When I started my post-secondary education, one of the first classes I ever took was project management. If any situation in recent history has made me think more about that class than the current situation facing the Nebraska football program, I can’t remember it.
The idea was to start at Point A and then plan for every possible contingency. For example, if the action from Point A was successful, you moved on to Point B. If it wasn’t, you moved to Point C. You can imagine how complicated charting these often expansive outcomes was.
We must confront a number of “If, then” scenarios. If Nebraska beats Illinois, Mike Riley will probably keep his job for another week. If the Huskers beat Wisconsin, that probability will rise, but if they don’t, will Riley automatically be shown the door? We’re going to cover that today and try to predict the most likely outcomes without making our heads hurt. No promises, though.
Let’s start with the remaining schedule. Nebraska sits at 2-2 and 1-0 in Big Ten play. While Nebraska was notching a win over Rutgers, Illinois got the week off to plan. Meanwhile, the Huskers get one less day to prepare since this tilt will be one of the Big Ten’s controversial Friday night games. Yes, the Illini are 2-1, however, they struggled mightily against Ball State and Western Kentucky before losing by 24 points to current No. 18 South Florida.
In the eyes of the Big Red brass, this game is likely viewed much in the way Northern Illinois was. The Illini rank near the bottom of the barrel in several statistical categories including scoring offense (107), rushing offense (111), passing offense (112) and total defense (101). By all logic, Nebraska should win — it better win.
Rutgers had lost 14-straight Big Ten contests before taking on the Huskers. If the Big Red had lost, you can bet Riley would’ve been out by the beginning of the week. Illinois isn’t much better, but the outcome could be the same if Nebraska loses. Going 2-0 in conference before taking on Wisconsin at night in Lincoln gives Riley political capital to work with.
Here’s where the what-ifs start to come into play. If Nebraska loses to the Badgers (again), is that worthy of a firing? The answer to that question lies in a few variables:
1.) Are Ronnie Green and Hank Bounds trying to remove Riley at the first chance they get?
2.) If not, at what point does not “being competitive” kick in?
Bounds stressed that word — competitive — shortly after former athletic director Shawn Eichorst was let go.
Naturally, if the Huskers get blown out by Wisconsin, I don’t think anyone in the state would be surprised if Riley was done. However, what if Nebraska loses by a point? Better yet, what if it takes Wisconsin to overtime for the second straight year and loses by a point on a Rafael Gaglianone field goal?
If Nebraska loses at all, that political capital built by going undefeated in conference play will be gone. Ohio State comes to town next. If Riley is still the head coach when Nebraska faces the Buckeyes and the Huskers keep things respectable — we’ll say within 14 points for the sake of argument — is that competitive enough? Do the loss and a 2-2 Big Ten record mean the trigger is pulled? Obviously, if Riley’s squad gets blown out of the water, that question seems moot.
Should the Big Red go 0-2 in those games (competitiveness be damned), it’s hard to think Riley won’t spend Nebraska’s bye week cleaning out his office while the interim head coach rallies the troops.
But what if Nebraska tops Wisconsin and gives Ohio State a game? At that point, if Green and Bounds keep Riley until their specific checklist has been filled, they’re playing with fire. There will be five games left in the regular season and the new December recruiting signing period will quickly approach.
At that point, the Huskers face what appear to be four unknowns. It’s unlikely that anyone expects them to upset Penn State in Happy Valley, but they travel to Purdue and Minnesota while welcoming Northwestern and Iowa to Lincoln. As of this writing, Nebraska stands a chance at being a favorite in maybe two of those contests (Purdue and Northwestern).
With that information on the table, if Riley’s Huskers are sitting at 3-1 in Big Ten play — or Bounds and Green are being generous thanks to a competitive 2-2 — it appears that Nebraska has five outcomes that will determine whether Riley sees another year in Lincoln. I warned you this gets complex.
1.) Five wins and Riley’s done. I think we can all agree on that.
2.) Six wins with a three- or four-game skid, and it’s likely Nebraska will look for a new coach as well.
3.) Six wins with competitive losses and we’re sitting in “maybe” territory. That said, I’d expect the ax to fall.
4.) Seven wins and we may actually be on the fence. Whether or not Riley is around for 2018 is ultimately up to how badly Green and Bounds want someone new… and how confident they are about that person salvaging the recruiting class.
5.) Eight wins or more after starting 2-2 with a loss to a Group of 5 school means that Riley will probably stick around. Obviously, if he can notch nine wins, he’s golden.
So there you have it. The Nebraska football program is in a very dicey situation and its leaders must be careful. There are a number of plates they have to keep spinning or this whole thing could come crashing down.
Keep in mind that whoever is the Huskers’ coach next season will have to navigate this hellacious schedule.
It would be wise for everyone involved from fans to administration to play the long game here. If movement is sought, the right person must be put in place immediately or the Huskers will be hurting for years to come.
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