Thursday, August 28, 2008

Preseason Football Addendum: Nebraska

A comment left via Facebook on my previous blog entry concerning my Preseason Football commentary noted, correctly, that I had neglected to talk about Nebraska. I had touched on Nebraska in a previous entry, and was talking only about bona fide top 25 teams in the previous preseason musings.

I guess I should devote more quality commentary about Ye Olde Huskers; so, here goes..

It is hard to tell at this point how exactly the regime change in the University of Nebraska football department is going to play out this season. I do think they made a good hire with Pelini. I thought they should have hired Pelini after the interim bowl win he posted before the Callahan experimental disaster fiasco unfolded.

While having never been a full time head coach, the man has one of the more impressive resumes for an assistant I have seen in a while. He's coached under some excellent college and professional head coaches, and his defenses have always been very impressive.

Of course, this is probably one of the reasons why the Nebraska fans view him as the 2nd Coming of the Messiah-Football Edition. In that is both a blessing and a curse for Coach Pelini. In some ways, it is always good to have high expectations for your program, but it is quite another for masses of fans to think you walk on Gatorade water and should be inducted into the college football hall of fame as a coach, with having never coached a regular season game in your career seeming to be an inconsequential footnote.

I am curious to see how people start reacting to Pelini when he starts losing some games. (Trust me, this is going to happen, but more on that later in this blog entry.) Unlike his predecessor, he is more of a personality and style fit for Nebraska, which I think will take him a lot further with the media. He likes to speak off the cuff and has a no-nonsense, plain-spoken style which plays better with Mid-Westerners I have found than did the bafflingly arrogant NFL style double-speak that Callahan pulled in press conferences, especially after losses.

Because of this, I think people will be more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt (at least this season) if he makes a few play calls that go awry. One of the major complaints about Callahan was that he was too professional. He was always even-keeled and you never saw him loose his temper on the field. At the dreadful Homecoming game last year when the 1997 National Championship Team was standing on the sidelines for their 10th anniversary watching it in disgust, Nebraska was down 35-0 at half time. Callahan was just standing around with his goofy looking headset, all the while smiling and doodling on his clip board. It gave off all the warm, fuzzy feelings of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Regardless of however many games Nebraska won after that in the season, I knew at that point that the Callahan era was over and that heads were going to roll. So, given that hornet's nest of a coaching vacancy, Pelini was an extremely good hire.

Having said all that, I know a lot of people have ridiculous expectations of football teams and coaches these days, especially here at Nebraska with the Pelini hire. Let's look at where the Huskers are now and what to realistically expect.

1. Tackling and fundamentals should be greatly improved. I believe this is incredibly realistic. Granted the Huskers probably won't have helmets rolling down the field, but having a coach that is well versed in instilling intensity, fundamentals, and who runs full-pad tackling drills in practice will make a marked difference. Callahan never had full pad contact practices, which is why his teams could only realistically tackle 5-year-olds carrying beach balls. If there is not some noticeable improvement in this area at least by season's end, it will be a tumultuous (and likely short) Pelini coaching tenure.

2. More complex defensive schemes. Pelini is well known as a defensive X's and O's guy, which he has consistently proven at his various gigs as Defensive Coordinator. Granted, Nebraska is not going to be running championship caliber defensive schemes this year, but it should be an improvement over the general ineptitude of last season's hemorrhaging squad.

3. Expect bumps along the offensive road. I still don't know quite what to expect from the offense. The offense finally got some traction late in the season last year, but Callahan largely made the offensive play calls. They kept Callahan's offensive coordinator with some other new supplemental assistants that are, I believe, going to be making the play calls on offense. Even though they are going to be keeping the overall offensive scheme from last year, this is going to be a rough transition, especially if Pelini is advocating some more running plays, etc. I just don't see Pelini keeping the West Coast offense for that long if the offense, especially if the offense consistently sputters, which will add a whole other level of problems if they start retooling offense playcall systems. (Although I would be happy to see them chuck the whole West Coast Offense, as I think its a worthless offensive system in college and is as exciting to watch as paint drying.)

4. Half time adjustments. Anything would be an improvement over last year. The one major criticism I had of Callahan was his complete inability to make any sort of adjustments mid-game. If his gameplan was working, it was fine. But if his game plan was not clicking or his opponent caught onto the plan, he was stubborn enough to just keep doing the same thing the whole game, even if the score of 35-0 at halftime. I got queasy after one loss the first season of the Callahan era when Callahan was getting smacked around. At the press conference, he took no responsibility and kept saying over and over, "The system works." Well, if the opponents keep scoring 50+ points a game, the system is not working and you need to make adjustments. I think the new regine will be more open to adapting on the fly as needed, something that both head coaches at Oklahoma and LSU that Pelini studied under are good at.

