Last week, we went through Nebraska football’s best-case scenario for next year—a 14-0 campaign capped off with a national title win over Texas.
But surely as night follows the day, a worst-case scenario has to follow a best-case one.
So, for all the Nebraska fans who enjoyed the thought of Mack Brown’s postgame interview after Nebraska won a national title, here is one view of how everything could go wrong next year.
It’s Not the Quantity, It’s the Quality
Obviously, if Nebraska is decimated with injuries next year, the results will suffer. But it wouldn’t take a lot of injuries to derail 2013—just injuries to the wrong players.
Obviously, first and foremost would be if Taylor Martinez gets hurt. A season-ending injury would be bad (duh), but a lingering injury might almost be worse. Remember, at the end of Martinez’s freshman year, he was week-to-week after injuring his ankle against Missouri.
But that uncertainty meant the coaches kept putting him on the field, even in a limited capacity, and the results suffered.
If Nebraska is faced with that same dilemma in 2013, you could see a scenario where a hobbled Martinez gets the nod over an inexperienced Tommy Armstrong. And a limited Martinez, coupled with an inexperienced defense, could lead to some ugly results.
Don’t Sleep on the Bruins
Nebraska fans may be downplaying how important the UCLA game on September 14 in Lincoln is. The Bruins beat Nebraska 36-30 last year, torching the Blackshirts for 653 yards.
Unfortunately for Nebraska, it was the first of many ugly defensive performances.
So what if the past is prologue? Imagine UCLA leaving Memorial Stadium with a win, having put up another 600-plus yard gouging of Nebraska’s young defense. Although Nebraska’s schedule looks manageable after UCLA (South Dakota State and Illinois), a 2012-like performance on defense could very well shake the confidence of the squad.
An Old Ghost Haunts Nebraska
Even with a bad loss to UCLA, Nebraska should have enough of a talent advantage to beat South Dakota State and Illinois. But then Nebraska goes on the road for the first time—on Oct. 12—to face Purdue.
On paper, Nebraska should easily handle Purdue. But turnovers can cost games against inferior opposition (see State, Iowa), and Nebraska with a healthy Martinez was still No. 108 nationally in turnover margin last season (according to cfbstats.com).
So it’s not inconceivable that Nebraska’s first road trip, with a gimpy Martinez, could become a turnover-fest and an ugly loss in West Lafayette.
The Snowball Gains Speed
At this point, Nebraska is 4-2, which still sounds at least decent.
But Nebraska now begins the tougher part of the schedule. Let’s give Nebraska a road win against an out-manned Minnesota, even though the Gophers have been steadily improving under head coach Jerry Kill.
Next comes Northwestern, a team who beat Nebraska in Lincoln and probably should have beaten NU last year in Evanston. With a questionable Martinez still being trotted out and a defense that has yet to prove itself, a mobile threat like Kain Colter could run wild. The Purples would make it two straight wins in Lincoln, knocking Nebraska to 5-3.
At this point, there could be all kinds of divisions on the team. Some would support Martinez playing hurt, while some would be calling for Armstrong to get his chance. Some offensive players could become resentful that the defense is as bad, or worse, than last season.
Those divisions would not be helpful (to put it mildly) as Nebraska returns to Ann Arbor to face the Wolverines.
Michigan, led by quarterback Devin Gardner, may have better talent than Nebraska even if the two came in as equals. But a reeling Nebraska would be a prime target for a blowout on national television, especially by a Michigan team looking for payback for last year’s loss in Lincoln.
A 5-4 Nebraska would then return home to face Michigan State, another team who fell victim to a miracle comeback by NU last year. As Phil Steele points out in his massive college football preview, teams who won a lot of close games the year before tend to lose those games the following season.
Given that history, combined with all the negative energy surrounding the program, it’s easy to see the Spartans finally getting a conference win over Nebraska.
The Wheels Fall Off
At 5-5, Nebraska fans would now start to worry about bowl eligibility. Nebraska’s next game is a road trip to Penn State, where Bill O’Brien forged a strong team out of the adversity of NCAA sanctions.
Combine top quarterback prospect Christian Hackenberg at the helm of the Lions, 100,000-plus fans creating one of the most intimidating atmospheres in college football, and a well-disciplined team under O’Brien, and the conditions would be ripe to send Nebraska to its fourth straight loss.
The Hammer Game, Redux
In 2004, Bill Callahan’s first year at the helm in Lincoln, Nebraska was 5-5 coming in to their day-after-Thanksgiving tilt with Colorado. The Buffaloes arrived (legend goes) with hammers, looking to put the “nail in the coffin” of Nebraska’s 35-year bowl streak. Colorado succeeded, beating Nebraska 26-20 and keeping NU home for the holidays.
In our worst-case scenario, Nebraska would be in the same situation, at 5-6 and needing a Heroes Game win over Iowa to make a bowl. Iowa fans, in general, have a special kind of loathing for Nebraska, and the chance to keep NU out of a bowl game in 2013 would be an incredible motivation.
For this scenario, the combination of Hawkeye schadenfreude and Cornhusker disarray would lead to Iowa’s first capture of the Heroes Game trophy.
Nebraska would end the 2013 season at 5-7, with a whole lot of questions to answer.
So, which is more likely to happen in 2013?
Would this worst-case scenario cost Bo Pelini his job? That’s unlikely, but not impossible to consider. But the disquiet amongst Nebraska fans would rise to a level near 2007, when Callahan and athletic director Steve Pedersen were shown the door.
Indeed, this worst-case scenario might even be worse than 2007. Back then, you had a cartoon villain in Pedersen to blame for Nebraska’s woes.
This time, it wouldn’t be the evil man with the broad smile and the red blazer. It would just be the collapse of a football team, one that would test the hearts of Husker fans across the country.
Or you could always...Follow @patrickrunge.