2015 Husker Preview: Reasons for Pessimism

1 Sep

Yesterday, the 2015 glass of Big Red Kool Aid was half full.  Today, it is half empty.

Let’s face it, there is a lot of positive spin thrown at you during the off-season.  Players are healthy and in the best shape of their lives.  Coaches have the complete respect and command of their players.  The team chemistry is so much better than it was last year.  Leaders have emerged and the seniors want to go out on a winning note.  The offensive line is poised to play like the Pipeline again.

It happens each and every year.  You read the articles and posts, listen to the radio shows, and talk with your friends and co-workers.  Like one of those Magic Eye pictures, if you squint and examine the schedule just right, you can see an undefeated season.

Then the season starts.  Suddenly, the second coming of the 1995 team looks more like the 2002 squad, with flashes of 2007.

 

That’s our purpose today.  We want to avoid the painful sting that occurs when a harsh reality slaps you in the face.  The first edition of Mike Riley’s Nebraska Cornhuskers will be a flawed product.  That’s not a knock on Riley or the players – it’s a reality.  The program hasn’t magically gone from a perennial 9-4 team to a 12-0 squad in nine months.

So what are the areas of greatest concern?  In no particular order:

1.  The schedule is deceptively tough.  I know, I know – yesterday, I said the schedule shapes up favorably for Nebraska.  I stand by my comment that there are no automatic losses on the slate:  Nebraska should be able to compete with anybody.

But what about the flip side?  Where are the automatic wins?  I think you can safely assume victories over South Alabama, Southern Mississippi, Illinois, and Purdue.  Nebraska will likely be a touchdown favorite against Northwestern, Rutgers, and Iowa.  BYU will probably be too hampered by injuries and suspensions to last with NU for four quarters.  But after that, it’s anybody’s guess.

2.  The depth is wafer thin at some spots, and unproven at others.  Through a combination of injuries, recruiting misses, and dismissed players Nebraska is very thin at wide receiver, defensive end, and linebacker.  I like the starters at these positions a lot.  Guys like Michael Rose-Ivey, Jordan Westerkamp, and Jack Gangwish are leaders poised for big seasons.  Nebraska likes to talk about a “next man up” attitude, but it’s unlikely that the next man will be nearly as good as the starter.

Now, consider two positions that appear to be very deep:  safety and running back.  Both positions have strong starters (and yes, I consider Terrell Newby a clear-cut starter).  And both positions have a bunch of touted guys waiting in the wings.  But a lot of those guys (Adam Taylor, Mikale Wilbon, Devine Ozigbo, Aaron Williams, and Antonio Reed) have not played a down of college football.  They may be great – or they may be another example of a guy who excels in practices/Spring Games but is unproductive in the fall.  We don’t know.

3.  The O Line may be the weakest link on the offense, if not the entire team.  That is a painful sentence to type.  I think that in many games over the last two years, the vision and cutting ability of Ameer Abdullah made his line look better than they really were.  There were several games last year where Tommy Armstrong was running for his life as the line struggled to block basic pass rushes.

A mediocre to bad offensive line means added pressure on unproven running backs to make something out of nothing.  It can often lead to penalties as linemen try to get a jump on the snap count or hold a defender who has beaten them.  It can throw off the timing between a quarterback and his receivers.  It can lead to multiple three-and-outs, which puts a strain on the defense.

But most importantly, a bad line means your quarterback is at greater risk for injury.  Which leads us to…

4.  What happens if Armstrong gets hurt?  Feel free to pause for a minute if you need to find some wood to knock or salt to throw over your shoulder.  Ryker Fyfe appears to be the backup quarterback, and while he’s looked serviceable in his game experience, he’s a long shot to lead Nebraska to the Big Ten Championship game.  If that comes across harsh, the good news is Fyfe has taken collegiate snaps, unlike backups A.J. Bush and Zack Darlington.

Memo to Tommy Armstrong:  Get out of bounds or slide, slide, slide.  And the only time you are allowed to try to hurdle a defender is the aforementioned Big Ten Championship game, if it’s 4th and goal in the fourth quarter.  Otherwise, no jumping over defenders.

5.  De’Mornay Pierson-El will likely miss half of the season.  When Pierson-El was injured, I refused to buy into the doomsday folks predicting a 6-6 season without the elite punt returner and blossoming receiver.  But make no mistake, his injury will impact the season.

His biggest contribution is in punt return where his presence and reputation changes how teams punt.  That leads to better field position or more opportunities for a punt block.  I’m curious to see what Westerkamp can do with actual blocking (instead of the one against 11 scheme NU employed in 2013), but teams won’t game plan ways to keep the ball out of his hands.

On offense, it will be interesting to see how much the jet or fly sweep is utilized with DPE on the sidelines.  With Pierson-El healthy, I got the impression that he would get four or five carries a game, with multiple fakes designed to freeze defenders.  Without his open field running threat, I don’t know if that play will be shelved, reduced, or if it will remain in full rotation with Jamal Turner and others running it.

Even when he does return to the field, this is likely an injury that impacts his entire season.

