Nebraska is the best job in the Big Ten West.
But it’s the fourth-best job in the Big Ten.
After seven consecutive seasons with at least nine wins, Nebraska has parted ways with head coach Bo Pelini. The fiery and often abrasive head football coach had plenty of moments that caused fans and administrators to shake their heads. But he also won 67 times in 94 games, including three division titles in two different conferences.
Only Alabama and Oregon join Nebraska with at least nine wins in each of the last seven seasons. But if Wisconsin and Michigan State can win Big Ten titles and Rose Bowls, why can’t the Cornhuskers?
Self-awareness is a highly underrated characteristic and, after firing a coach who won a lot of games, the question becomes does Nebraska know where it’s located in the college football hierarchy?
Nebraska has the biggest and baddest stadium in the division. It has the richest tradition and history of success in the division. And it has more financial resources than any school in the Big Ten West. Competing for and winning division titles is absolutely something Cornhuskers fans should expect nearly every season.
But long gone are the days of three national championships in four years. Nebraska is no longer a top 15 job and may never be a national power again.
The entire landscape of college football has been rapidly evolving for two decades and none of that evolution has helped Nebraska. The facilities arm race once dominated by Nebraska is nothing more than conducting business as architectural limits are being pushed in places like Oregon and Texas A&M. Nebraska was one of the first schools to understand the importance of strength and conditioning and now every major program employs five-star chefs and personal trainers.
Podcast: Who should be Nebraska's next head coach?
Most importantly, recruiting is a totally different beast as technology has made the world a smaller place and given rise to layers of new programs. Nebraska used to be one of only a handful of programs that was on national television every weekend. Now, Rutgers is on national TV every Saturday. Would Mike Rozier (Camden, N.J.) or Rich Glover (Bayonne, N.J.) go to Nebraska if they were big-time prospects today? Would Florida native Tommie Frazier ever get out of the Southeast?
“The recruiting landscape is much more competitive today,” said Sean Callahan, publisher of HuskerOnline.com. “There really wasn’t a perennial West Coast power in the 90s like there is today with USC, UCLA and Oregon.
“Nebraska was a power in the state of Texas as well. Baylor, TCU and the SEC weren’t the recruiting powers in the state of Texas like they are today. Recruiting parity wasn’t a factor like it is today.”
Moving to the Big Ten was a financial and cultural windfall for the Cornhuskers, especially considering how weak the Big 12 appeared to be at the time. But it hasn’t helped recruiting. Population trends indicate that the Big Ten footprint is producing fewer and fewer big-time athletes and getting them to Lincoln is proving to be difficult.
The Johnny Rodgers and Dean Steinkuhlers of the world are no longer growing on in-state trees. According to 247Sports, Michael Decker of Omaha-North is the top prospect in The Cornhusker State in the Class of 2015. He’s ranked the 753rd-best prospect nationally.
“One of the biggest problems Nebraska faces today is getting recruits on unofficial visits,” said longtime recruiting guru Bill King, host on SiriusXM College Sports Nation Ch. 91. "The unofficial visit has become increasingly more important and you can’t get people to come to Lincoln on their own dime. They just don’t want to go.”
Nebraska has the tools and built-in support to compete at a high level in the Big Ten. Pelini wasn’t able to break through with a conference crown, was embarrassed in too many big games, never finished ranked in the top 10, never made it to a BCS bowl and his brutish personality never fit in the Midwest town.
But it may be unrealistic to expect more than nine wins a season from any coach at Nebraska.
“It’s very unlikely that the new hire wins more than Pelini. It probably will be a guy they like more but the end result isn’t likely to be better,” King said.
Said Callahan: “If you know what you are doing and have a plan in the place, you can routinely contend in the Big Ten West."
Both King and Callahan know what Nebraska fans need to accept. The days of competing for national championships are over in Lincoln.
In Tom Osborne’s prime, Nebraska was a one-of-a-kind program that dominated college football with advanced thinking and a fertile recruiting base. Now, the Huskers are just another solid Big Ten team and Osborne is busy trying to decide whether TCU or Baylor belongs in the College Football Playoff.