Bo Pelini’s job security is inextricably tied to Nebraska’s performance on the field. If Nebraska does well and the fans are happy, his job is safe. If Nebraska is “descending to mediocrity,” then questions about his tenure as head Husker will be raised. But is it possible that Pelini could be on the hot seat at the end of the 2012 season?
In honor of the Supreme Court making a decision that’s kind of a big deal, let’s answer that question in courtroom form. We’ll consider the arguments for and against Pelini being on the hot seat in 2013, and render judgment based on those arguments. Court is now in session – but lucky you, at least this time you won’t have to see Mark May and Lou Holtz play at being lawyers!
Other than his first year, Nebraska has struggled to move the ball consistently under Pelini.
But in 2012, offensive coordinator Tim Beck will begin his second season, and almost all of the skill position players on offense will have a full offseason to work with Beck to implement the offense.
There’s no reason not to expect Nebraska’s offensive production to rise from 2011 levels, which should help NU be more successful on the field.
The Blackshirts took an uncharacteristic step backward in 2011, and that step back was a big reason why Nebraska struggled. Nebraska will certainly be losing key components from that defense, specifically Lavonte David, Jared Crick, and Alfonzo Dennard.
But it’s not like Nebraska really had those guys for 2011 anyway.
Dennard did not start the season due to injury, and consistent questions about his availability forced Nebraska to rotate starters for weeks throughout the secondary. Crick was a shadow of himself due to injuries at the start of the season, and his 2011 campaign was ultimately cut short by injury as well.
So while those standout players won’t be available, Nebraska should (barring more injuries) have more stability on defense, which should help to increase the defensive performance and get the Blackshirts back to a level Nebraska fans are accustomed to under Pelini.
As the 2011 season progressed, Nebraska’s offense turned into The Rex Burkhead Show, with Burkhead getting a greater and greater load placed on him each game.
Tim Beck has promised to lift some of that load in 2012, and Nebraska has a myriad of offensive weapons available to use.
Kenny Bell emerged as a dangerous weapon in 2011. Jamal Turner started strong but faded. Kyler Reed was a forgotten man but is still a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. Ameer Abdullah is a dangerous, shifty back that could be a devastating weapon behind Burkhead. Mike Marrow and Imani Cross look to be change of pace options at running back. And, of course, Taylor Martinez has the kind of explosiveness that put him in the Heisman conversation early in his first season as a starter.
So, if Nebraska is able to take advantage of its offensive options, keeping Burkhead fresh and the defensive attention divided, then NU has the chance to take a step forward on offense in 2012.
Yes, he’s spent time with the quarterback guru in California. Yes, he’s a redshirt junior, starting his fourth year in the program. Yes, he’s more mature than ever, with a full year’s offseason to learn Tim Beck’s offense.
But he’s still Taylor Martinez. He is the quarterback you’ve seen throw the crucial interception, make the crucial fumble, make the wrong pitch at the critical moment to cost Nebraska a big game.
There’s plenty of reason to think 2012 could be Martinez’s breakout year as a quarterback—quite honestly, it’s what I expect to see from Martinez this year. But it’s fair to say that we haven’t seen that yet. And if Martinez is still the guy to make the big mistake at the big moment, then it really won’t matter how much progress Nebraska has made in the rest of the program.
Nebraska fans thought last year was a gauntlet in their first year in the B1G. This year is worse.
Nebraska has conference road games at Ohio State (with new head coach Urban Meyer, perhaps you’ve heard of him), Northwestern, defending Legends Division champion Michigan State, and Iowa. NU still plays Wisconsin as a cross-divisional opponent, and gets Michigan and Penn State at home sandwiching a trip to East Lansing to play the Spartans.
And the non-conference schedule is no cakewalk. Nebraska opens the season against Southern Mississippi, a far cry from teams like Chattanooga and Western Kentucky. It also has to hit the road to play UCLA, in the Bruins’ first real test under new head coach Jim Mora, Jr.
Given the degree of difficulty in Nebraska’s schedule, NU could very easily be better as a team than it was in 2011 and have a worse overall and conference record.
Consistency has been Pelini’s Achilles heel for the majority of his time in Lincoln.
While most people remember 2011 as a disappointment given Nebraska’s embarrassing losses to Wisconsin and Michigan, it’s illustrative to reflect that Nebraska would have won the Legends Division and played in the inaugural B1G title game had NU not lost at home to a Northwestern squad that ended the season at 6-6.
So even if Nebraska does nothing more than hold serve with its performances from last year, and eliminates the inexplicable losses to mediocre teams at home (Iowa State in 2009, Texas in 2010), NU could find itself playing for a conference title in Indianapolis this December.
*UPDATE* Apparently I have a job waiting for me at CNN, as I was wrong about the effect of the Northwestern loss. Even winning the game, Nebraska with two conference losses would not have won the division over one-loss Michigan State. It's likely a 9-3 Nebraska would have still got the BCS nod over Michigan, and the underlying point remains that if NU avoids a toe-stubbing in 2012 its chances for success increase dramatically. But the division title still would have eluded NU.
To find Pelini finishing on the hot seat after the 2012 season, we first have to determine what the expectation level is for Nebraska fans. Pelini is only getting put on the hot seat if he fails to live up to whatever the expectation is for Nebraska, fair or unfair.
Most national preview magazines have Nebraska rated between 16 and 24, and only Phil Steele has Nebraska getting to the B1G title game. But I’m not sure another trophy-less season will satisfy the Children of the Corn.
Pelini is starting his fifth year in charge of Nebraska, and has lost four games in each of his four years in charge. He made the conference title game in 2009 and 2010, falling short last season. If Nebraska has another four-loss season, or if Nebraska fails to make the B1G title game in 2012, Pelini’s seat will certainly get warm.
But for him to be “on the hot seat” in 2013, his seat would have to be more than warm. “On the hot seat” means that a coach is in danger of being fired, and I can’t see a déjà vu season for Nebraska putting Pelini in that kind of danger.
The only way Pelini is on the hot seat in 2013 is if Nebraska takes a significant step backward from where it has been under Pelini. And I don’t see that happening. Pelini’s seat might get warm in 2013, but he’s not facing a truly hot seat until 2014 if he doesn’t deliver trophies for NU.
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