6.  Nebraska will play 11 games before they get a bye week.  Yep, you read that right.  The only break in Nebraska’s schedule is Saturday, November 21.  By that time, Nebraska will have played six home games and all five of their road games before getting a Saturday off.  You’ll probably spent part of that bye weekend getting groceries for Thanksgiving dinner.  By that point, the Huskers will either be limping towards the finish line or getting ready to clinch a trip to Indianapolis with a win over Iowa.

On a team that may have depth issues, the late bye week could be an unexpected story line.

7.  A team that struggles with tackling won’t do any contact work during the season.  If you watched Nebraska over the past few seasons, you know that one of their biggest weaknesses was in tackling.  This summer, Sam McKewon had a strong column with quotes from ABC/ESPN analyst Chris Spielman that laid out Nebraska’s deficiencies and how they could be corrected.

But this weekend, Mike Riley told the Omaha World-Herald “We will rarely be tackling full speed on any part during the season”.

On most levels, I get it.  The season is long (especially with the 11 straight games before a bye that we just discussed), depth is a concern, and schools and conferences want to limit the amount of contact players get.  It’s not the 90’s where you can have a full contact scrimmage mid-week and still have guys play the following Saturday.

But until the Blackshirts can prove otherwise, tackling will be a concern.

9.  What will the offense do if the passing game is struggling?  I believe that Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf will try to cater the offense to the things that Armstrong does well and the throws he can consistently make.  But accuracy has been an issue throughout Armstrong’s career.  Several receivers not named Westerkamp have had their share of dropped passes over the years.  And as previously mentioned, Armstrong may not always have a fully protected pocket to operate in.  Finally, let’s not forget that Nebraska weather can be unpredictable in October and November.

Will Nebraska have a rushing attack that they can rely on if the pass is not there?  Or will Nebraska use a short passing game to simulate a running game?

10.  Can this team handle adversity?  Will chemistry and unity be an issue after (or during) a loss?  Without rehashing too much of years gone by, an all too common trait of Pelini teams was the “us against the world” bunker mentality as well as difficulty in rebounding when things didn’t go as planned.  Far too often, things snowballed out of control into embarrassing losses.

From all appearances, Riley and his staff have done a great job of imparting their culture on the program.  They seem to have buy-in from all of the returning players, many of whom were shocked and defiant when Bo Pelini was fired.  But is everybody on board?  Surely on a 120 man roster, there are some guys who remain loyal to Bo.  Will riffs in chemistry appear when things get hard?

Remember, a large chunk of this team is familiar with experiencing an ugly blowout loss at least once a year.  It may take time to undo that damage and get replace the “here we go again” feeling of helplessness with a mentality of “okay, we got this.”

*   *   *

Again, I’m not predicting a doom and gloom season for the Big Red.  I’m merely trying to point out some of the areas where there is a cause for concern in the hope that fans will be realistic when they set their expectations for Mike Riley’s first season.

2015 Husker Preview: Reasons for Optimism

31 Aug

Finally.

We’re now less than a week away from the start of the 2015 season.  Mike Riley and staff get to write their first chapter in the pages of Husker history.  Will this season be a repeat of Bill Callahan’s disastrous 2004 season or will it have the success and promise of Bo Pelini’s first year?

Here are ten reasons why you should be optimistic going into this season:

1.  The schedule is favorable.  Let’s be clear:  With two teams that finished 2014 in the top 20 (Michigan State and Wisconsin) the 2015 slate is hardly a cake walk, but there are many things to like.  What appear to be the toughest games (Michigan State and Wisconsin) are at home.  The most challenging non-conference opponents (BYU and Miami) will be missing key starters due to injuries and/or suspensions.  The rest of the conference lineup looks doable.

Put it this way:  Look at Nebraska’s schedule and tell me the game(s) where NU has absolutely no chance of winning.

Exactly.

2.  The offense should cater to Tommy Armstrong’s strengths.  I’m of the opinion that anybody who claims to know what the Riley / Langsdorf offense will look like without seeing them on the field is blindly guessing.  We have some ideas from the practice reports, but things like run/pass ratios and the types of passes are mostly unknown.  I’ll freely admit that I don’t know what the offense will look like against BYU, and I certainly don’t know how it evolve by November.

But here’s what I do know:  Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf will sink or swim with Tommy Armstrong.  And since no first year coach wants to sink (even the previously mentioned Callahan), Riley and company will do everything in their power to ensure the plays they call are ones that put their quarterback in a position to succeed. Short passes, roll outs, deep balls, and yes, zone read keepers all seem likely to be staples in the offense.

3.  The simpler defense will allow the Blackshirts’ athleticism to shine.  Remember Sean Fisher?  He was a highly touted recruit who was dripping with athletic ability.  Before, and even after, he broke his leg, he possessed a lot of speed.  Coming off the bus, he looked like somebody who should be a star player.  But yet, he largely struggled at Nebraska.

Certainly, that nasty leg injury took a big toll, but I always got the sense he was thinking too much on the field.  It felt like he needed to process a large amount of information before he could unleash his physical gifts.  And remember, Sean Fisher is an extremely bright individual – somebody who graduated with a 4.0 GPA and is currently in med school.

I wish Sean Fisher could play in Mark Banker’s defense.

