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Nebraska Football: Should Cornhusker Head Coach Bo Pelini Be on the Hot Seat?

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Nebraska Football: Should Cornhusker Head Coach Bo Pelini Be on the Hot Seat?
Eric Francis/Getty Images

Judging from the comments on my columns, it’s safe to say that Nebraska’s 63-38 loss to Ohio State on Saturday has made some fans ready to pull the plug on the Bo Pelini era in Lincoln. In Pelini’s fifth year, Nebraska fans had thought that the team would be past embarrassing performances like the one on national television Saturday night.

Coupled with Nebraska’s struggles against the Buckeyes is the hiring of a new athletic director, Shawn Eichorst, at Nebraska. It’s become a cliché, but is still true, that a new athletic director has far less loyalty to coaches on staff than did the athletic director who hired those coaches. So in addition to flashback-like routs on the field, Pelini also has to worry about a new guy making the ultimate decision on the direction of the athletic program.

Pelini is a famously no-nonsense guy, and would never admit to being concerned about his job status. But after the Ohio State loss, he made a curious step out of character. He told the press that Nebraska needed to win out to get to the B1G Championship game at the end of the season.

This was a marked departure from the “one game at a time” and “focus on the process” messages Pelini had consistently delivered. Was it a sign of desperation? Was it a motivational tactic to ensure his team has no more letdowns?

Regardless of the motivation behind the comment, Nebraska’s loss to Ohio State was a sobering dose of reality for the Children of the Corn. Even though Nebraska lost to UCLA, the game was competitive until the end. And after the comeback against Wisconsin, some Nebraska fans felt a corner might have finally been turned by a program desperately trying to return to competing for conference and national honors.

Bruce Thorson-US PRESSWIRE

 

Instead, the Ohio State game brought a soul-crushing sense of déjà vu to Nebraska fans, back to the embarrassments away from home against Wisconsin, Michigan, and South Carolina last year. And while that recent history is disturbing enough, the real concern lies with another historical comparison.

Without naming names, just compare the performance of these two teams over a consecutive four-game stretch against BCS opponents away from home (with the average on the bottom line):

 

Team A

Rushing Yards Allowed

Passing Yards Allowed

Total Yards Allowed

Total Points Allowed

Margin of Defeat

371

127

498

63

-25

344

309

653

36

-6

121

230

351

30

-17

238

180

418

45

-28

268.5

211.5

480

43.5

19

 

Team B

Rushing Yards Allowed

Passing Yards Allowed

Total Yards Allowed

Total Points Allowed

Margin of Defeat

277

241

518

65

-14

218

354

572

76

-37

364

181

545

28

-3

195

411

606

41

-35

263.5

296.75

560.25

52.5

-22.25

The numbers are relatively consistent, aren’t they? Team B’s defensive struggles were a little more apparent, particularly in terms of passing yardage allowed and total points allowed. But both teams struggled almost equally against the run, and there was just over a three point difference per game in terms of the margin of defeat in those four consecutive games against BCS opponents away from home.

As you’ve probably guessed, Team A is Nebraska’s current streak against BCS opponents away from home (Ohio State and UCLA in 2012, South Carolina and Michigan in 2011). On average, Nebraska has given up 480 yards per game and lost by 19 points in that stretch. Let those numbers sink in for a moment.

 

So who is Team B? What is the defensive stretch that is so disturbingly comparable to Nebraska’s current run of form away from Memorial Stadium?

The 2007 Nebraska team, Bill Callahan’s final year at the helm. It is widely understood that the string of ugly losses on the road (against Missouri, Texas, Kansas and Colorado) helped cement Tom Osborne’s decision to fire Callahan. That stretch saw Nebraska surrendering five yards per game on the ground less than Nebraska’s current streak, and a margin of defeat only 3.5 points larger than what NU is currently enduring.

When Pelini was brought to Nebraska, Osborne said he was brought in primarily to fix NU’s hemorrhaging defense. As we see from the statistical analysis above, in year five of the program Nebraska’s defense bears an alarming resemblance to the defense Pelini found when he arrived in 2007.

So does that mean Pelini is on the hot seat? Should it mean Pelini is on the hot seat?

It depends on how the rest of this season goes for Nebraska. Although it doesn’t feel like it, Nebraska controls its own destiny in the conference. Nebraska’s next road game is against Northwestern, a team that upset NU in Lincoln but that was somewhat exposed by Penn State the week before. Nebraska’s other road games are against Michigan State and Iowa, both of whom are far better matchups for Nebraska’s defense given their lack of mobility at quarterback.

Eric Francis/Getty Images

The two most dangerous mobile quarterbacks Nebraska has left to face on the schedule are Minnesota’s MarQueis Gray and Michigan’s Denard Robinson, and both of those games will be in Lincoln. Nebraska will also face Penn State in Lincoln, a team that has shown signs of life but may face significant depth challenges by the time the Nittany Lions face NU.

 

So, it is possible—indeed, likely—that Nebraska could do just what Pelini said it must do and win the six remaining games on its schedule. Should that happen, Nebraska will head to Indianapolis to face either a Wisconsin team NU dominated or an undermanned Purdue team. Yes, Virginia, even with the Ohio State debacle, Nebraska should still be considered a favorite (along with Michigan) to win the B1G in 2012.

If that happens, of course Pelini’s job is safe. But if Nebraska endures another historic loss such as it did against Ohio State—specifically against Denard Robinson—then all bets are off.

A particularly smart and handsome analyst wrote at the start of this season that Pelini would fend off the hot seat in 2013 because the defense would avoid the types of devastating losses it endured in 2011. If that’s not the case, and Nebraska’s 2012 defensive statistics look like the statistics from 2011—and 2007—then expect there to be some pointed questions from Nebraska’s new athletic director towards the head football coach at the end of the season.

If you’d like to contact Patrick to schedule an interview, provide feedback or get advice on which type of chocolate goes best with fresh fruit (spoiler alert: dark), then send an e-mail to patrickrunge@gmail.com.

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