Can Nebraska Make the Journey from 10 Wins to Top 10?

Josh KleinCorrespondent IJanuary 7, 2010

What if I told you that the verdict was still out on Bo Pelini?

What if I told you that a record of 20-9 as the Nebraska head coach, a 69 percent winning percentage, hasn't told us too much about the head coach yet?

Would you be surprised? Would you scoff and mock me?

Most Nebraska fans probably would, and even I did at first for thinking such a thing, but I implore you to hear me out, and you too may know that the verdict is still out on coach Bo.

Let me clear one thing up right away: I am not now, nor have I ever called for Bo Pelini's job as head coach. I think he is the right guy for the job, and soon, very soon, I think he is on his way to proving it.

Before Pelini came to the program, Nebraska was a paltry 5-7 team with little to no confidence and a stockpile of undeveloped talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Tom Osborne took the reins from Steve Pederson as if he was taking the throne from an incompetent dictator, and in his wisdom he brought back the man Nebraska fans had hoped to see get the job years earlier: Bo Pelini.

You know the story, so I won't bore you with all the details, but in Bo's first two years there has been unprecedented improvement.

A team that once went into the fourth quarter losing with no belief of a comeback now had confidence. Ndamukong Suh now had a coach that could help him reach his full potential, and Nebraska fans were on board and on the cusp of selling Memorial Stadium out for an NCAA-record 300th time.

The air was electric, and belief was soaring high.  

T-shirts broke out with "Bo-lieve" and "In Bo We Trust" written on them.  Fans were as determined as ever to see a program that had sunk to indescribable depths of mediocrity make a comeback.

In his first season as head coach, Bo proved worthy, amassing a nine-win season with an impressive come-from-behind win in the Gator Bowl over a tough Clemson team.

Coming into the second season as head coach, Nebraska faced new challenges, and fans knew it.

Could the defense continue to improve? Could the offense continue its remarkable play without Joe Ganz, Nate Swift, Todd Peterson, and Marlon Lucky?  

The answer was yes and a resounding no, respectively.

Nebraska had a top 10 defense this year, best in the nation if you ask Texas, Arizona, or Oklahoma.

The offense, though, left much to be desired.

Despite the numerous weaknesses and a broken play in a heartbreaking loss to the Hokies in Lane Stadium, the Huskers persevered to a 9-3 record and a Big 12 North title, amassing impressive wins over Missouri and Oklahoma but suffering humbling defeats against Texas Tech and Iowa State at home as well.

The Big 12 title game may go down as one of the most controversial endings to a great defensive battle of all time. The Huskers had all but cinched a trip to Arizona and the Fiesta Bowl when Adi Kunalic let the kickoff sail out of bounds. Larry Asante aided the Texas offense with a horse-collar tackle on the very next play.

In the end, the answer to the game was that Nebraska was not there yet.  

They still hadn't gotten used to winning. If they were, Adi doesn't kick that ball out of bounds, Asante makes a clean tackle, and Dejon Gomes doesn't bust the coverage that ultimately led to the game-winning field goal.

It was Nebraska who used to get those breaks, it was Nebraska who used to pull off the miraculous wins, and it was Nebraska that used to know how to get the ugly games done in their favor.

Years of losses and being dominated had taken the wind out of the Huskers' sails, and only a performance like a shutout in the Holiday Bowl could bring any sort of resemblance to the Huskers of old.

And a shutout they got, in dominating fashion.

If Nebraska had won only 12-0 in the Holiday Bowl, there would be little cause for optimistic thinking going into next season, but they didn't.  

The Huskers put on a defensive and offensive show on Dec. 30, smashing the Wildcats 33-0; the first shutout in Nebraska's long bowl history and the first shutout in the 32-year history of the Holiday Bowl itself.

After the game, Pelini screamed through a rain-soaked microphone words that every Husker fan was thinking and longing to hear: "Nebraska's back and we're here to stay ."

The impressive victory brought Pelini's squad 10 wins in a season, the first 10-win season since he was the interim coach for these same Huskers in the Alamo Bowl in 2003.

The dominant performance brought even the announcers to heap praises on the Husker program. At one point one of the commentators stated, "Nebraska should be a top 10 team coming into next year."

The statement took me by surprise, as it probably did most of Husker nation.

A top 10 team? Had we really done anything to earn the honor?

I wrote it off at the time, thinking that it was an emotional reaction to a dominant performance against a bit of an overrated Arizona team.

However, reports have come from ESPN that Nebraska may be in the top 10 of their preseason polls going into the 2010 season.

The dream may in fact become a reality.

This all leads me back to the thought that the verdict is still out on Bo Pelini.

Nebraska was ranked 15th in the nation at one point this season, and looked to be on the fast track to an easy run through the Big 12 North before getting throttled by unranked Texas Tech 31-10, the worst loss of the season for Pelini and crew.

The question is no longer whether Nebraska can handle adversity. We've seen that Pelini excels at handling adversity; in fact, some may even say he thrives on it.

But the question now becomes, "Can Nebraska handle success?"

The small taste of success that the Cornhuskers sniffed this season on a national level was whisked away quickly by an opportunistic and underwhelming Texas Tech team in Memorial Stadium.

If Nebraska does go from 10 wins to top 10 in 2010, Bo Pelini will have a chance to show his true colors.

Can he take this team from good to great? Can they handle success, and can they handle high expectations?

Because next season, anything less than 10 to 11 wins may be seen as a failure to Husker nation.

That hasn't been a fact for a long time.

Personally, I don't think Nebraska will be in the top 10 next season, but they will start in the top 15, and then we will see if they can handle being the favorite. Hopefully that 33-0 drubbing will become more of a trend than an exception in the future.

Only time will tell.


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