Talk is cheap, except when it works. So, yeah, Brandon Huffman thinks what Billy Devaney, the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ executive director of player personnel, said at the start of the week — launching a verbal flame-thrower, a metaphorical middle finger, in the direction of Ohio State and Michigan — came off a tad crazy.
Crazy like a fox.
“I remember talking to a coach in the Mountain West, and he offered in January about 75 players in California that were already committed to other Power 5 schools,” Huffman, the national director of college football recruiting at Scout.com, told Land of 10.
“I said, ‘Why did you recruit them?’ He said, ‘I know I’m not going to get them. But I know that people are going to be talking about our program.’
“Today, it’s all about going viral. It’s why Jim Harbaugh is doing 90 percent of the things he does. When you make comments like this, people are talking about Nebraska. That’s what it’s about. It’s about building buzz. So it’s very calculated.”
We’re not conceding an inch.
Buckle up, St. Louis, we’re coming after your a–.
— Michael Nichols (@_MichaelNichols) February 20, 2017
Here’s the mike, Billy.
Don’t stop now.
“Do I think (coach) Mike Riley thinks he can beat Ohio State and Michigan (for talent)?” Huffman said. “I don’t think he doesn’t. He’s beaten Oregon for recruits. He’s beaten USC and UCLA for recruits. So I wouldn’t think he’s thinking he can’t win the recruiting battles at Nebraska.”
Drawing lines in the sand in the Lincoln Journal Star is one thing. It fires up the base. It gives the locals a bone to chew on as the dog days of February roll into the start of spring ball.
But it also begs a question, and a fair one: Is Devaney also picking a fight that could come back to bite his backside? Is it a PR stunt, a Hail Mary in what ultimately becomes a losing battle?
Can Nebraska — even with Riley talking about a separate department in Lincoln devoted entirely to recruiting — really go toe-to-toe on the trail with the Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh sales machines?
“I mean, ultimately, you’ve got to admire the spirit,” chuckled Allen Trieu, Scout’s Midwest football recruiting manager. “I think if you say you’re going to back down from those guys in recruiting, then that trickles down, maybe, philosophically within your team. I think it’s just a philosophical thing.
“Nebraska, they’ve been in the game on a few guys like that. They were in the game on (5-star cornerback) Darnay Holmes last year. They’ve been in on some of these blue-chip, 5-star guys. So I think that, while some of that quote might be bravado, I think they’re already recruiting that top-of-the-country (prospect). When they don’t get those guys, they’ve got plenty of other guys with talent as well.”
‘There’s no reason to think Nebraska can’t recruit like that’
The Huskers’ class of 2017 — the one that almost included Holmes — still landed 23rd nationally in 247Sports’ national composite rankings. Nebraska finished with the No. 24 class in 2016.
But since 2006, only one Big Red class has ranked higher than 20th nationally, and that was 2011 (No. 16). Either Ohio State or Michigan has been a part of 247’s top 10 classes every winter over the past six years.
“Obviously, recent history might indicate that he’s probably getting out a little bit ahead of his skis,” Huffman said of Devaney. “But there’s no reason to think Nebraska can’t recruit like that and there’s no reason to think Nebraska can’t recruit like that historically.
“The way they recruited under Tom Osborne in the early years and under Frank Solich, even a little bit under Bill Callahan, they were going toe-to-toe with the big boys with the way they recruited, historically.”
But it was a shorter climb to the top of the Big Eight food chain 25 years ago than it is cracking the Big Ten’s penthouse level now. It’s crowded in the stratosphere. Can a Nebraska recruiting class, a Riley class, shatter the Buckeyes-Wolverines stranglehold on the league’s top two spots, realistically?
“It’s unlikely,” Trieu said. “But it’s not impossible. You wouldn’t have thought Penn State would be (third) a few years ago.”
“I think they can be no worse than the No. 3 in the Big Ten every year,” Huffman said. “Ohio State and Michigan, they’re in a class by themselves. They’re always going to be — that was even before Urban and Harbaugh got there.”
That said, even a high No. 3 could well mean a more stable foothold on College Football Playoff aspirations. And if you want a concrete example, Huffman has a darn good one, likening Nebraska in the Big Ten to what Washington was — and is — in the Pac-12.
“The (Huskies) have the tradition, the support, the facilities,” Huffman said. “They’re just not going to beat USC and UCLA consistently (for recruits) because they’re not in Los Angeles.
“Obviously, Pennsylvania is going to have more recruits (nearby). (James) Franklin is going to have that consistently. But Nebraska has that history in the upper Midwest but they also have that history on the West Coast, and the ties. It’s going to be hard to beat Ohio State and Michigan, but you have to have that mentality that you have to beat Ohio State and Michigan in recruiting instead of settling to be the third-best program. I just think, right now, Mike Riley’s trying to win more battles against USC and UCLA than he is against Ohio State and Michigan.”
‘I know it’s a lot farther from Lincoln to Los Angeles than 500 miles’
And then there’s Devaney vow to “kill” a 500-mile radius around Lincoln, a bubble that includes Chicago to the east, Minneapolis to the north, St. Louis and Kansas City to the south and Denver to the west.
The trouble is, it’s a campaign promise that’s been tossed out before — specifically, in 2006, when then-recruiting coordinator Shawn Watson told the Omaha World-Herald that 500-mile zone was the new “state of Nebraska football.”
Chicago and St. Louis are Thanksgiving fowl chewed clean by the rest of the league each year. Minneapolis sometimes punches below its weight when it comes to top-shelf football prospects. Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State are going to get first dibs on the best and brightest in their respective backyards.
“Maybe that was a little bit ambitious, just because that takes you into some Big Ten states where those coaches have that same emphasis toward keeping those local kids home,” Huffman said. “And I think that’s where Nebraska is different from so many national programs in that they don’t have an elite (talent pool) in their backyard. They had to go to regions like Texas and Florida and California … they’re going to still need some talent from those other outlying states to be as good as they have been the last 40 years. And I know it’s a lot farther from Lincoln to Los Angeles than 500 miles.”
And Lincoln looks a lot closer to Indianapolis whenever the Big Red are taking care of business within the West Division. Since 2013, the Huskers have dropped six of seven to Wisconsin and Iowa.
“Their recruiting rankings have improved a lot every year,” Trieu said. ”You have a really strong game-day atmosphere to sell. Kids have been blown away when they visit.
“They have to, I think, beat those schools on the field. And if they beat an Ohio State or beat a Michigan in the coming year, I think that would certainly help the cause a lot.”
The best recipe for winning February is winning October and November first. And vice versa. Twitter buzz may open doors, but the scoreboard almost always winds up with the last word.