. Or something like that. (I figure Lincoln had the future Cornhusker State on his mind quite often once he became agitated by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854.) Husker Nation must either become all one thing or all the other. And so it will. But it’ll probably take a conference championship or another sub-.500 season to sort things out for good.
Deep into the fourth year of his first term, Lincoln was still opposed by a wide swath of the nation. Both Lincoln and Riley and their respective staffs took a beating in the Civil War (the Great Emancipator was still taking his lumps as Union casualty rates continued to skyrocket at Spotsylvania Court House and Cold Harbor; meanwhile, with the stakes substantially lower, Riley went 4-10 against Oregon while at Oregon State). Things finally swung decisively in Lincoln’s favor when Union troops captured Atlanta. Two months later, he was re-elected.
How can Riley shake off his own doubters and garner an overwhelming majority in the court of public opinion? The same way the 16th president did – by winning.
Eventually, opinions – even diverse opinions – crystallize around a coach, and his reputation is firmly established. I think Riley will succeed at Nebraska, and a large majority of Husker fans will someday line up in his camp, although it may take until 2019, his fifth season — one year longer than it did for Honest Abe. Frankly, I don’t think the majority of Husker fans are all that far apart in their assessment of their head coach even now. The vast majority of people I interviewed in my “Pregame Perspective” series last fall were strongly pro-Riley. Would it help the Husker football program if fans presented a truly united front? Certainly. But in fairness to the anti-Riley folks, it would help Husker fans line up on his side if he could simply convince them that he can coach as well on the field as he does off of it.
Is this the year he sheds his “mediocre-coach-who-occasionally-pulls-a-big-upset” reputation and starts to develop into a consistent winner? No, not according to many college football pundits, who predict NU will scuffle around the six-win mark this fall. I disagree; there’s too much talent on this edition of the Huskers to go 6-6, but for the sake of argument, let’s consider the possibility.
A .500 season won’t gain Riley an inch of ground, and could swing the pendulum irreversably against him, despite the curious recent efforts of Lincoln- and Omaha-area sports radio personalities to persuade the locals to tolerate it this fall. Most Nebraska fans’ expectations are higher than that; they define football success by consistency and championships. Sadly, they haven’t had much of either since 2001. I would argue that Husker fans are relatively patient, but in some cases, their patience is wearing thin, thanks largely to a couple of unsuccessful head coaching hires in Lincoln. So Riley needs to make a decisive move in the right direction in 2017, even with some holdover Bo Pelini recruits in the starting lineup. I think he will, largely becuse it’s time for the up-and-coming talent and depth in the offensive line to make their presence known, and because Bob Diaco seems to have lit a fire under the Blackshirts. I look forward to seeing how Diaco brings the concept of “block destruction” to life.
Pelini lost four games each season. Riley probably would have the vast majority of Husker fans solidly in his camp if he loses three or fewer games annually from here on out, although wining the West three out of five seasons and the Big Ten once every four or five years should be the expectation. It’s not all that high a standard. Six Big Ten teams achieved the three-losses-or-fewer threshold in 2015, Four achieved it in 2016, three in 2014 and three in 2013.
On-field success comes down to talent and scheme, in that order. If you have enough talent, you can consistently win with most schemes, provided that scheme is teachable and simple enough to be grasped by college players who have much less time to devote to the game each week than do NFL players.
If he can churn out a few Top-20 recruiting classes, Riley will have enough talent to make that three-loss standard a reality. The question is whether he and his staff can develop that talent.
As for scheme, Riley’s pro-style offense and Diaco’s no-crease 3-4 defense have the potential to win big. It will come down to whether the Huskers can develop consistent strength in the offensive and defensive lines – the very place they’ve been weakest the last few years. From where I stand, if Diaco can develop an effective pass rush, the defense will be championship quality in a couple of years.
Riley’s staunchest opponents seem to fear that with Tanner Lee or Patrick O’Brien at quarterback, he’ll turn into Bill Callahan 2.0 and pass the ball more than he runs it. Riley has talked a lot about balance, which brings visions of a 50/50 offense to mind. That’s a faulty vision, because he also said he wants to become the third-best rushing team in the Big Ten. It’s hard to imagine the Huskers accomplishing that feat without averaging at least 40 running plays and 200 yards rushing per game.
This year, we’ll get a better idea of exactly what Riley and Danny Langsdorf consider a balanced attack. My prediction (and my hope) is that “balanced” means the Huskers can do whatever is required to win on a given day, whether pounding the ball and grinding the clock on a cold, windy afternoon to win a 17-14 slugfest, or throwing it 45 times to outscore an opponent who stacks the box all day long.
I don’t anticipate Nebraska throwing the ball a lot more — just a lot more effectively.
The best possible scenario for Nebraska’s offense (whether you call it “pro style” or “West Coast” or “multiple”) is that it looks a lot like Alabama’s offense looked from 2012-2015, featuring a solid run game behind an athletic offensive line that run-blocks and pass-blocks equally well, a pocket-passer quarterback who takes care of the ball and completes about 65 percent of his passes, and can pick up an occasional first down with his feet when needed.
Assuming Lee can throw the ball about as well as Joe Ganz did in 2008, matching Alabama’s 57 percent running/43 percent passing split over that span would work well if you’re averaging about 5 yards per rush and about 7.5 yards per pass attempt.
Riley can bring peace with honor to Husker Nation if he continues to look great in interviews, recruit well and run a clean program – and produces consistently on the field. It’s not the world’s easiest task, but he knew that when he signed up for it.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at email@example.com. Stryker is a freelance writer, favoring topics related to Nebraska history or Christianity. You can buy his recent book at this link.
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