Pelini needs to take next step, return Nebraska to national prominence
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Bo Pelini's run of nine- and 10-win seasons would be cause for celebration at most schools. When it comes to the meeting the expectations for one of college football's most successful programs, though, he's yet to deliver.
Pelini goes into his sixth season at Nebraska still looking for his first conference championship. The difference this year is that he has a new boss in athletic director Shawn Eichorst and a fan base that has grown weary of embarrassing losses in the most important games.
|Aug. 31||vs. Wyoming|
|Sept. 7||vs. Southern Miss|
|Sept. 14||vs. UCLA|
|Sept. 21||vs. South Dakota State|
|Oct. 5||vs. Illinois|
|Oct. 12||at Purdue|
|Oct. 26||at Minnesota|
|Nov. 2||vs. Northwestern|
|Nov. 9||at Michigan|
|Nov. 16||vs. Michigan State|
|Nov. 23||at Penn State|
|Nov. 29||vs. Iowa|
So, yes, this is a big year for the Cornhuskers.
The schedule is set up for success, with eight games at home and the only worrisome road trip Nov. 9 against Michigan. The offense is loaded, starting with four-year quarterback Taylor Martinez. The defense is young but, according to Pelini, teeming with talent.
"I think we have a group of guys who are hungry," Pelini said. "I think they're out there to prove something."
How about Pelini?
"I'm proud of where we are as a program right now," he said. "I'm always hungry. I don't make any apologies for what we've done over my first five years."
Last year's 10-4 record made Nebraska one of only four programs to win at least nine games each of the past five seasons. But the Huskers still haven't won a conference title since 1999, and their most recent appearance in a BCS bowl game was in the 2001 season.
Eichorst, who succeeded Tom Osborne as athletic director in January, declined an interview request from The Associated Press to discuss the state of the program.
The argument for Pelini goes something like this.
He's 49-20 and only the third Nebraska head coach to win at least nine games each of his first five seasons. Bob Devaney and Osborne are the other two, and they're in the College Football Hall of Fame.
And the 45-year-old Pelini undoubtedly has raised the profile of Nebraska after the program's steep drop-off in the four years under Bill Callahan.
He also appeared to have the Huskers on the cusp of a return to greatness in his second and third seasons, when they were narrowly beaten by Texas and Oklahoma in Big 12 title games.
But of Pelini's past eight losses, six have been by 14 points or more -- including four by at least 25. None were worse than the 70-31 loss to Wisconsin in last season's Big Ten championship game.
"If he wants to get off the clock, he's going to have to eliminate the blowouts and he's going to have to get us into a top-10 finish and competing for a national championship," said longtime booster Mike Jacobson, a bank president from North Platte who in 2012 spent $2.5 million to lease a Memorial Stadium suite for 25 years.
The Huskers were Nos. 25, 24 and 20 in the past three season-ending polls, and they are far outside the national championship conversation this year.
One of the questions Pelini faces is whether he and his staff can recruit the players needed to return the program to national-championship caliber. The program has won all or part of five national titles, the last one coming in 1997.
The NFL first-round draft picks under Pelini, Ndamukong Suh and Prince Amukamara, were signed by Callahan. Other than Lavonte David, a second-rounder in 2012, no Pelini recruit has been taken higher than the fourth round.
This year only two Nebraska players were drafted, Rex Burkhead in the sixth round and Daimion Stafford in the seventh.
The Huskers, who must replace eight defensive starters, have brought in four-star recruits in linebackers Marcus Newby and Josh Banderas and lineman Randy Gregory. A number of players who redshirted last season also should help a defense that was poor against the run and had difficulty creating a pass rush.
"They're going to be playing good football when we kick it off," Pelini said. "You guys are the ones who are concerned about the defense, not me. We'll be just fine."
Jason Ankrah, the only returning starter on the defensive line, said he and his teammates believe in Pelini's system and want to make amends for lost opportunities the past couple years.
"We talk about how we were so close," Ankrah said. "People think you have to make a drastic change to overcome that hump, but really it's the little things like technique and knowing the game plan."
One thing for sure is that the people who are invested in the program financially and emotionally are not lowering their expectations.
"Frankly," Jacobson said, "if Nebraska doesn't make it to the Big Ten championship, that could be a real problem for Bo."