The 2015 version of Fisher – linebacker Josh Banderas – rather famously compared the new scheme to high school football where you attack instead of read and react.  That mentality should help several Huskers to show off their athletic talents.

4.  The defense will focus on stopping the run.  Bo Pelini’s defenses were usually very strong at stopping the pass.  In the Big XII, where teams liked to spread you out and throw it all over the field, this was a recipe for success.  Not surprisingly, Pelini won two Big XII North titles outright, and tied for a third in three seasons.

But then Nebraska moved to the Big 10.

To say that the Big 10 over the last five years has been a “three yards and a cloud of dust” league is a little simplistic, but there is no denying that Big 10 teams are primarily run oriented.  More appropriately, a Big 10 team isn’t going to pass if they can run over – or around – you.  Most pundits will tell you that Nebraska beats Wisconsin in 2014 if they made Joel Stave throw it 25 times.  But Stave only attempted 11 throws, because Melvin Gordon had record-setting success with his 25 carries.

Going back to the mid-90’s Glory Days, Charlie McBride’s defensive philosophy was rather simple: take away the run and make ’em beat you through the air.  Against the “fun and gun” Gators or Peyton Manning’s Tennessee Volunteers that sounded like a suicide mission.  Instead, it meant the defensive line could pin their ears back and pressure the quarterback.

A defense that focuses on stopping the run will be vulnerable to the pass, so Banker’s scheme will test Nebraska’s secondary.  But aren’t you willing to take your chances against the arms of Joel Stave, Mitch Leidner, and whomever Iowa trots out?  Me too.

5.  This is a young team with a lot of potential.  The current roster lists 21 seniors.  Of those, I count three who will likely start on defense (Byerson Cockrell, Daniel Davie, and Jack Gangwish) and four who start on offense (Alex Lewis, Chongo Kondolo, Ryne Reeves, and Andy Janovich).  Feel free to add Jamal Turner as another starter / contributor and we should probably expect that this will be Maliek Collins’s final season as a college player.

Other than that?  There are a lot of juniors, sophomores, and freshmen (both redshirt and true) who will see a lot of time this fall.  Getting a young core of players a lot of experience will pay dividends in the future.

6.  The road to Indy is manageable.  From most accounts, Nebraska’s biggest threats in the Big Ten West are Wisconsin and Minnesota.  As I noted above, Nebraska gets Wisconsin at home.  Minnesota is clearly the toughest opponent on the conference schedule, but TCF Bank Stadium doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being an intimidating place to play – especially when Nebraskans have shown they like to travel to the Twin Cities.

After that?  The rest of the conference road games are at West cellar dwellers Purdue and Illinois (who just first their head coach) and Rutgers.

It remains to be seen if Nebraska can win the West, but it would be tough to create an easier road to Indianapolis.

7.  The defense has strength at all three levels.  Think back to some of Nebraska’s best defenses.  Most of them had a talented – if not star – player at all three levels (line, linebacker, secondary).  On paper, Nebraska’s defense looks very strong up the middle with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine at tackle, Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey at linebacker and Nathan Gerry and Daniel Davie in the secondary.

8.  The cupboard isn’t bare at running back.  Let’s state the obvious right off the top:  Nebraska will not have a ball carrier who can consistently do the things that Ameer Abdullah did over his stellar career.

But don’t get caught up in the notion that Nebraska is devoid of talent in the backfield.  My guess is Terrell Newby starts, and displays the talent that made him a four star recruit.  He may not be a 25 carry a game workhorse, but I won’t be at all surprised if he gets 1,000 yards this year.

Beyond him, you’ve got freshman phenoms Mikale Wilbon and Devine Ozigbo, who have garnered a lot of buzz in fall camp.  From the practice reports, both have flashed potential and have earned carries and receptions.  After those two is the underrated (and possibly overlooked) Imani Cross.  At a minimum, Cross should continue to be a reliable 3rd down/goal line option.  Next in line is a former message board darling Adam Taylor.

And if all else fails, just give the ball to fullback Andy Janovich and get the heck out of the way.

9.  The assistant coaches are experienced teachers.  As you may recall, the biggest knocks on Bo Pelini’s staffs were their inexperience and inconsistent ability to develop three and four star recruits into star players.

Look across Mike Riley’s staff.  You’re not going to find anybody who was recently promoted from grad assistant or guys whose most significant coaching experience was at a golf course.  Receivers coach Keith Williams spent the summer having NFL wide receivers coming to Lincoln to workout with him.  Offensive Line coach Mike Cavanaugh focused on technique and intensity, and makes legendary line coach Milt Tenopir a guest of honor at practice.

One more:  How many of you felt that Pelini and Nebraska would have been better with a dedicated Quarterbacks coach or Special Teams Coordinator?  Riley’s staff has both, which leads us to the final item…

10.  Special teams should remain special.  Make no mistake, Nebraska had very strong special teams units in 2014.  Punt return was clearly a strength, but the Huskers excelled in many other areas last year.

This year, I expect the special teams to maintain last year’s standard – even with the amazing De’Mornay Pierson-El sidelined for 6-8 weeks with a foot injury.  With a dedicated coordinator in Bruce Read overseeing the units, and talented players like punter Sam Foltz, I expect NU’s kick and return game to be an edge.

