Go back 15 years to the summer of 2004 and try to tell anyone that would listen what would happen to Nebraska football in the 2010s.
Try to tell fans that Frank Solich wouldn’t be the last coach to get fired after losing three games in his final season. Or that a playoff would finally determine college football’s champion, and the Huskers, who had only won less than nine games in a season once in the past 35 years, would never come close to consideration in any of its first five seasons.
On a larger scale, try explaining how Nebraska would move to the Big Ten Conference and eventually avoid being in the same division as Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State but still only reach one conference championship game.
A lot has changed over the past decade of college football with Nebraska tending toward mediocrity.
The Huskers ended the first decade of the new millennium with a similar note of promise, going 10-4 in Bo Pelini’s second season and coming within one second of defeating No. 3 Texas for the Big 12 Championship behind one of the greatest individual defensive seasons in the sport’s history by Ndomukong Suh.
Nearly everything that followed was a complete trainwreck.
The 2010s brought numerous blowouts at the hands of Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan. The amount of wins over ranked opponents since joining the Big Ten can be counted on one hand (five).
The program is currently on its third head coach of the decade, and finished 4-8 in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1960 and 1961.
Yet still, the Huskers enter the final season of a forgetful decade ranked No. 24 in the preseason media poll and a popular pick to win the division for the first time in its current alignment.
There are a variety of reasons people are excited about the upcoming season of Nebraska football.
For some, it’s the improvement seen on the field by Nebraska over the latter half of last season. For others, it’s the proven offensive combination of Adrian Martinez and JD Spielman, along with newcomer Wan’Dale Robinson and an increased role for Maurice Washington.
On a national scale, expectations were raised in part due to a schedule that features the most challenging games at home, along with Maryland and Indiana replacing last year’s east division crossover games against Michigan and Michigan State. Others have noted the significant jump Scott Frost’s previous team, UCF, took in year two, going from 6-7 to 13-0.
The second-year jump has been real for every Nebraska coach since the Bob Devaney era, with every coach winning nine or more games in their second year at the helm.
Despite all signs pointing to a significant improvement this year, it still seems unlikely that Nebraska is quite ready to compete for a playoff spot yet. That’s something that has proven far more challenging for coaches and programs across the country.
The potential is there for this program to continue building upon a promising foundation.
Unlike the situation 10 years prior, there isn’t a conference change looming, nor will there likely be a complete overhaul of nearly every administrative role from athletic director to chancellor anytime soon.
A decade of volatility appears to have finally transformed into a foundation of stability that could help Nebraska’s brand and reputation grow continuously in the 2020s. It’s impossible to predict the future, but it appears that most of the changes in the future will be tweaks or upgrades in areas such as facilities, not complete overhauls.
As Nebraska prepares to kick off the 2019 season, take a moment to relish the current state of this program. Expectations have risen, but not yet to a “playoff-or-bust” level like they could be in the near future.
Embrace the continuity of the coaching staff, as well as a depth chart that features 15 returning starters from last season. Most importantly, enjoy a program that finally appears ready to legitimately contend with its peers.
When looking back at the previous nine years of this decade, there are plenty more low points to pick out than signature moments. If Nebraska can execute on the field with the same discipline and improvement they’ve shown in the offseason, the fans might have a fond memory of the 2010s after all.