I had the privilege of being the guest speaker in Grand Island, Neb., a couple of weeks ago at the annual Chamber of Commerce banquet. It was a big deal and my coming to town was supposed to be the story of the day. But fate was not on my side and news came down that morning from Lincoln that the State Fair had just been moved from the capitol city to Grand Island. So, just like in 1993 when we went 11-0 in my very first year at Auburn but my old man won the national championship, I wasn't even the biggest story on my own special day.
Well, the big story around Nebraska these days is whether Bo Pelini can get the Cornhusker football team back to their winning ways. However, the bigger story may actually be just which winning ways are they talking about getting back to? Is it the level of winning they were experiencing prior to the arrival of Bill Callahan, or are they talking about the winning days of Tom Osborne and Bob Devaney?
There is a huge difference, you know.
Five years ago, Frank Solich was 9-3 in his last year as the head coach at Nebraska. He was carrying a six year record of 58-19 and averaging nearly 10 wins a season. However, he was fired before the bowl game because the administration didn't like the direction he was taking the program.
Maybe that was because of how much they loved the direction his legendary predecessor, Tom Osborne, had taken the program prior to his arrival. During the last five years of the Hall of Fame coach's illustrious quarter-century career, he had a record of 60-3 and won three national championships. Unfortunately, there was no direction to go from there but down.
So, after four disappointing seasons under Bill Callahan, culminating in last year's stinky 5-7 record, is it Frank Solich's 10-wins a-year tenure that the Big Red Nation will settle for, or is it a return to the '90s and Tom Osborne's three national championships?
I think you already know the answer to that question.
But, first things first, and let's get back to the original question of how Bo Pelini is going to do at Nebraska.
I believe he is going to do just fine. In fact, I have a sneaky feeling he is just the right guy for the job. Bo Pelini became a head football coach by being a great defensive coordinator and a great defensive coordinator is just what Nebraska needs right now.
Although the Cornhusker fans have debated ad nauseum over the last 15 years about what type of offense they ought to be running, the immediate concern is their defense. They have got to get it fixed before they can go anywhere. Bill Callahan came in and spent four years trying to focus everything on changing the style of offense from a Power I running attack to a wide open West Coast offense. They actually got pretty good at it.
However, in the process, he forgot that the No. 1 rule in football is that everything is predicated on playing great defense and winning the turnover battle. If you look at my top-10 analysis chart (PDF) – this version including a Nebraska comparison – you can see very clearly that two of the most important statistics in being a top-10 team are scoring defense and turnover margin. Well, from the last year of Frank Solich to the last year of Bill Callahan, Nebraska went from being No. 2 in the nation in scoring defense to No. 114, and from being No. 1 in turnover margin to No. 117.
So, do you know who the defensive coordinator was under Frank Solich?
Can you say Bo Pelini?
If anybody should know how to fix what ails the Nebraska Cornhuskers, it is Bo Pelini. That is his specialty and he has done it before at Nebraska. He will focus on defense because that is what he focuses on. Although he named his older brother Carl the defensive coordinator, I would think he will still be heavily involved on that side of the ball. When I went to Auburn in 1993, I named my older brother Tommy as my offensive coordinator, but I still called every play. There may have been a lot of things I didn't know about being a head coach at that time but the one thing I did know was how to run my offense. Buddy Ryan, one of the greatest defensive coordinators in NFL history, may have put it best when he said the biggest mistake he made when he became the head coach of the Chicago Bears was that he immediately fired his best assistant – himself!
Nebraska will get much better very quickly because Bo Pelini is best at coaching what they are the worst at doing.
But ultimately it will get back to the bigger question at Nebraska. Can they get back to the national championship? The fans may say they just want to walk away from Memorial Stadium proud of their team again, but that won't last forever. Championship football is too much a part of their DNA.
So, here is my two cents worth of advice to Nebraska.
Ultimately, they must find an offense they can hang their hat on, one they can feel comfortable with. Coach Osborne may be back as the athletic director, but don't look for his offense to find its way back onto the football field. This still needs to be Bo Pelini's offense and one for the 21st century. Somehow they must find a way to blend the old with the new. They must find a way to embrace the passing game in a way that recognizes its importance in today's game and, at the same time, develop a system that recaptures the toughness and work-ethic style of play that always seemed to define Nebraska football.
Nebraska needs an offense that throws it like Bobby Bowden (of old) and runs it like Tom Osborne.
I believe Nebraska needs to put in the shotgun zone read.
If I were Bo Pelini – and believe me, there are many days I wish I were – this is what I would do.
This year I would use the players that I have on offense that were recruited by Callahan to run the West Coast offense and do just that – run the West Coast offense. As I said before, the offense actually got pretty good at that style of play over the last few years and the players – and coaches – are in place to run it. Senior quarterback Joe Ganz returns under center and he just needs to take up where he left off at the end of last season. After taking over for an injured Sam Keller, he threw for over 400 yards in each of the final three games, including a record-setting 528 yards and seven touchdowns against Kansas State.
Shawn Watson also returns to coordinate the offense and understands the offense enough to maintain its current effectiveness. As much criticism as Callahan received for having too big of a playbook and doing too much on offense, this isn't the time to tinker with it just for the sake of change. It would be much better to run it just as it is while the defense is getting better than to spend a year or two going backward on offense at the same time they are trying to go forward on defense. Just ask Bill Callahan what happens when you fail to stay good on one side of the ball while you are trying to fix the other side. The Cornhuskers had their first losing season in 25 years in Callahan's initial campaign at Nebraska.
Now, I would suggest trying to do something about the turnover situation as quickly as possible. Nebraska was 90th (out of 119) in turnovers lost last season with 11 fumbles and 17 interceptions. If they could just cut this in half next year they would probably win a couple of more games on turnovers alone.
However, from a recruiting standpoint, I would start looking immediately for a Pat White/Dennis Dixon-type of athlete to play quarterback at Nebraska – two or three of them, in fact. Can you imagine Tommie Frazier running Oregon's or West Virginia's offense 2-3 years from now at Nebraska? I realize Joe Ganz was a pretty good dual-threat quarterback in high school, recruited by Eastern Michigan and Northwestern, but I'm talking about a Heisman Trophy-type of guy that is a difference maker.
This would allow Nebraska to develop a system offense that can be built around homegrown, corn-fed, weight room-hardened linemen who can zone block and play-action pass protect like a bunch of trained pigs (please excuse the Arkansas Razorback reference). It will allow you to have an offense that runs the ball for over 200 yards a game and passes for about the same. It would also allow you to attract two or three of the top running backs in the country. I realize you would need a few more quality receivers than in the old days under Osborne, but if Texas Tech can find enough of them, so can Nebraska.
If Nebraska is going to work it's way back into the race for the Northern Division championship of the Big 12, that can be accomplished by playing better defense and keeping the offense status quo. However, for the Cornhuskers to be a national champion again and regain their place among college football's elite, there must be a fundamental change in their offensive philosophy.
That change should be the shotgun zone read.
Of course, that's just my two cents worth.