NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Less than 48 hours removed from another disappointing showing on a national stage isn’t the best time to reflect back on the past five months. But alas, with the 2016 Nebraska football season in the books, we must.
It is a season that ends with a familiar feeling for Husker Nation: No spot in a conference championship game, no significant wins, no bowl trophies, no double-digit wins, and more questions about when — or if — this program will elevate to the next level.
But with the expectations coming into the season, after a 6-7 year in 2015, could a 2016 that ended with a 9-4 record be considered success? Did Nebraska take a step forward in 2016? Are there any silver linings?
Without further ado, here are the argument for and the argument against whether 2016 could be considered a success.
The argument for
Mike Riley’s jump from five regular-season wins in 2015 to nine in 2016 was the largest win improvement from Season 1 to Season 2 by any coach in Nebraska history.
Riley, the longtime Oregon State head coach, exorcised some demons against Oregon early in the season. (Despite Oregon’s pitiful record, it was still a win against a program that’s had massive success in recent years.). Nebraska won its first seven games and took Big Ten West champion Wisconsin to the brink on the road before suffering its first loss in overtime.
In the Music City Bowl on Friday, the Huskers made it a game with a backup quarterback in essentially a road game against Tennessee.
And for the most part, the program is back to Square 1. The 2015 season was a disaster. 2016 got it back to status quo. That jump isn’t something to be taken lightly. Programs rarely from 6-win seasons to 11-win seasons. Nine is at least a step.
Rebuilding a foundation, and rebuilding a program from the ground up like what Riley is doing, is not something that can be done in two years. So the main argument is Nebraska, and Riley, took a step in the right direction this season.
The argument against
No wins over teams likely to finish in the AP Top 25, two embarrassing blowout losses to Iowa and Ohio State, and three losses by double digits against blue-blood programs.
Nebraska’s 9-4 record is a little deceiving.
As a program, Nebraska should beat Fresno State, Wyoming, a 4-8 Oregon, Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota and Northwestern.
At the same time, Nebraska should at least be competitive against the four teams they lost to, particularly Iowa.
Nebraska’s sort of in limbo right now. Good enough to beat lower-tier programs, but not good enough to compete for championships. The last time Nebraska was close to taking that next step was in 2012 in the Big Ten Title game against unranked Wisconsin, who proceeded to kick Nebraska back down the mountain with a 70-31 shellacking.
Four years later, Nebraska’s no closer to the top of that mountain.
The 62-3 loss against Ohio State introduced the idea that Nebraska does not have the talent or depth to compete for Big Ten titles.
The 38-24 loss to Tennessee proved it.
Nebraska made some sort of step in the right direction, but if anything, the 2016 season showed how many more steps Nebraska still needs to take to be taken seriously as a Big Ten title contender.
Which view is right?
The measures of a success are different for every program.
At Nebraska, a 9-4 season is not something to hang a hat on.
With a senior quarterback who holds nearly every record in the book and the best wide receiving corps in the Big Ten, Nebraska’s passing attack was lackluster. With a senior running back and up-and-coming sophomore backing him up, the Huskers rushing attack wasn’t much better.
Nebraska’s defense was fine against mediocre offenses, but did pretty much nothing against good ones. In losses to Ohio State, Iowa and Tennessee, Nebraska gave up an average of more than 46 points. That won’t do it.
Nebraska’s schedule wasn’t particularly easy, most notably the consecutive games at Wisconsin and Ohio State. But Wisconsin’s schedule was much more brutal. Nebraska’s record opened the door to the Big Ten West with one good, solid win.
Nebraska couldn’t do that, and instead of playing in a major bowl after playing in the Big Ten Title game, it’s at home on New Year’s Day.