Attention, everyone. This is the column where I pin the tail on the Nebraska season prediction. But this year, just for you, I’ve got something better.
Feel free to put that on a bumper sticker or a message board. Positive Football. It needs to be the goal, the end game, for the first year of the Mike Riley Show on 10th Street.
I know what you’re saying: Could you put a number or a bowl destination on that, please? Sorry, no can do.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that the definition of a successful 2015 season would be for NU to play good, smart football. And I heard from plenty who said, more or less, balderdash. Anything less than nine wins this year, they say, is a failure.
Look, I’ve been through enough of these “first seasons” to know that you can’t expect much more than hope the team runs out of the right tunnel the first game. Anything more and you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
Heck, Nebraska, you’ve been through a few of these yourself lately.
These things can go either way. One, the team clicks immediately with the new coaches and plays over its collective head.
Or, the players don’t take to the new way at all and it’s square-peg-into-round-hole stuff, basically a wasted season.
First seasons are either steps forward or steps backward. We’ve seen both here.
In 2004, Bill Callahan stubbornly put his system in. The result was 70-10 in Lubbock, a reference to hillbillies and the first losing season and bowl season at home in a generation. Nothing was accomplished.
Four years later, Bo Pelini’s first team lost to teams that were better, but he adjusted to the personnel enough to scratch out a 9-4 record that had hope written all over it.
That’s essentially what Riley’s mission is this season, and what all first seasons are all about. Finding hope.
Positive Football. Got a nice ring to it, eh?
Let me explain. Seven years after that 2008 season, Nebraska’s psyche needs to be rebuilt. This is a program that used to get off the bus knowing it would win, that it would make any plays necessary to do that.
Some folks say the music died on Nov. 23, 2001, in Boulder, Colorado. That might be right. All I know: It’s been a long, long time since a Nebraska team showed up with the confidence and execution that made the brand famous.
That Husker swag wasn’t revived in either of the last two coaching changes. Chances are, it won’t be rebuilt in one year, either.
But that’s the challenge Riley faces this year. Let’s offer an example.
Last week after a practice, a Nebraska returning starter was talking about how the team was being “disrespected” by the media. He didn’t say it in anger or with much emotion. When pressed, he wouldn’t say where the disrespect was coming from.
No matter. The point here: A team with real confidence in itself doesn’t need artificial props to start the engine. That’s for teams that are insecure from the start, teams that don’t really believe.
Now, why would this Nebraska team be respected? And why would it believe? You’ve got to go out and earn both.
That’s the core of this season, to me. You say Riley was hired to win a championship? Gotcha. I say first he’s got to rebuild this program’s psyche.
Just think what a little confidence, along with some blocking and tackling, would do.
The interesting twist to this hire is that the job of bringing a championship back to Lincoln is in the hands of a staff that never won one in Corvallis.
On the other hand, since they arrived, Riley’s staff has done nothing but bubble over with enthusiasm about being here, about the potential of the program.
Yes, Ameer Abdullah leaves a huge crater where he stood. But there’s talent here, enough talent to beat anyone on the 2015 schedule. Could Riley’s approach flip the switch? It can’t hurt.
We’ve seen it twice in the last sports calendar. It happened last October to the Kansas City Royals. Happened to Ohio State football last December.
Sometimes a team has to figure out how good it is before it can cross over to a higher ground.
Positive Football. Getting a defense to swarm to the ball and tackle. Winning the field position game every week with efficient special teams. Playing to the playmakers’ strengths, and that starts with Tommy Armstrong and flows to a group of running backs and receivers waiting to surprise if put in position to succeed.
Making positive plays, one at a time, and building that into something where, the next time you’re up 17-3 on Wisconsin, you finish the deal.
The chalk pick this season is 9-3 or 8-4, and Nebraska right now is a chalk program, beating who it should, losing to who you would expect.
Can Riley inspire this team to break out?
This Nebraska team has the talent and physical presence up front to win its division, win the game at Minnesota, handle Wisconsin and, yes, Michigan State at home.
Gotta stay healthy. But that’s true about everyone in the Big Ten not named Ohio State or Michigan State.
I refuse to believe NU can’t flip the results against Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan State with better football. At the very least, Nebraska must be in those games, pushing forward, not backing down or getting embarrassed.
You say that’s what Nebraska football has come to. I say, where you been, on an island?
I say NU can do better than avoid embarrassment. I say, this team goes 10-2, wins the West Division and puts a scare into Urban Meyer’s Bucks in Indy.
There are plenty of skeptics who don’t believe 10-2 is possible, not because of personnel or because Wisconsin is awesome, but because the Huskers will surely get in their own way again.
That’s exactly the challenge Riley faces, what this season is all about. Can he flip the narrative? Yes, positively.
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