With a win over Georgia in the Gator Bowl, Nebraska would reach the nine win mark for the sixth straight year. For some, this is a crucial threshold that must be met. But does nine wins really matter? Does it hold the same level of excellence that it did 10 or 20 years ago? And should it be the standard for Nebraska’s football program?
I know what some of you are saying, nine wins isn’t the standard that it used to be – assuming Nebraska becomes bowl eligible, they will play at least 13 games a season compared to the 11 or 12 games per year back in the 80s and 90s. Prior to the 2006 season, most teams played an 11 game regular season schedule. For the most part, about 20% of all FBS teams (or Division I, if you prefer) reached nine or more wins in a given season. After 2006? The extra game means that an extra 10 -20 teams (about 7 – 10% of FBS schools) make it to nine wins. In other words, you can win a lower percentage of games and still get to nine wins.
Additionally, with Nebraska’s current non-conference scheduling model (one game against a BCS team, one game against a mid-major, and two cream puffs) and some of the weak teams in the Big Ten, Nebraska should be able to rack up six or seven wins without breaking much of a sweat. In other words, nine wins is a baseline expectation, not a cause for celebration.
I understand all of that. But I truly believe that nine wins matters, and should continue to be the standard by which Nebraska teams are judged. For me, it breaks down like this:
0 – 5 wins: A complete failure of a season. Somebody should be fired.
6 – 8 wins: A disappointing season. Staff changes may be necessary.
9 – 10 wins: An acceptable season. There are a few exceptions, but I will almost always be happy with 9 wins.
11 – 12 wins: An excellent season.
13 or more wins: A season to remember.
So why do I think nine wins today is as impressive – if not more so – than it was in 1980s or 1990s? The simple answer is that college football has changed a lot in the last 20 – 30 years. Nebraska is not out in front of the pack like they once were. How so?
The 85 player scholarship limit has spread the talent out to more teams, creating parity. Gone are the days when a handful of teams had all of the talented players. While there is a difference in the level of athlete in power conferences versus the mid majors, that disparity has decreased over the past decade as teams like Boise State, TCU, Houston, Northern Illinois, and others have shown that you don’t have to be a traditional power to make an impact.
The physical advantages Nebraska once enjoyed have eroded. Back in the 80s, few schools had a weight room or strength program to match what Boyd Epley was doing. Today, dozens of schools can boast a weight room the size of an airplane hangar. That is not a knock on the current strength and conditioning staff, it is an acknowledgement that other schools have caught up and are employing the same training and techniques that once gave Osborne’s teams an edge.
The coaching has not been as good since Osborne retired. Without getting into the Bo-liever / Bo-leaver debate, I think we can all agree that the level of coaching (both head and assistants) has not been as good off since Osborne and his longtime staff retired. That is not necessarily a knock on the coaching abilities of Solich, Callahan, and/or Pelini (or the lack thereof). Instead this is meant to acknowledge that the program has not been run by a legendary, Hall of Fame caliber coach since the 1997 season.
Nebraska’s conference schedule is harder. Let’s face it, the Big Ten has been quite dreadful over the past few years. But as bad as the B1G has been, it is still a stronger conference than the Big 8 of the 1980s and early 1990s. Back then, the Big 8 was Nebraska, Oklahoma, and the six dwarfs. Sure, every so often Colorado or Missouri, or maybe an Okie State or Kansas would put together a decent season, but for the most part Osborne’s teams rolled up nine win seasons by destroying inferior schools like Kansas, Kansas State, and Iowa State.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at based upon games against conference foes ranked at the time they played Nebraska. Pay attention to the uphill trend with the Big XII and Big Ten:
- During his 23 seasons in the Big 8, Osborne faced an average of 1.87 ranked conference teams per year.
- In his two seasons in the Big XII, Osborne faced 2 ranked conference foes per year.
- Frank Solich’s teams squared off against 2.83 ranked conference foes per year.
- Bill Callahan’s teams had it relatively easy, only seeing 2.25 ranked conference teams per year.
- Through the 2013 season, Bo Pelini’s teams have faced an average of 2.83 ranked teams in conference each year. Throw out the 2013 season (with only one game against a ranked conference opponent) and his average jumps to 3.2 ranked teams each year.
Let’s look at it from a different perspective: In Osborne’s 25 seasons, he faced three or more ranked conference foes four times – 16% of his seasons. (73, 76, 88, 95). In the 16 seasons since Osborne retired, NU has faced three or more ranked conference teams nine times (56%). Only once did Osborne face four ranked conference foes in a season (1973, his first season). In the last four years it has happened twice.
To be fair, Osborne’s teams typically played a much tougher non-conference schedule than any of his successors. Osborne’s teams faced an average of one ranked non-conference team every year (not including the bowl game). Solich, Callahan, and Pelini combined have faced an average of 0.44 ranked teams in the non-conference (excluding bowl games). Also not factored in is the fact that Osborne’s teams were more likely to win games against ranked opponents than those of Solich, Callahan, or Pelini.
The bottom line: While today’s teams do have an extra game, Nebraska is seeing both a higher amount of ranked teams and (as Nebraska has regressed in talent and coaching over the past 10-15 years) is also seeing more teams of a similar caliber than Osborne’s teams did.
So why does nine wins matter?
Nine wins matters from a program perspective – how your team is viewed nationally by fans and media alike. When Nebraska was racking up nine win seasons in the 80s and 90s, the program was viewed as a model of consistency and dominance. That perception slipped when Solich went 7-7 and completely fell off the table when Callahan went 5-6. To be able to string together a run of nine win seasons like Pelini has done shows stability, growth, and recovery. While there is clearly room for improvement, and the fan base wants more, a nine win season does matter and should be appreciated.