Nebraska Football: Making Sense of Riley’s Status as Head Coach

Where do we go from here now that all other children are growing-up?
And how do we spend our lives if there’s no-one to give us a hand?
- Games People Play, The Alan Parsons Project

It’s been quite a year, hasn’t it? Nebraska came into 2017 as a huge unknown, and has to this point been a borderline-disaster. Ugly defensive performances early against Arkansas State and Oregon, pick-six interception after pick-six interception, Nebraska’s worst loss in over a decade, and capitulation against the measuring sticks of the conference have hit Nebraska fans like a train wreck.

Nebraska’s seen the firing of athletic director Shawn Eichorst and the hiring of replacement Bill Moos from Washington State. And, most importantly, it’s seen head coach Mike Riley’s job seriously called into question seven games into the third year of his tenure.

So what do we make of all this?

Ohio State was never going to define Riley’s tenure

Yeah, last week wasn’t pretty. Sure, Nebraska’s 56–14 loss to Ohio State in Memorial Stadium was better than last year’s 62–3 debacle. But if anything, the 56–14 score was flattering … to Nebraska. As a smart and particularly handsome analyst put it on Twitter:

https://twitter.com/patrickrunge/status/919364769840218112

So if you’re judging Nebraska against Ohio State, then clearly last week wasn’t good enough. But, realistically, Nebraska was never expected to compete against the Buckeyes. If Moos has not made his mind up about Riley yet (a position which is clearly not universally shared), then Ohio State wasn’t going to be the measuring stick against which Riley’s performance would be judged.

Nebraska’s next five games are at Purdue, home to Northwestern, at Minnesota, at Penn State, and home to Iowa. According to SB Nation’s five-year recruiting averages, Nebraska has better talent than every school on that list not named Penn State. So if you are judging Riley’s future based on the remainder of 2017, then winning four of the next five would seem to be the fairest test.

If Riley is still coaching for his job, Nebraska’s performance against Ohio State shouldn’t be what decides his fate. Instead, it should be how Nebraska performs against the winnable games left on its 2017 schedule.

Nebraska is worse now than when Riley arrived

Boy, that’s a rough subhead to write. But it’s hard to argue. Nebraska likely wasn’t as bad as its 6–7 mark in 2015, after being the victim of a number of ridiculous bad-luck losses. But it also likely wasn’t as good as last year’s 9–4 mark, benefitting from a number of fortunate victories.

This year? Nebraska’s earned every bit of its 3–4 mark. It was a last-minute drive by Arkansas State away from sitting at 2–5 with losses to a Sun Belt and a MAC school.

Riley’s defenders would point out, fairly, that Nebraska is installing an entirely new defense and functionally a new offense given the change at quarterback. Nebraska’s struggles this season were in some way inevitable as a result.

That’s a big ask, wanting functionally a “reset” year-zero year at a program like Nebraska. This is Riley’s third year in Lincoln, and it’s fair for him to expect a little more time to get his players and install his system.

But in his tenure, Nebraska has three indefensible losses (2015 Illinois, 2015 Purdue, and 2017 Northern Illinois). And Nebraska now has the kind of blowout losses (2016 Ohio State, 2016 Tennessee, 2017 Wisconsin, 2017 Ohio State) that helped show Bo Pelini the door even with winning nine games consistently.

The stage is set for a coaching change

Moos’ arrival in October wasn’t good news for Riley. I don’t believe it’s a guarantee that Riley will be fired, which puts me at odds with many of the reporters covering Nebraska on a local and national level.

But if Riley is going to be fired, having a new athletic director in place makes that process work a lot better. If Moos decides that Riley has to go — whether that was on the plane ride to Lincoln, or at some point during the remainder of the season — then a sitting AD can start right away on the job search process. And if this year’s off-season coaching carousel might be competitive, having someone get a jump start on the process could be critical.

But there’s history that might suggest Riley could stay

The consensus seems to be that Riley is a dead coach walking. I know it feels that way after Wisconsin and Ohio State. And if Nebraska drops a game to Purdue or Minnesota, then it’s going to be a hard conclusion to avoid.

But remember how you felt after Northern Illinois. It seemed like there was no way Riley could continue. But two wins (over two pretty atrocious football teams) got Nebraska fans excited enough to generate an electric atmosphere in Lincoln when the Badgers came to town.

What do you think a three-game winning streak would do for the mood of the fanbase? How much better would things look after three straight wins?

Don’t forget, too, that Moos gave Mike Leach a fourth year at Washington State after winning three, six, and three games in his first three years. The scenarios are different, of course, but Moos at least has some history of taking his time when appropriate.

So what’s next?

I have no idea. I really like Riley as a person. I can see what he’s trying to do on offense. And I really like the direction Nebraska recruiting is heading.

But I don’t like the direction Nebraska’s product on the field has been heading. I don’t like some of the personnel decisions and game-management that have led Nebraska to its current overall record. And I really don’t like the sense of resignation seeping into the fan base. For the Ohio State game, secondary market tickets were available for less than $20. That’s an unsustainable level of faith in the program by its fans. It’s hard to imagine going into an offseason with this level of defeatism permeating the fanbase. That, by itself, would be a convincing argument for a coaching change.

Then there’s the native son, Scott Frost, waiting in the wings. Frost seems to be the next big thing in coaching, and it’s hard to imagine him saying no if Nebraska came calling. Frost would likely be able to unify a fan base that’s been fractured since the firing of Frank Solich in 2003 (although, don’t forget, Frost was booed by Nebraska fans after spurning NU to attend Stanford as a freshman).

And while you don’t want to make a decision from fear, can you imagine what Nebraska fans would be like if Moos stuck with Riley and Frost went to Tennessee? There would be an element of the fan base that would never stop comparing the two — and woe to Moos and Nebraska if Frost took off with the Volunteers.

Ultimately, I think it’s very unlikely that Riley is back for 2018, primarily because I don’t see this group of Cornhuskers being able to win all four games likely needed to save his job. So I am resigned to a coaching change, taking a hit on the recruiting class (which is far less important in the long run than it will seem at the time), and an off-season of uncertainty for Nebraska.

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