Nebraska football has been through a lot in the 2010s. Some argue it has been the worst decade ever to be a Husker football fan, and with three consecutive losing seasons closing out the decade, it is time to look at the decline.
The first year of the decade was also Nebraska’s last year in the Big 12. The Huskers’ final year in the conference was a missed opportunity. Nebraska lost to Texas again despite being ranked No. 5 while a loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship derailed another promising season.
The Huskers joined the Big Ten, officially becoming the 12th member in 2011 and kicking off a new era.
Head coach Bo Pelini took a talented Nebraska squad dubbed as the ‘new bully’ by Sports Illustrated, and Nebraska had hopes of taking over a new conference and returning to the glory days.
From its first conference game, Nebraska did not have the dominance that many thought. No. 7 Wisconsin won 48-17 in No. 8 Nebraska’s first-ever Big 10 game, and the ‘new bully’ was already shoved into a locker on its first day.
The first of many disasters in big games became a trademark of Pelini’s time in the Big Ten. Nebraska struggled against ranked teams in the Big Ten, going 3-9 in the Pelini era of Big Ten football.
The struggles against those teams and other big time games could all be summed up in one game: The 2012 Big Ten Championship.
Nebraska had beaten Wisconsin earlier in the season, but with a Rose Bowl berth on the line, the Huskers were once again embarrassed. Nebraska lost 70-31, but the score does not do it justice as Wisconsin outran Nebraska by almost 300 yards, and it became a turning point in Husker football history.
Instead of a dominant arrival to the Big Ten, Nebraska was beaten until accepted as inferior. Nebraska continued with its 9-4 seasons, but it was missing out on the fun. The 2013 and 2014 seasons were the same as previous years, winning at least nine games but losing the big ones.
The course of Nebraska football changed in 2014 when Pelini was fired. Nebraska was on its fourth coaching search since the Osborne era.
Pelini’s loud, brash attitudes perhaps influenced Nebraska to go the opposite way and hire Mike Riley. Riley coached at Oregon State to a respectable level, but this was not the hire for a historic program.
Pelini’s recruiting classes proved to be talented and he still out-recruited most Big Ten teams. The recruiting under Riley did not take a hit numbers-wise, but the misses became much more scrutinized in-state and out-of-state. Everyone’s favorite miss is LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, who wanted to play at Nebraska, but was not recruited back in the 2014-15 season.
Allegedly, Pelini wanted future Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, but he was fired before he could seize on his prized quarterback. That is just a rumor, but Nebraska continued to be out-recruited.
Burrow is an obvious miss, but Baylor defensive lineman James Lynch almost led the Bears’ defense to the College Football Playoff this season. Lynch’s father played at Nebraska, similar to the case of Burrow.
Nebraska also missed out on a trio of talented in-state players in recent memory. A pair of Omaha natives would go on to be NFL talents, but neither did so at Nebraska. Harrison Phillips picked Stanford over Nebraska in 2014 along with fellow Omahan Noah Fant, who chose conference rival Iowa in 2016. Another recent miss was Lincoln native Bryson Williams, who currently attends Wisconsin.
When head coach Scott Frost was hired back home, the college football world expected Nebraska to make its way back to the top.
It is not easy to bring a program from its knees to stand strong in one season. Frost went 4-8, but there was hope and, with that, came a return of confidence.
The 2019 Nebraska season was a microcosm of Nebraska football in the 2010s. After the Colorado meltdown, senior linebacker Mo Barry famously said the Huskers were still going to the Big Ten Championship. Nebraska went 3-6 in the Big Ten and lost to Iowa on a last-second field goal to end the year with another losing record.
The Huskers missed out on a bowl once again and are still out-recruiting the rest of their own division. So, what will this new decade bring?
Lots of cynical questions from Nebraska fans will be answered in the next decade and that is the reality Nebraska is facing. Kids who were not alive for the Frank Solich era can now drive, and with each passing year, the glory days of Nebraska football start to turn from Osborne to now Pelini’s Blackshirt defenses, which are beginning to fade from memory.