Deep breath, Mike Riley. You made it. 

The 2015 season was the equivalent of trekking to school through five miles of snowdrifts, uphill both ways! Only this was no exaggeration. This was no tall tale. 

One year ago, Riley left the peace and tranquility of his hometown, Corvallis, for the wintry Great Plains. He left a beautiful house that overlooked Mt. Jefferson for a hotel room that overlooked Misty’s. The trade-off was supposed to be additional wealth and glory.

Instead, Riley got beat on opening day by a Hail Freaking Mary. And honest to God, that was only the third or fourth most maddening defeat of the season. By Halloween in West Lafayette, I pictured Riley as Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon.

“I’m too old for this s---.”

Now we find out if it was all worth it. The Foster Farms Bowl triumph won’t exactly vault Nebraska into the preseason Top 25 for 2016. But it should definitely give Riley a pep in his early-morning step as he braves the north wind on 10th Street en route to the office. It’ll feel downhill both ways!

Nebraska has a chance in 2016 to A) get the program back to 9-3, where Riley picked it up; and B) challenge for a division title. 

Even if they don’t sign a single recruit, the Huskers should be equal or better at literally every position but one — defensive tackle. With a little luck on the injury front, they should have sufficient depth at most positions.

The biggest progress should be intangible. Riley’s players experienced a dramatic adjustment in scheme and coaching style. And most of them didn’t see anything wrong with the old ways. Add in the early-season gut punches and that’s a tough recipe for progress. 

By August, after senior departures and some inevitable attrition, Riley should have a roster of players who believe in the blueprint. That has to be worth something on the scoreboard.

This doesn’t mean that Nebraska will make an Iowa-like leap in 2016. The schedule is rocky and roster concerns (and a few coaching concerns) persist. The Huskers need to make a jump in strength and conditioning and fundamental football (tackling, turnovers, special teams, etc.) But...there is no possible way that 2016 can get any worse for the Huskers. 

Believe it or not, that’s step one on the road to contention. 

* * *

>> The Husker I’ll miss watching most isn’t Maliek Collins (Baby Suh). It’s Andy Janovich

I’m convinced that the former walk-on fullback will A) play many years in the NFL; and B) would’ve been a top-5 fullback all-time at Nebraska if he’d arrived in the 80s or 90s. 

What a great story of perseverance for in-state kids. And what a reminder for Husker coaches that great in-state prospects don’t get the attention they deserve.

>> According to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, Creighton’s best non-conference victory this season was Dec. 9 against Nebraska, the 137th-ranked team in the country. 

Isn’t that something? 

The Huskers own two top-100 wins (Rhode Island and Tennessee). UNO’s best win, Grand Canyon, is ranked higher than Creighton’s best win. 

The Jays haven’t beaten anybody! 

Still, I think Creighton is our state’s best chance at an NCAA or NIT berth. 

(Ken Pom agrees; he ranks CU 67th compared to Nebraska at 137 and UNO at 146. He projects Creighton to go 8-10 in the Big East, Nebraska to go 6-12 in the Big Ten and UNO to go 9-7 in the Summit). 

Greg McDermott’s team, which pushed unbeaten Oklahoma to the final five minutes in Norman, has a real opportunity these next three weeks. The road games are winnable (St. John’s, Seton Hall, DePaul). And the home games are potential statements (Villanova, Georgetown, Providence). 

It’s exactly how I would draw up the schedule if I were McDermott. Are the Jays ready for a breakthrough? Can they start 4-2 or 5-1? It starts with defense. 

Last season’s heartbreakers had one thing in common: the inability to get stops in the final minute. We’ll see if Creighton can do it this year.

>> I’ve been critical of the Big East the past three years. Rightfully so, I think. But the league should be a blast the next three months.

Xavier, Villanova and Butler are potential top-10 teams. Providence, Seton Hall, Creighton and Marquette are interesting. If Georgetown figures it out, you might see six NCAA tournament teams. 

>> As good as the Big East looks, it’s not the best 10-team league on the map. Not even close. The Big 12 is loaded. This Saturday, undefeated Oklahoma hosts 10-1 Iowa State. Then Monday the Sooners go to Allen Fieldhouse, where (likely) No. 1 Kansas awaits. 

West Virginia, Baylor, Texas Tech and Texas look like NCAA tournament teams, too.

>> For Iowa fans, 2015 began with gnashing of teeth over an embarrassing bowl loss to Tennessee. Sure turned around after that, didn’t it. 

This weekend, some 40,000 Hawkeye fans descend on Pasadena for the Rose Bowl. The ones who stayed home celebrated a basketball upset of No. 1 Michigan State last night. (No Denzel Valentine, of course). 

If Iowa beats Stanford Friday, I suggest all Hawk fans stop in Vegas on the way home. Bet on black.

>> Wow, this is good. How Kobe Bryant almost got drafted by the Boston Celtics. Imagine how different the past 20 years of the NBA would be. 

>> When foreign-born basketball players watch the ball movement of the San Antonio Spurs, they see soccer. Fascinating perspective from Mark Travis about how all those international Spurs, most notably Manu Ginobili, modeled their games after soccer players.

>> Chip Kelly's hubris cost him his job. He could’ve kept leading the Eagles as head coach, probably for several more years. But he wanted control of personnel and he wasn’t any good at it. 

The question now is where Kelly ends up. Could he be a Bill Belichick or Pete Carroll who learns from his mistakes and thrives in the NFL? Or will he bail like Nick Saban or Bobby Petrino and return to the comforts of college?

My guess is he’ll give the NFL another chance, if he can find the right job. That might be in Tennessee with Marcus Mariota.

>> Good story from Chuck Carlton about the racist fraternity video at the University of Oklahoma and the impact it had on Bob Stoops’ team.

>> Looking for an X-factor Thursday between Oklahoma and Clemson? Brent Venables, the Tigers’ defensive coordinator, spent 13 years with Bob Stoops. George Schroeder profiles Venables

>> In eight games against his former assistant coaches, Nick Saban is 8-0. Mark Dantonio, a defensive backs coach for Saban at Michigan State in the late-90s, wears the Saban scowl on the sidelines. But he’s a different man. Saban is notoriously relentless; Dantonio has tried to be a human being, too.

>> One of Saban’s players does a phenomenal Saban impression.

>> Jim Harbaugh wants to host WrestleMania at the Big House. And of course he wants to be a referee.

>> Excellent historical story about Lafayette’s boycott of the 1949 Sun Bowl. Why? Because the bowl committee wouldn’t allow Lafayette to suit up a black player.

>> Really interesting (and alarming) story from the Washington Post about the surge of money going to athletic department officials and football support staff in the past decade.

As one critic put it, “They must get paid to sit back and think big thoughts.”

>> And if schools aren’t spending money on personnel, they’re dropping it on facility branding and graphics.

>> December 30 is the birthday for Sandy Koufax, Tiger Woods and LeBron James. (Almost as impressive as Aug. 10 — John Starks, Andre Drummond... and me.) 

Here's a classic tweet this morning from legendary writer Dan Jenkins: 

“A note to Tiger as he hits 40, speaking from personal experience: The next 46 years can be hell on your golf.”

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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