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COMMENTARY

Mad Chatter: Husker volleyball's clutch culture; Problem of an 8-team College Football Playoff; Stephen A. Smith exposed

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Nebraska volleyball

Nebraska volleyball came through in the clutch to defeat Illinois in five sets and reach the national championship match.

It’s Friday! That means (a slightly abbreviated) Ten Big stories in 10 little bites. We’ll cover Nick Saban and Patrick Mahomes, college football playoff arguments and Stephen A. Smith’s gaffes. But first... 

The heart-stopping, stomach-twisting, sweat-inducing, nerve-breaking, head-shaking theatrical drama known as Nebraska volleyball just gets better and better, doesn't it? If this was Broadway, critics would be drooling all over their playbills. 

John Cook's Huskers played a miserable second set at the final four Thursday, prompting a few weary fans back home to call it a night. (Their tweets this morning made me sad). Hey, I don't blame them. A two-set deficit is typically the death knell for volleyball teams. They enter the locker room devastated by an insurmountable deficit and daunted by the work ahead. 

Not this team. Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney, who have never finished a season before the final four, defy self-doubt. 

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"We all just dug down deep and genuinely believed we could do that, turn the match around," Maloney said.

What followed were three roller-coaster sets that ruined fingernail clipper sales in Nebraska for the month of December — who has any nubs left? 

In set three, Illinois led 23-22 before Nebraska won three straight points. Set four was tight — 21-20 at one point — before NU took the last four points. 

"You know,” Cook said, “when you get to this point, you got to win ... big points at the end of games." 

This has been Nebraska's strength. Remember 2016 at the Devaney Center, when the Huskers fought off match point and rallied from two sets down against Penn State? Remember 2017 in Kansas City, when they clipped the Nittany Lions in that riveting fourth set? 

The culture carries over. Against Kentucky in this year's Sweet 16, the Huskers trailed 22-18 in the third set before rallying to win.

Against Oregon, the first set was 20-20 before NU won it. The second set was 23-23 before NU won it. 

The Huskers aren't easy on the nerves, but their performances at crunch time have been astounding. I don't take it for granted because I've seen some elite Husker teams that melted in those moments — I'll never forget the 2001 final four loss to Stanford. 

It's not just Foecke anymore. Her teammates emulate her confidence. They follow her lead. No situation is too dire or too tense. 

Steamrolling opponents demonstrates talent. But consistently winning the most important points in an even match demonstrates guts. 

The only thing standing between Nebraska and a third national championship in four years is the No. 1 team in the country, Stanford. I don't know if NU has what it takes to slow down all-world outside hitter Kathryn Plummer. I can only advise one thing:

Don’t go to bed early.

* * *

>> The Kansas City Chiefs may not be the NFL’s best team. But I challenge you to find a three-loss team in NFL history with more impressive defeats.

They lose 43-40 at New England, 54-51 at the Rams, now 29-28 to the Chargers. Those teams are a combined 31-9. 

That's the good news, Chiefs fans. The bad news is those are the exact teams you'll likely need to beat to win a Super Bowl. And with one more defeat — say next week at Seattle — you may drop from the No. 1 seed to No. 4.

>> NFL division champions should absolutely get an automatic playoff bid. However, I’m not sure it's fair to send the Chargers or Chiefs on the road for wild-card weekend.  

Think about it, we might see 13-3 Los Angeles (can’t we just use San Diego?) playing at 9-6-1 Pittsburgh, a team the Chargers already beat on the road. Shouldn’t that game be in L.A.?

>> Speaking of playoff formats, The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach wrote a whopper this week about potential reform to college football’s postseason.

Basically, the power brokers in the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 have come to their senses and want to discuss expanding the playoff to eight teams. They’re going to butt heads with the SEC, a league that A) has zero playoff complaints, and B) has a conference title game that still warms the heart of every football fan in Dixie. 

Eight teams would be better. But, as Mike'l Severe and I discussed earlier this week, there’s one thing I don’t like about a format in which top-four seeds host quarterfinal matchups. 

