After blowing through some weaker opponents Nebraska faced a top 30 team on Saturday. Frank Beamer’s Hokies of Virginia Tech had a chance for a fifth consecutive ten win season on the line. The Huskers were playing to prove they are a contender in the Big Twelve North and a player on the national scene.
Nebraska struggled early in the season to put away opponents that Husker faithful expected to be less challenging. Scouting the Huskers had been difficult. Nobody really knew whether they were doing their best, sand bagging, or playing to the level of their competition.
How did they get in a hole against VA Tech?
Giving up a safety on a punt following the first possession is never a good way to start a game. Following that with a turnover and a touchdown puts any team in a hole. The great teams grab a shovel and start digging or just put up a couple quick scores to demoralize the opponent. The 2008 Huskers are not a top tier team. For fans this has been hard to swallow. Bo Pelini rode into town on a white horse and was supposed to prove that last year’s 5-7 team was all the fault of the previous coaching staff and that with the right leadership these players would be winners.
How did the team handle the doldrums?
This is a team with character. Last year when the Huskers got down the former head coach would yell at them on the sidelines. By the end of the season the 2007 team was folding like a house of cards whenever the chips were down. This is a team that fought out of a hole against Virginia Tech and almost rose up to beat them. One less Virginia Tech score and the results might have been different. Two consecutive controversial calls on a third down play after Nebraska stopped the Hokies on the 33 handed the ball to Beamer’s team on the three yard line; the Hokes scored with 2:28 left to put the game out of reach. A little more time and the Huskers might have rallied to win instead of losing by five; but even legendary coach Lombardi once observed, “We didn't lose the game; we just ran out of time.”
The 2008 Huskers are a rebuilding team that probably knew and accepted their place before fans did. Following a 5-7 year with a winning record would make a first year coach a hero in many towns. In Norman, Columbus, Gainesville,Los Angeles and Lincoln it takes more. Fans in Lincoln understand that a four year cultural shift in the program has left the cupboard bare and Bo Pelini has some latitude.
What is this team's potential?
If they are not a top tier team, what are they? They are a group of 100 or so young men who are relearning how to win as a team. Where the 2008 Huskers are suffering most is probably in team speed. There are some fast players but there are not players competing for every position that are speedy on a national scale. Virginia Tech had more team speed. There are at least three remaining teams on the Huskers schedule (Missouri, Texas Tech and Oklahoma) that have a speed edge. Kansas is probably is close to Nebraska in total team speed.
Nebraska could go 7-5. Losses to three more quality teams and a victory over the Kansas team that is probably evenly matched would put Nebraska at 8-4 and a possible bowl invitation if they take care of the rest of the winnable games. Colorado probably thinks that the last regular season game against Nebraska is winnable. Would fans be pleased with a 6-6 season? If that were to come to pass, everyone who loves Nebraska football would most likely buckle down and remind themselves that it is better than the slide they were on (5-6, 8-4, 9-5, 7-5) under the last coach.
Up Side / Down Side
An almost unreachable 9-3 season and an invitation to a good bowl would still make Bo Pelini a hero in Nebraska. The chance of that seems remote. An 8-4 season and a bowl trip would exceed most people’s expectation for the team. If the team finishes 7-5 and they travel to a minor bowl appearance a win and an 8-5 record would satisfy Husker faithful. Finishing 6-6 would not jeopardize the coaching staff, but it would make future success more necessary to keep the Husker Nation from getting restless.