Many Nebraska football fans have already expressed concern about the potential results of the 2017 and 2018 seasons. No lie, the schedules won’t be the easiest to traverse, especially the 2018 docket which includes visits to Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa.
It’s almost conceivable that the Big Ten scheduling gods got drunk and became irate about Nebraska splitting the 1997 national title with the Wolverines.
By now, the question marks for 2017 are all laid out. How will Tanner Lee do? How will the current crop of wideouts perform following the loss of three of 2016’s top performers? How will the offensive line hold up? How will Bob Diaco’s new 3-4 scheme fit?
Plenty of concern and for more than understandable reasons. However, it’s very important to look at where the Nebraska football program is currently versus where it was when Mike Riley took over in 2015.
For two seasons, quarterback depth was limited to an athlete that wasn’t made for the system in Tommy Armstrong, a former walk-on that put up sub-par numbers in Ryker Fyfe and some emergency options.
Today, Nebraska boasts a signal-caller that could very well end up on an NFL roster as — get this — a quarterback and two four-star prospects behind him. Just in case the horrific happens, walk-on Andrew Bunch at least looked the part in the Huskers’ Red-White Spring Game.
The offensive line has been reloaded with some of the most highly-ranked prospects that the Huskers have brought in at their positions in several years.
Some may even see deserved playing time this season if the scoreboard is favorable towards the Huskers such as John Raridon, Bryan Brokop, Christian Gaylord and Boe Wilson. Cole Conrad proved himself scholarship-worthy after playing nearly every spot up front in relief during the 2016 season.
In terms of what this defense will bring, it’s hard to gauge just how well it’ll do at this point. However, one metric that Riley has frequently pointed to in terms of defining success is limiting the big play. During Mark Banker’s two-year tenure as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator, the Blackshirts gave up an average of 49 plays of 20 yards or more over that period.
When Notre Dame had Diaco taking care of its defense over a four-year span from 2010-2013, the Fighting Irish only surrendered 25 such lapses per season. That includes a grand total of 29 during his first year in the program versus Banker’s 77.
Las Vegas has predicted that Nebraska will top out at six wins in 2017.
I’ll go on record as saying that I believe the Huskers win more than six games and despite what some of the biggest pessimists believe, I sincerely doubt Nebraska goes 4-8 in 2018. If the Huskers can weather the storm, further patience with Riley is absolutely warranted. It will take time for this new talent to mature.
Considering what Riley inherited and seeing the recruiting machine that he has built bearing fruit, what possible sense does it make to hold him completely accountable for the results of his first two years as head coach at Nebraska?
In theory, he finally has the players he needs to excel in this offense. He has proven that he is not going to sit idly by and let poor production come from his staff (See: Banker, Mark and Read, Bruce). He has Nebraska successfully recruiting among the nation’s elite.
We are looking at Riley’s first unfettered year in the program. The top Jimmies and Joes are buying what he is selling. Even though the Huskers haven’t won a conference championship in 18 years, the Big Red has the No. 7 recruiting class in the nation as of this writing.
If major talent believes in Riley and comes to Lincoln despite a couple of sub-par years (assuming they actually happen), why shouldn’t the fan base believe what recruits do? Surely Riley has a plan for getting the Huskers back in the national spotlight.
Of course, on the field results matter most. However, how can you properly judge a coach going up against the Michigans and Ohio States when he hasn’t had the full opportunity to accumulate the talent to match while he’s clearly in the process of doing so?
We’re not dealing with a coach that was given a remotely fair chance to prove what he can do through his first and quite arguably his second year at the helm.
What Husker fans must ask themselves is are they going to demand the instant gratification that they chide other programs for or can they delay theirs in the hopes that Nebraska’s old standard of winning its division every year returns?
I admit the latter won’t be easy, but things that give the most satisfaction in life rarely ever are.
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