2015 Nebraska Alternates Reviewed

23 Jul

Today is the day that some of us look forward to and others dread:  alternate uniform reveal day.  Nebraska will wear these October 24th against Northwestern.*

*Apparently, Nebraska is telling Northwestern “we’ll see your ugly black uniforms, and raise you one.”

Let’s dive in, piece by piece.

Helmet:

helmet

Like last year, the lid was easily the highlight of the ensemble.  When a picture of the matte black helmet with the classic sans-serif “N” was released late Wednesday night, I was cautiously optimistic that I would like this year’s uniforms.

In my opinion, this helmet represents what a Nebraska alternate uniform should strive to be:  different, yet recognizable.  Trendy, yet classic.  Without question, this is my favorite component of any Husker alternate to date.

Could this be the year that I go from grudging acceptance to full-on love?  Could adidas redeem their battered reputation with Husker fans with a grand slam design?

Grade:  A

Jersey:

jersey

 

Nope.

Goodness…where to even begin with this thing?  Let’s start with the pattern in the jersey.  The adidas press release says “the jersey’s padlock system secures tension over the shoulder pads, while the bodymap fit adheres to the player, making it difficult for opponents to grab, hold or tackle.”

Uh-huh.  Sure.  Bummer about not being able to tackle us Northwestern.

You can call it whatever you want.  I say it looks like tire treads, which when combined with the diagonal slits going through the numbers, makes it look like the uniforms were run over by a truck (Wisconsin fans, feel free to insert a Melvin Gordon joke here).

Speaking of the numerals, they are rather reminiscent of the duct tape numbers from last year’s jersey.  Hopefully, the addition of the silver – sorry, “forged steel” – outline will make them easier to read from row 47.  I’m not optimistic.

One of my biggest criticisms of adidas is how they put all of their schools through a generic template and fail to do anything unique – even for a once-a-year special jersey.  For the most part, that holds true:  compare these to the new adidas uniforms for UCLA, Miami, and others.  Lots of similarities, especially the tire tread pattern.  However, I will acknowledge that adidas has finally done something unique for the Huskers, adding the word “HUSKERS” along the side of the jersey.

sideview

I appreciate the gesture, but all it does is clutter up a jersey that is already too busy.  Next time, replace your tire treads with the outline of the state.

Grade:  C

Pants

pants

Putting an “N” in the stripe is interesting.  I don’t hate it, but I don’t love it either.

Oh wait, that’s what I wrote a year ago when adidas made the same pants in red.

C’mon adidas.  Make an effort to do something new.  I understand the monochromatic looks are the big thing now, but I wouldn’t mind seeing this with red pants or even the silver – er, “forged steel” – from the outline of the numbers.

Points are deducted for the needless slashes through the stripes and the tire tread pattern.

Grade:  C-

Accessories

Let’s start with the cleats.

shoes

I love them.  Simple, clean, and a dramatic improvement over the 2014 version that looked orange under the lights.  Plus, they have ” a SPRINTSKIN upper with SHOCKWEB reinforcement and a SPRINTFRAME plate that provides maximum acceleration and multi-directional traction”*, which has to be good.

*Anybody else find it ironic that a company whose name does not have any capital letters creates products with the CAPS LOCK glued down?  Just me?

I have a seen a picture that suggests these will reflect very silver on the field, but I’m optimistic that will be okay.  If nothing else, they should take focus away from the ugly patterned dress socks.

Next up is the undershirt – I mean, “TECHFIT gun show baselayer”*.

undershirt

 

*You wish I was making that up.

As noted uniform critic Paul Lukas tweeted, “I think the red ‘N’ stands for ‘No.'”  I’m not a fan of the tire tread meets camouflage look on the sleeves, but it’s better than the “Z” that was on the arm last year.

Its interesting – at least as far as a discussion on alternate uniform accessories goes – that there are no close up pictures of the gloves.  All of the previous uniforms have had fancy gloves that make an “N” when the palms are placed side by side.  Surely, the new gloves do that – unless there wasn’t room after adidas put in “4-way stretch mesh for compression fit and GripTack 2.0 for consistent control in all weather conditions.”

Grade:  B

Overall

In what will be a surprise to nobody, I’m not a fan of these.  One last time, let’s go back to what I said a year ago:

I think for 2015, I will need to greatly lower my expectations.  I should expect adidas to provide Nebraska something that is on the line separating flashy and gaudy.  Something that looks like it came off a generic corporate template, instead of being inspired by Nebraska’s rich history.  I should expect a mediocre alternate from adidas, because that is all they have ever given us.

By those standards, adidas delivered 100%.  As you hopefully gathered by the corporate buzz speak that I sprinkled in from the press release, these uniforms are much more about adidas than they are about Nebraska.  Let’s take a look at the whole ensemble from head to toe.

headtotoe

There is very good potential here.  There really is.  I can’t believe my traditionalist fingers are going to type this, but that black helmet may be a keeper.  Silver shoes are silly, but no worse than the neon highlighter shoes many basketball teams wear.