5. General growing pains. Breaking in any new coaching regime, even if there will not be a substantive general scheme change, automatically means that there will be growing pains. There are No Exceptions to this rule. No matter how much practice and film studies and such that you do, there is no substitute to actually facing the day to day grind of an actual season. Mistakes are going to be made, and often those mistakes cost you wins.

6. Rough Stretch Let-down. Starting in late September, the Huskers have a nasty 3 game stretch, playing Virginia Tech, Missouri, and Texas Tech. I think if they win one of those three games, they will be doing okay. They will have greatly exceeded expectations in they win two of those three. If they win all three, I will reconsider the claim that Pelini is the 2nd Coming of the Messiah. Realistically, I think they can beat Virginia Tech. Back to back losses to Missouri and Texas Tech are going to be hard for people to swallow, so expect some negativity at this point as the realization that Pelini is not going to lead Nebraska back to top 10 national prominence overnight.

So, what does that mean in overall predictions for the whole season?

Well, I think 8 wins would be a trifle optimistic but certainly an attainable goal, with 7 wins being what I would consider a very bottom mediocre median expectation. Certainly, the first 3 games will be wins (Western Michigan, San Jose State, New Mexico State). Iowa State, Baylor, and Kansas State should be wins as well, and probably Colorado as it is a home game.

I think Nebraska can beat Virginia Tech, but at this point that is a toss up as its the first major game for Pelini. There is going to be some big game jitters in that one. However, seeing as VT is not returning that many starters from a team that last year was mediocre itself, this is a realistically winnable game. If they can beat VT, then that gives them eight realistic wins, with at least one quasi-quality win.

Now for the other games that I am going to assume will be more likely to be losses than wins. Oklahoma and Missouri will probably be battling it out for Big XII supremacy. Both of which have legitimate shots at the national title, though I remained unconvinced on that count for either team (see yesterday's commentary). I think both will just be too much for the ole' Huskers this year. However, since Pelini coached at Oklahoma briefly, I think Pelini might be able to use that knowledge to his advantage. The OU game, while still a loss, may be closer than many expect.

Texas Tech is a sleeper that most people aren't considering. There offense could be one of the more, if not the most, prolific in the nation. (Go dig up last year's offensive stats if you don't believe me.) There defense is questionable, so this could very easily turn into a shoot out, depending on how much progress Coach Pelini has made with the defense. Assuming they beat Virginia Tech, this game is also going to be on the heels of the first loss of the season to Missouri. If the Huskers can bounce back from that and play well, this game is a toss up. If they lose to both VT and Missouri, they could get all bent out of shape because two losses might bring back the dread spectre of last year's never ending losing streak. If so, this could be the pivot game where they turn it around or the season starts to spin out of control. I think of all the games this season, this is the one to watch from a team psychology standpoint.

Then, of course, there is last year's sweetheart team, Kansas. Kansas lost a lot of good starters from last year's surprisingly scrappy team. If Kansas is in a rebuilding year, especially since Kansas is on everybody's radar screen now, then Nebraska might have a shot of picking them off. If Kansas has simply reloaded, this could be another long game. Given the Mangini has a few years of program building over Pelini, I am inclined to give the preseason nod to Kansas. Only time will tell on this one, but I think its more likely to be a loss this year. (Next year, all bets are off.)

If they can win 8 games, the season will be a success. If they can win more than 8 games, the season will have exceeded realistic expectations. If they can win 7 games, it will be something positive but not all that inspiring to build on for next season with probably a respectable trip to the Independence Bowl (or some such post-Christmas but pre-New Year's Day bowl) with a 7-5 regular season record. Anything less that 7 wins will be a major disappointment and cause for concern.

So, here are my predictions for the season:

08/30/08 7:00 p.m. ET
Western Michigan Win 40-17

09/06/08 12:30 p.m. ET
San Jose State Win 45-13

09/13/08 12:00 p.m. ET
New Mexico State Win 35-3

Off Week-----------------------------

09/27/08 12:00 p.m. ET
Virginia Tech Win 24-17

10/04/08 12:00 p.m. ET
Missouri Loss 42-21

10/11/08 12:00 p.m. ET
@Texas Tech Loss 35-26

10/18/08 12:00 p.m. ET
@Iowa State Win 38-13

10/25/08 12:00 p.m. ET
Baylor Win 41-13

11/01/08 12:00 p.m. ET
@Oklahoma Loss 31-28

11/08/08 12:00 p.m. ET
Kansas Loss 35-27

11/15/08 12:00 p.m. ET
@Kansas State Win 34-14

Off Week----------------------------

11/28/08 3:30 p.m. ET
Colorado Win 24-13

The Archer's expectations for the season: 8-4 regular season with a possible berth in the, Independence, or Holiday Bowl games.

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