TIME OUT with Joe Flanagan

Big Red look ahead, where to from here?

Nebraska’s 9-3 debut in the Big 10 Conference seems to be raising more questions than providing adequate answers.
“Where does the Husker program go from here” seems to be a popular subject of conversation since last Friday’s victory over Iowa closed the 2011 regular season.
Not just in coffee shops, bars and grocery stores. Not limited even to internet message boards and talk radio shows. Some of the state’s more prominent daily newspaper columnists have joined in, dissecting the present and musing over the future.
We’re four years into Bo Pelini’s tenure in Lincoln and, for the first time – sideline behavior discussions aside – some are beginning to question the direction of the Pelini program. Or, perhaps more accurately, ponder where Bo’s plateau is.
Is Nebraska going to settle into perennially winning 9-10 games per season, but also losing 3-4 games annually, relegated to the fringe of the national Top 10 and lower?
It’s been more than a decade since Nebraska claimed a conference championship, much less sniffed a national title. These aren’t the ‘good ol’ days’ of Big Red football just yet.
However, if fans are growing a bit restless, chafing at a 3rd place finish in something called the Legends Division and thinking of amping up the pressure for the current staff to achieve more, they might want to be careful what they wish for.
Memories of “not gravitating to mediocrity”, a deposed 9-10 win coach and the gravitation to somewhere well below mediocrity should still be fresh in Husker minds. Right?
The discussion will certainly continue – it’s what we do here in Huskerland. And coaches need to provide some answers – certainly not one of Pelini’s strong points. Bo is typically a “circle the wagons” type when faced with questions and criticism.

There surely can’t be a single Nebraska football follower who doesn’t believe the Husker program is in better shape than when Pelini arrived in 2008. Can’t be.
No one wants to go back to 2007, certainly. But are we revisiting 2003? Is 10-3, 9-4 the best a Bo Pelini team can accomplish? Or is NU ready to take the next step up the ladder after four years of laying a solid foundation?
Those are the questions so many are asking – and, frankly, arguing about. Finding any clear answers is not easy.
There’s no doubt several of Bo’s staff changes from 2010 paid dividends on the offensive side of the football this past season.
Under the direction of first-time offensive coordinator Tim Beck, the Huskers regained some of their physical edge and returned more option football to Lincoln. Taylor Martinez, though far from a finished product, showed improvement over the second half of the campaign. The offensive line, with new coach John Garrison lending a hand, was better and steadier. There is a bevy of talented young speedsters and playmakers that would seem to promise an even brighter future.
But what of the Pelini defense? Bo and company seemingly worked miracles in transforming a beleaguered Blackshirt unit – among the nation’s worst in 2007 – to one of the premiere defenses in college football in 2009-2010.
But with players such as Ndamukong Suh, Phillip Dillard, Prince Amukamara, Eric Hagg and Dejon Gomes – all recruited to Lincoln by Bill Callahan’s staff – in the NFL, Nebraska had some shockingly poor defensive performances in 2011.
Washington, 38 points. Wisconsin, 48. Michigan 45. Fresno State, 29 points in Memorial Stadium, for goodness sakes! And, of course, a backbreaking 4th quarter collapse to Northwestern.
Shades of 2003? You surely remember. Texas 31. K State 38. Missouri 41. Mobile, dual-threat QBs running free. Solid stretches followed by stunning failures.
I think most Husker fans felt Bo had built a defensive foundation this time around that could be counted on to keep the Huskers in every game. We might worry about scoring points, but defense? Nah!
Disappointing, certainly. And, more chilling, NU’s three best defenders in 2011 – by far! – will be gone next season. What will the 2012 Blackshirts bring to the table without Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonso Dennard?
Which brings up perhaps the key question – recruiting. Namely, have Pelini and staff brought enough talent to Memorial Stadium? Can they successfully finish a 2012 class that currently numbers just seven verbal commits?
After all, we’re familiar with Barry Switzer’s famed “It’s not the X’s and O’s, but the Jimmy’s and Joe’s” quote. Brady Hoke didn’t resurrect Michigan this season with a bunch of overachievers. Competitive college football at the top levels demands talent. Period.
So, back where we started, where does it go from here? Is there a need for consternation following a 9 win regular season? Would an impressive bowl victory raise optimism and soothe the natives? Are there cracks and fissures in Pelini’s program foundation, or were the pitfalls and speed bumps in 2011 just another series of learning experiences for a first-time head coach?
Does Bo need to adjust his philosophies a bit to harness the running QBs that have plagued his defenses? Can Beck take the offense from “promising” to “prolific”? Will there be more staff changes in the near future? Does recruiting need a shot in the arm, maybe some new staff blood that excels in that area?
Some fans (and sportswriters) profess to be a bit confused, hearing Pelini say preseason that, in his opinion, “no season is a success without a championship”, then backtrack to say he doesn’t measure success only by championships following last week’s game. Which is it Bo?
Questions, questions. Always questions when goals and aspirations aren’t reached. Answers may be a year – or farther – away, but the speculation and conversation will continue. As I said, it’s what we do.
Nobody said the Nebraska job was easy. But Husker fans don’t abide well with excuses either.
Interesting times ahead. Where does Bo’s Big Red go from here?