Until Jason Peter says otherwise, I’m still of the opinion that black jerseys should not be worn by 4th string receivers.  That said, I could get on-board with an all-black get up similar to this.  Just simplify the look.  Lose the tire treads, the reflective numbers, the stripes that look like they survived an attack from Freddy Krueger, and you’d really have something nice.

It may not be as #HuskerBold as adidas would like, but I’d wager it would be better received.

Grade: C+

Stop Comparing Soccer to American Sports

7 Jul

In the days after the United States Women’s National Team winning the 2015 World Cup, I’ve been reading and hearing many bold proclamations (and/or hot takes) about how this victory means that soccer is on the rise, and it won’t be long before soccer surpasses one of the “four major sports” (football, baseball, basketball, hockey) in some manner – viewership, attendance, fans, etc.

Let’s just slow down for a minute.

Yes, soccer is arguably bigger in America than it has ever been.  The game has grown in popularity over the last 20+ years, and that growth shows no sign of stopping.  And yes, the World Cup final drew a huge TV rating, notably surpassing the viewership from Game 7 of the 2014 World Series and the decisive Game 6 of the 2015 NBA Finals.

But…

First, let’s address those TV numbers.  More accurately, let’s acknowledge that comparing the Women’s World Cup championship to the other two broadcasts is an apples to oranges comparison.  Yes, all three are “fruit” – decisive, championship games in their collective sport.  But the difference lies in the teams.  The World Series featured the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants.  The NBA Finals had the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Women’s World Cup had The United Freaking States of America.

I would argue a decent (if not sizable) percentage of the WWC audience tuned in not because they are soccer fans or because they enjoy watching soccer played at a high level by amazing athletes.  They tuned in because it was a chance to see America to win a prestigious global competition.

Who was the primary audience of Game 7 of the World Series?  Fans of the Giants (6th largest US television market) and the Royals (31st largest).  For Game 6 of the Finals, you have Warriors (again, 6th largest market) and Cavs fans (17th largest).  For the WWC, your primary audience is fans of America in EVERY market with a Fox affiliate.

It’s the same reason why NBC shells out billions of dollars for Olympic broadcast rights:  Americans love to watch other Americans competing (and winning) at a high level against top international competition – no matter the event.  I’m not saying that a U.S. versus Japan competition in say, water polo, would draw the same numbers as the World Cup final.  But I am saying the nation’s love and support for the red, white, and blue greatly surpasses the nation’s love and support for the Kansas City Royals.

Until the MLS Championship draws more viewers than the World Series, Stanley Cup, or NBA Finals, stop with this comparison.

*   *   *

Without question, soccer is growing in America.  I won’t argue that.  But where is the peak?  You’ll find many credible voices who say soccer could become the “national pastime” or supplant baseball or hockey in the “big four” of American sports.

I disagree, especially in the short-term.

Soccer interest, at least in America, tends to be cyclical.  Setting aside the loyal fans of MLS and European leagues, a person who identifies themselves as “liking soccer” will get into the big tournaments (men’s and women’s World Cups, Olympics, etc.).  After those events end?  The interest tends to wane.

An article in the Seattle Times referenced a marketing-research study on “fan engagement” of Americans towards soccer, conducted after the last four men’s World Cup tournaments.  Every time, there was a significant drop off in interest after the tournament ended.

 

“You see the same pattern,’’ said (Robert) Passikoff (of Brand Keys), who added that his surveys are accurate within 3 percent. “You get high interest, high numbers during the tournament and then it’s ‘Thank you very much and goodbye.’ ’’

With other sports, he added, the numbers climb a bit during playoffs and championships but “you don’t see as high a fluctuation.’’

Personally, I wonder if the growth and expansion of soccer will follow a similar pattern to NASCAR.  There was a point in 1990’s / early 2000’s where NASCAR experienced phenomenal growth, with some saying that the sport was poised to join the big four.  Fast forward to the mid to late 2000’s and NASCAR’s popularity hit a big bump, with attendance and TV ratings taking a dive.  Obviously, that is not a perfect comparison – most notably, the millions of kids in youth soccer should help to sustain soccer’s rise – but NASCAR’s failure to join the Big Four should serve as a cautionary tale for soccer fans seeking to join the big time.

*   *   *

So where will soccer be 15 or 20 years from now?  I fully expect that MLS will still be going strong, with 32 teams across the country playing in soccer-only stadiums in front of passionate crowds.  World Cups – both men’s and women’s – will still be events that grab headlines and national attention (especially when the U.S. is winning).  I would not be surprised if the United States has a true soccer superstar who is on par with the greatest players in the world.

But I don’t expect soccer to have bumped MLB, NHL, NBA, or especially the NFL from their perch as America’s favorite sports.

And that should be okay.

Thought of the Day – 6/30/2015 – Paxton’s Paradox

30 Jun

Imagine an empty room.

It is a smaller room, approximately eight feet by ten feet with the ceiling at an average height.

The walls and ceiling are perfectly white – so unblemished you can almost smell the paint in the air.

The floor is wall to wall linoleum in an equally pristine shade of white.

There are no windows, but the room is well-lit from the ceiling.

In the middle of the room, there is a small table.  It too, is white.

