LINCOLN, Neb. — Fifteen years ago, the last time a Nebraska football team stood 6-0, there was no widespread debate about whether the Huskers were for real.
There was no dissecting who Nebraska had beaten or arguing the merits of who was left on the schedule.
In 2001, 6-0 wasn’t a surprise. It was a tradition. It was expected.
“People were shocked when we lost games,” 2001 All-Big 12 lineman Chris Kelsay said. “It was a different time back then.”
The differences between Nebraska’s 6-0 start in 2001 and the 6-0 start in 2016 are, for the most part, stark. But they also show the dichotomy of the Nebraska football program over the past 15 years — a program that fell from a national powerhouse to knee-deep in mediocrity and now appears to be a team on the rise and potentially on the cusp of another great run.
“I think right now the expectations aren’t for Nebraska to be a national champion contender,” 2001 Heisman Trophy Winner Eric Crouch told Landof10.com. “I was in a different position. The expectations were different.”
Despite the different circumstances, the common denominator between the 6-0 start Crouch’s senior year and the 6-0 start in 2016 is criticism: one of high expectations, and one of low.
Nebraska entered the 2001 season having gone 10-2 and finished No. 8 in the AP Poll in 2000, the fifth year of a five-year run when Nebraska went 55-9. In the 10 years before 2001, Nebraska went a collective 109-15-1 and won three national championships (the Huskers split the national championship in 1997 with Michigan).
So entering that 2001 season, Kelsay said, a 6-0 start wasn’t a big deal.
“We knew from the beginning we had something special,” said Kelsay, who played for 10 years in the NFL for the Buffalo Bills.
On the flip side, this Nebraska team’s 6-0 start is an abnormality.
Nebraska began 2-4 one season ago. Nebraska is 43-23 over the last five seasons, 86-47 over the last 10 — more than three times as many losses as the 10 seasons before that 2001 season.
Entering this year, some 2001 players were split on their expectations. Kelsay wasn’t too optimistic. Jeremy Slechta, a defensive tackle and captain on the 2001 team, wasn’t shocked with the hot start but didn’t really know what to expect.
Crouch said he saw it coming, mostly because he knows how hard it is to transition to a new head coach.
Crouch’s freshman year in 1998 was Frank Solich’s first season after taking over for Tom Osborne. That year, Nebraska went 9-4. The four losses were the most a Nebraska team had lost in one season since 1968 under Bob Devaney.
“And we only lost one coach,” Crouch said.
From there, the skeptics came, and Crouch and Nebraska, despite being ranked highly in the polls the next few years, were given the task of getting Nebraska another national title.
The type of criticism Nebraska faces in 2016, if they’re real or if they deserve their top 10 ranking, isn’t something the 2001 team can relate to. But the two generations can relate to the intense pressure of getting Nebraska “back to the top.”
Rooted in the criticism of the 2016 version of Nebraska is the historical context in which the 2001 team, or any Huskers team, is always viewed: that they’re not as good as they used to be and the current team can — and should — be the one to bring Nebraska back to national prominence.
After practice on Thursday, senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong said that at Nebraska, you’re going to get flak regardless of what you do.
“We got criticized last year on if we were good or not, we get criticized this year if we’re good or not and we haven’t lost a game,” Armstrong said. “It’s going to happen no matter what. It doesn’t matter. They find reasons.”
Slechta said he couldn’t remember a time from 1998 to 2001 when Nebraska’s record or ranking was questioned.
But in 2001, “they” still found reasons.
When Crouch was quarterback at Nebraska, he was hailed as the second coming of Tommie Frazier, who led Nebraska to titles in 1994 and ’95. Crouch’s teams in 2000 and 2001 were compared to the early teams in the 1990s, and the powerhouse teams in the ’80s, he said. And it was tough on them as players, Crouch said.
“You get compared a lot as a Nebraska player,” Crouch said. “And you’re trying to compare the current situation to teams that are very, very unique. And it doesn’t happen to very many programs. And so it’s really hard on the players to hear that type of comparison.”
Local criticism, or even just local discussions, comparing modern teams to the 1990s and ’80s, or wondering when Nebraska will be “back” — those are things Crouch sees happening now and something that happened all the time when he was in school.
“The comparisons haven’t gone away,” Crouch said. “And they never will.”
The 2001 team tried to use the doubt as fuel. When questioned like that, or viewed in that negative light, Slechta said he took it upon himself as a captain to rally the troops.
“When you get a little bit of push back from the press, other people talking saying, ‘They should have won that game by more, offense was just OK, the defense played bad or vice versa,’ as a captains or coaches or players, you use anything like that you can get to rally around it and turn it around in practice,” Slechta said.
In the face of the criticism this year, Crouch has a lot of faith in Armstrong.
Armstrong said he doesn’t use the criticism of him or his team as fuel. Crouch said he thinks Armstrong is a strong-willed quarterback who realizes what’s important. And he really respects that about Armstrong.
“And I can compare it to many times at Nebraska where an article may have come out about doubting the abilities of being able to throw the football or making good decisions or handle the football or play good in big games, and you really gotta put that stuff aside and focus on the task,” Crouch said. “I truly believe Tommy is that type of person that he can compartmentalize and take that and say, ‘I don’t need that, I’m not going to worry about that. I’m focused on getting this team better each week and getting back to enjoying it.’”
Crouch isn’t in much contact with the current team, but his main piece of advice was the last thing he said about Armstrong: Enjoy it. Enjoy this run. Enjoy the doubters.
For whatever reason when Bo Pelini was the head coach, Crouch said, there was always something overshadowing the play on the field. Something always took the limelight away from the players, he said.
Now, with coach Mike Riley, for whatever reason, positivity has been injected back into the program.
Riley said on Monday he doesn’t care about the criticism. Doesn’t pay much mind to it. He likes this team. Likes them a lot. And that’s a step in the right direction, Crouch said.
“You can tell with negative actions and negative words, things start to crumble very quickly,” Crouch said. “So I think the message (from me) would be to just remain positive, win or lose, or any type of adversity that may hit them and to really encourage one another.”
Crouch likes this team. He thinks they have a legitimate shot at a conference title. Kelsay isn’t sure how good this Nebraska team could be. Neither is Slechta. They all see some similarities on the field to their teams in the early 2000s. They play with heart, Kelsay said, and finish games.
“Who knows,” Slechta said. “Hopefully this is the turning point.”