In an eight-team playoff, there’s very little advantage to gaining the No. 1 seed. Also, there’s little advantage to being No. 2 instead of No. 3, or No. 3 instead of No. 4. The only significant dividing lines are between No. 4 and No. 5 and between No. 8 and No. 9, obviously.

Contrast that with an NFL-style, six-team playoff. There's a huge advantage to being No. 2 instead of No. 3 because there’s a bye at stake. 

In an eight-team playoff, you might lose your last regular-season game and fall a couple spots without real consequence.

Say No. 2 Clemson has a starting quarterback who isn't quite healthy. Dabo Swinney sits him against South Carolina and the Tigers lose. They aren’t falling outside the top four, so what was the real punishment for the loss? Clemson still gets to host a quarterfinal — and the semifinal is still at a neutral site. 

In a six-team playoff, there are more incentives within the bracket to maintaining the highest possible seed. Just something to chew on.

>> Another excellent feature on Patrick Mahomes, master of the sideline angle.

>> Nick Saban's tradition of hiring ostracized coaches has gone too far. Lane Kiffin is one thing. D.J. Durkin is quite another, says Dan Wolken.

Just because we are no longer surprised that Nick Saban is so willing to debase Alabama’s reputation so that he can run a halfway house for coaching rehab doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. And it certainly doesn’t mean that Saban, even with six national championships in tow and perhaps a seventh coming in a few weeks, gets to make that kind of decision without confronting the scorn that every other head coach in America would and should get in a similar situation.

>> Nobody covers media better than Bryan Curtis, who looks back on “The Great NFL Heist” of 1993, when Fox stole TV rights from CBS.

>> Finally, Stephen A. Smith. ESPN’s most famous talking head (or is it yelling head) embarrassed himself Thursday when, during a 30-second clip discussing the Chiefs and Chargers, he mistakenly mentioned Spencer Ware (who was hurt), Hunter Henry (who is hurt) and Derrick Johnson (who no longer plays for the Chiefs). Oh, and he said “San Diego Chargers," but hey, who doesn’t?

Social media had a good time with Stephen A, as it should. I laughed, too. 

But there’s a lesson here and it’s something every sports consumer should know. The national pundits, especially those on "First Take" and "Around The Horn" and shows like that, can’t possibly be experts on everything. There isn’t enough time in the day. So what do they do? They fall back on surface-level “analysis” that's really just B.S. They give you just enough insight to get to the next hot take.

I don’t notice it when they discuss 95 percent of their topics. I do notice it when they discuss the stuff I know well. 

So why do people watch? Because they’re busy. And they want all of their daily sports takes in one place. The shorter, the better. 

I'm able to diagnose the problem because on a much smaller level, I'm part of the problem! Mad Chatter is essentially a local version of this. Bite-sized opinions on a wide variety of matters, gathered from others' original reporting, occasionally without much expertise. 

I try hard not to take shortcuts. I try to write things I can defend, and shut up if I can't. I try to create valuable content you can't get somewhere else.

But you know what? I can’t possibly give you the Creighton basketball expertise that Jon Nyatawa does, or the Bud Crawford expertise that Tony Boone does, or the Nebraska volleyball expertise that Jeff Sheldon does.

So here are a few words of advice. 

One, make sure the people you’re reading (or listening to) are doing the work. Don’t reward B.S.

Two, follow the real experts. The local journalists on the ground. Those who actually conduct the interviews and dig into the details. Because without them, ESPN pundits, national bloggers and talk-radio shows wouldn't have content to analyze. 

Stephen A. Smith won’t always makes mistakes. But on 90 percent of topics, he makes you think he knows more than he really knows. In the end, that's his real talent.

>> Thanks for reading. Have a great weekend.

Reporter - Sports

Dirk writes stories and columns about Husker football in addition to covering general assignments and enterprise for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @dirkchatelain. Phone: 402-444-1062.

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