On top of the table sit three items:

  • A brand new loaf of store-bought sliced bread*.
  • A half-empty jar of peanut butter
  • A stainless steel butter knife.

*Ironically, the bread is whole grain wheat; not white.  But that is irrelevant.

Nothing else is in the room.

I guarantee that if you placed me in this room and asked me to make a peanut butter sandwich I would not be able to locate the bag clip or twist-tie used to close the bread bag – especially it if said clip or tie was any color other than white.

*Random factoid:  in many cases, the color of the bag tag or twist-tie relates to when the bread was packaged.  This is Snopes verified, people.

After frantically searching the all white room for the blue twist-tie or sea-foam green bag clip*, I would give up and just spin the loaf real fast to close it.

Finally, after notifying the bag clip’s next of kin, I decide to move on and enjoy my sandwich.  As I raise my PB-sans-J to my lips, I’ll spot the bag clip or tie right where I left it.

Exactly where I had looked 87 times in the last five minutes.

*   *   *

Author’s note:  The title “Paxton’s Paradox” is an obscure reference to Mr. Floyd Paxton, owner of Kwik Lok Corporation – the company that makes the plastic bag clips.

Should Nebraska Replace Adidas?

29 Jun

As a Nebraska football fan, I dread the months of July, and August.  Not because those months are painfully slow for news, the season feels light years away, or I’m already tired of predicting the team’s record for the upcoming season.

I dread this time of year because I know that any day now the new Husker football alternative uniform will be released.  If we’ve learned anything over the first three years of the “Unrivaled” series of alternate unis, it’s that they are routinely bad, mediocre at best, and downright awful at worst.

Of course, this is also the time of year where I start to get my hopes up and think “maybe this is the year that adidas knocks it out of the park and creates some spectacular.”  Surely, the three stripe folks – having recently lost Notre Dame and Tennessee, and reportedly being on the ropes with Michigan – will bring out their “a” game.  Right?

Um….about that….

*   *   *

A post on medium.com entitled “Adidas:  Sports Apparel Laughingstock“* chronicles a laundry list of screw ups and failings by adidas.

*As a public service, I should warn you to don protective eye-wear before clicking on that article, as it contains some images of athletic apparel that should come with an NC-17 rating.  We’re talking those Zubaz-inspired shorts adidas teams wore in the 2013 NCAA tournament, the cummerbund / fanny-pack look from this year, and some horrible Notre Dame alts.  

The alternate uniform history of adidas is such a dumpster fire that none of the Nebraska “Unrivaled” designs – and I use the word “designs” lightly – made the article.

A couple of quotes from the piece pull no punches:

  • “The pecking order of each of the Big Three sports apparel companies is abundantly clear: Nike is the gold standard, Under Armour is the millennial brand and adidas is a running joke.”
  • “Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank called adidas ‘our dumbest competitor’ this past February — and he wasn’t wrong.”
  • “Yes, Nike and Under Armour have had their misses with new uniforms, but they’ve also had a lot of hits. Adidas, on the other hand, almost exclusively sustains misses.”
  • “Making good-looking sports uniforms isn’t rocket science. All it takes is basic fashion rules and common sense. Unfortunately, adidas no longer has either.”

Ouch.

*   *   *

This may not be the best time to remind you that adidas provides apparel and footwear for each of NU’s 24 sports.  Nebraska’s contract with adidas was renewed in 2013, and expires in three years (June 30, 2018).

I’m not a sneaker-head nor an expert on the athletic apparel industry to say that adidas must go and [insert name of your preferred provider] should take over.  Certainly, if we’re just looking at this through the lens of ugly uniforms, EVERY provider has some disasters.  For all of the cool looks Nike has given Oregon, they’ve had their fair share of flops.  And any discussion of ugly uniforms must contain Under Armour’s long-standing desecration of the Maryland state flag.

It’s worth noting that NU’s 2013 renewal with adidas (approximately $8 million in cash and $7.5 million in apparel and equipment), is, in the words of Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman “not a significant increase over the deal we had before.”  So why did the Huskers stay with adidas?  The Omaha World-Herald reported the deal was “more than any other apparel outfitter was willing to offer”.  The World-Herald cited discussions then-AD Tom Osborne had with Nike.

In other words, for Nebraska to have gotten out of their deal with adidas, they would have had to take less money and/or equipment from somebody else.  At a state school where the Athletic Department gets no tax dollars, the answer is pretty easy:  take the money.  But while Nebraska made the right choice in the short-term, did they make the best call long-term?

*   *   *

What is the impact of a bad apparel relationship?  Off the top of my head, three things come to mind:

Recruiting.  It always comes back that recruiting, doesn’t it?  If a main reason for having alternative uniforms (aside from merchandise sales) is to impress recruits, are you doing your recruiting a disservice by wearing “laughingstock” uniforms provided by a “running joke” of a company?  In other words, could you potentially lose a kid because he would rather wear the fancy costumes made by Nike or Under Armour instead of the silly suits made by adidas?

Merchandise.  As noted above, the other big reason for alternative jerseys is the prospect of selling new things to a fan base that loves to buy Husker gear.  But answer this:  how many people do you know who purchased a replica version of any of the three previous “Unrivaled” uniforms?  Of those folks, who many paid full price?  I considered buying a t-shirt replica of the 2014 duct tape jobs when the Nebraska Bookstore was closing, but even at 75% off, I couldn’t pull the trigger.  Had the design been better, I probably would have bought one at full price.

Program perception / brand.  For argument’s sake, let’s agree with the notion from the Medium.com piece that adidas is a distant third in the apparel pecking order.  How does that reflect on Nebraska being an adidas school – especially when one can make the argument that Nebraska is not in the top-tier of adidas schools?  Additionally, how does it reflect on the school – and the Nebraska Football brand – when they wear uniforms that are mocked and ridiculed?

*   *   *

So where do we go from here?

Even though I’m typing this while wearing a Nebraska shirt made by adidas, I don’t really care if the Huskers wear Nike, adidas, or Under Armour.  I not naive enough to think that by going with one of the other two everything magically becomes peaches and rainbows.

That said, I’m ready for a change.  Until adidas can a) prove that they can design their way out of a wet paper bag or b) give one of their premier schools something unique that is not all about adidas, I’m willing to see what the other guys can do.  Maybe it will better.  Maybe it will be worse.  But right now adidas is the 9 and 4 of athletic apparel providers.  Bad enough to make you want change, but just good enough to keep them for another year.

Regardless of what happens in 2018, for the next three years, we’re linked arm and arm with #teamadidas.  For better or for worse.

Hopefully, the Huskers can improve their on-field/on-court success before the next negotiation period to make them more attractive to all three companies.  A winning team and/or program on the rise will have better prospects than one mired in mediocrity.

As for this year’s alternates and the dread I’ll have until they are released?  Let me close with something I wrote last summer after another underwhelming uniform was released:

I’m beginning to think the biggest issue is my expectations.  I want Nebraska to have something cool.  Something unique yet classic.  Something the five-star recruits want to wear, but the farmers at the coffee shop will like.  Admittedly, that is a tall order.  Yet every year, I keep expecting the design team at adidas to deliver it.  Unfortunately, I don’t think they can.*

*Nor am I sure that Nike, Under Armour, Reebok, or any other apparel provider could deliver something I’d love, but I wouldn’t mind seeing their concepts…

I think for 2015, I will need to greatly lower my expectations.  I should expect adidas to provide Nebraska something that is on the line separating flashy and gaudy.  Something that looks like it came off a generic corporate template, instead of being inspired by Nebraska’s rich history.  I should expect a mediocre alternate from adidas, because that is all they have ever given us.

Dear ESPN, Nebraska should NOT return to the Big XII

26 Jun

On Wednesday, Oklahoma’s president said the Big XII “should strive for” a 12-team league.  Since it is the end of June, when you’re more likely to see snowflakes than college football news*, several outlets pounced on the story and began speculation on who teams XI and XII might be.

*Or at least, college football news outside of recruiting and arrests.  Those two topics know no off-season.

One of those pieces came from ESPN’s Jake Trotter, who broke down 12 possible additions from most likely (BYU, Memphis, Boise State, Cincinnati, etc.), less likely (Florida State and Clemson, or other defectors from a Power 5 conference), down to the least likely:  Nebraska.

You’re reading that correctly:  somebody at the Worldwide Leader made a case for Nebraska going back to the Big XII.

Now, before I rip his rationale to shreds, it is worth mentioning in Trotter’s defense that he considers North Dakota State* – a current member of the FCS – a much more likely addition than Nebraska.  Whether or not this improves Trotter’s credibility is up to you.

*Be sure to give Trotter credit for this spectacular factoid about the Bison:  “They actually have as many wins against the Big 12 as Kansas does in the last five years.”  

But let’s face it:  at best, suggesting Nebraska as a “new” member of the Big XII is an ignorant pipe dream.  At worst, it’s click-bait trolling.

So where is Trotter wrong in his assessment?  Let’s go line by line.  Trotter’s words are in bold.  My responses are not.

*   *   *

Put a truth serum in many Nebraska fans, and they would probably admit their realignment to the Big Ten hasn’t been what they hoped it would be.

Okay – so Trotter actually comes out of the gate with an ugly truth.  I think there are many of us who expected an easier time than a combined 22-10 conference (counting the 2012 championship game) in football and expected dominance in other sports (i.e. baseball) has not materialized.  There are lots are reasons for this, but that is an entirely separate discussion.  But four seasons is a little quick for buyer’s remorse.

Also, it’s worth remembering that in my “State of the Husker Nation” poll last November, 58% of the nearly 6,000 respondents said the decision to join the Big Ten was not a mistake.  Only 18.5% said it was a mistake.

The Huskers have fallen into second-tier status in the Big Ten.

 

Agree to disagree here.  Yes, the NU brand is not as shiny as it was in the inaugural Big Ten season of 2011 (again, an entirely separate discussion).  But to say NU is second-tier is ludicrous.

B1G tiers off the top of my head:

Top-Tier

  1. Ohio State.  The class of the conference.
  2. Michigan.  Even after Rich Rod and Hoke, the Wolverines are a top-tier program.  Period.
  3. Michigan State.  If you got that truth serum back out, how many Husker fans probably would trade straight up for MSU’s roster, coaches, and especially their recent success?
  4. Nebraska.  Yes, Wisconsin has owned Nebraska, but I cannot (will not?) say the Badgers are the better program.
  5. Wisconsin.  A top-tier program in any Power 5 conference.

Second-Tier

  1. Penn State.  If not for the sanctions (and the tarnish to Paterno’s legacy), they are securely in the top-tier – and they may get back there soon.
  2. Iowa.  The case could be made that Nebraska joining the Big Ten helped to knock the Hawkeyes to second-tier status.
  3. Minnesota.  They’ve crept out of the dregs.
  4. Northwestern.  At serious risk of falling out of the second-tier.

Bottom of the Barrel

  1. Maryland.  Need to prove something to earn a promotion to second-tier, but they’re close.
  2. Illinois.  Like Missouri in the 1980s and 90s – the potential is there.  The plan is not.
  3. Indiana.  Is it basketball season yet?
  4. Purdue.  Look!  We have a big drum!
  5. Rutgers.  Still a head-scratching decision by Jim Delany.  You know you would mock to the Big XII if they took a school of Rutgers’ caliber.

They’re in the division opposite Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, which reduces their number of marquee games.

Two things here:  1) Before the additional of Maryland and Rutgers, Nebraska was in the same division as Michigan and played an annual crossover game with Penn State.  Yes, the new geographic divisions have the marquee schools in the East, but remember:  2) In the old Big XII North, the marquee teams (Oklahoma, Texas, A&M) were in the opposite division.

Nebraska once played one of college football’s most storied rivalry games against Oklahoma. Today, Nebraska’s big rival is Iowa, which barely moves the needle in Lincoln, much less the rest of the country.

“Once” is the key word here.  For me, the NU-OU rivalry officially ended in the second year of the Big XII play – 1997 – when the two storied programs played their final annual contest before moving to the “play two years, take two years off” format that all North and South schools shared.  Had NU-OU remained an annual game (which was something OU did not want, by the way), I firmly believe it is much more difficult for NU to leave the XII in the first place.

As for Iowa, Trotter is correct that the game barely moves the needle in Lincoln.  But, surely Trotter would agree that it takes more than four seasons to build a strong rivalry (even if it does come with a generic, nondescript trophy sponsored by a grocery store).  Give the Iowa series a little more time before we declare it a dud – even if I believe that the Wisconsin game will likely surpass Iowa as NU’s hated rival.

Nebraska left the Big 12 primarily over its frustrations with the leadership at Texas.

That is a very oversimplified (if not completely inaccurate) statement.

If you were to ask me why NU left, Texas’s leadership doesn’t make the top three:

  1. Nebraska needed stability, and Texas (among others) were not looking to commit to the Big XII.  Back in 2010 the conference was a sinking ship and every school was racing for the lifeboats.  Texas had a life yacht, but had not interest in sharing it with others.
  2. The Big XII lacked leadership.  Dan Beebe was a bad commissioner who did little to strengthen the league or build unity.  (A cynic might note that the new leadership at Texas is a veiled reference to new conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby).
  3. Money.  Nebraska had the opportunity to make more money in the Big Ten than the Big XII.

But since Nebraska’s exit, the Longhorns have hired a president, a new athletic director and a new football coach.

So?  That pompous jerk  you hated in high school may have a new wife, a new job, and a new house, but the odds say he’s still a ______ that you don’t want to associate with.  Is the implication here that since Nebraska struggled to beat Mack Brown teams, they should come back and take a shot at Charlie Strong’s squads?

If the Huskers completely soured on their Big Ten experience, maybe they would be open to reconciliation.

What would have to happen for NU to “completely sour” on the Big Ten?

Let’s say Jim Delaney retires and is replaced by Dan Beebe 2.0.  Ohio State assumes the role of Texas, leading coalitions to block any idea, policy, or rule that Nebraska supports.  The rest of the Big Ten West starts giving Nebraska the same beat downs as Wisconsin.  All Husker games are locked into an 11 am kickoff on BTN.  Would that be enough to make NU look elsewhere?

Personally, I think that even if NU’s B1G adventure went to hell, Nebraska would stick it out for two reasons:  1) Pride, and 2) the check Big Ten schools will get from the next TV rights deal.

One thing is for sure: The Big 12 would welcome them back with open arms.

Oh Jake.  Remember how you started strong?  You could not be more wrong here.

Intentionally or not, Nebraska (and Husker fans) burned a lot of bridges on their way out the door in 2010.  Do you think it is a coincidence that no Big XII team has scheduled Nebraska in football or basketball since NU left?  I can’t find a link, but I remember reading that Nebraska has called Big XII schools looking for basketball games, and has been refused by all.

You could make an argument that the only folks in the Big XII land who would truly welcome Nebraska back would be the hoteliers, restaurant owners, and barkeeps in Ames, Manhattan, Lawrence, and other Big XII towns.

Otherwise?  The only open arms Nebraska might see would be from a spurned rival preparing to put a “kick me” sign on NU’s back during a feigned embrace.

 

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