How much progress will be enough for the Nebraska football team in 2007? Enough, that is, to satisfy fan expectations – a tall order indeed.
I can feel the anticipation building in the Cornhusker State all the way out here in my new stomping grounds – that is, Boulder County, Colo., home of the “Now and Zen” shop and the University of Colorado Golden Buffaloes.
Former Bulletin Sports Editor Tad Stryker recently moved to Colorado. He will continue to comment on Husker games this fall from the heart of "Buffaloland". Look for it online.
Now, although I don’t actually live within the city limits of Boulder, I can confirm that there’s plenty of the “stillness of being” being promoted by the enterprising folks at Now and Zen from their little shop on Pearl Street – at least when it comes to fan interest in the Buffaloes. The buildup for college football is underwhelming in Colorado. Consider that the upcoming CU-Colorado State game, the “Showdown in the Rockies” intrastate rivalry this Saturday morning at Denver’s Invesco Field probably will not sell out. Or,.that the local paper last week offered free tickets to one of the Buffs’ Big 12 home games to participants in a youth football league.
Don’t get me wrong; there are die-hard Buff fans in Colorado, but they could all be seated comfortably inside Folsom Field (capacity 54,000) – especially if the CU students have been evacuated by the stadium event staff.
Maybe in some future column I’ll give you another taste of the local culture, but for the time being, it’s back to the High Plains to explore what it will take for Coach Bill Callahan to enjoy peace and harmony with the Husker fanatics who’ve had him under a microscope since 2004.
After Callahan’s dismal 5-6 rookie season, there has been progress. In 2005, the Huskers were much more unified and cut down on the number of blood-pressure-raising turnovers on the way to an 8-4 campaign, including an Alamo Bowl victory over Michigan, but their inconsistency was still nauseating to the Husker faithful. In 2006, NU improved its running game and went 9-5 against a tougher schedule. It solidified its performance against teams it was favored against, except for a second-half collapse at Stillwater, Okla.
Now comes the next step. What the 2007 Huskers need to do is retake their place among the elite teams in college football. That means beating a couple of top 10-caliber teams.
This is easier said than done. How many years were we claiming that Tom Osborne “couldn’t win the big one”? Although his first game was a win over No. 10-rated UCLA, Osborne didn’t beat another top 10 team until his breakthrough 31-24 win over No. 4-rated Alabama in 1977, his fifth season. He lost his first five games against Oklahoma. He shared the Big Eight Conference championship with OU in his third (1975) and sixth (1978) seasons, but suffered disappointing losses both years. He didn’t win an outright conference title until his ninth season (1981).
The Huskers won the Big 12 North and made it to the title game in Callahan’s third season. The Husker Nation would be satisfied this year if he wins that game. Then the bar will be raised again. Is there a scenario where NU fans would feel good about 2007 without a Big 12 title? Probably not, but if the Big Red upsets No. 1-rated Southern California or wins at Austin, Texas, and then capture their bowl game, we’d probably be in a good enough frame of mind to have a peaceful winter.
Here are a few more questions to be answered by the Cornhuskers in 2007:
1. Can Callahan become as good of a game coach as he is a recruiter? There’s no denying that he’s drawing more overall talent to Lincoln than we’ve seen since the mid-1990s, but can he get as much out of his players as Osborne – or even Frank Solich – did? He’s a detailed planner, a hard worker, but can he regain the initiative once his counterpart on the opposite sideline gets him off-balance? And how much of the play-calling responsibilities will he hand over to new offensive coordinator Shawn Watson?
2. Will the aggressive-minded Sam Keller turn out to be a young Brett Favre, and help open up the Husker running game with his deep downfield passing threat or will he turn into a copy of the aging Favre, and throw too doggone many interceptions? For someone with a reputation as a tough-minded gunslinger, Keller accepted his assignment as scout team quarterback last fall with humility, and he has said all the right things as he won a spirited battle with Joe Ganz for the starting spot.
3. Will I-back by committee work well for the Huskers? With Marlon Lucky and Cody Glenn sidelined by nagging injuries for much of fall camp, transplanted defensive back Major Culbert and a pair of true freshmen from Texas, Quentin Castille and Marcus Mendoza, may have to do a lot of heavy lifting.
4. Does anyone remember a Callahan-coached Nebraska team returning a kick for a touchdown? Enough said.
If these players come through, watch out for the Huskers this fall:
1. Steve Octavien. He’s had a quiet fall camp, but Octavien could be the biggest game-changer on the team if he stays healthy and plays up to his potential. Bo Ruud has moved over to strongside linebacker and Octavien will line up at weakside, where Terrell Farley and Demorrio Williams created havoc in years past. Octavien has not lived up to his promise so far, mainly because of injuries, but in his senior season, he could be every bit as disruptive as Farley and Williams. He’ll line up at defensive end in long-yardage situations and the Huskers need him to be a pass-rushing demon.
2. The tight end position. The WCO works best with a legitimate pass-catching threat at tight end, and the Huskers haven’t had one since October 2004, when Matt Herian broke his leg against Missouri. If J.B. Phillips or Josh Mueller or redshirt freshman Mike McNeill can emerge and make some third-down receptions over the middle, it will do a lot to open up the Husker running game, inexperienced backs or not.
3. The defensive ends. NU loses a pair of NFL draft choices at end, and juniors Barry Turner and Zach Potter need to put steady pressure on opposing quarterbacks so NU’s linebackers don’t have to blitz all the time. The Huskers have enough depth in the defensive backfield to hold up well if Turner and Potter can provide an above-average pass rush.
4. The kick return teams. Whether it’s seniors Terrance Nunn and Cortney Grixby or freshmen Mendoza and Prince Amukamara, Nebraska needs to get 10- to 15-yard returns, and occasionally break a long one. With college teams kicking off from the 30-yard-line this year, the Huskers need to return kickoffs to their own 30 at least three times out of five.
Progress can be measured by individual or unit performances, but ultimately it’s the wins and losses that people remember. Callahan has reached the point where he can never sink below the nine-win mark again without feeling heat from the Husker faithful, but this year, it’s hard to envision anything less than a 10-win season and another Big 12 North title (with at least one big-name scalp along the way) counting as another step forward in the big scheme of things.
It’s definitely achievable. It looks like the Big Red is moving in the right direction.
The question from always jam-packed Memorial Stadium is, “How long will it take us to get there?” The question will not be answered this Saturday against Nevada, but within three weeks, we’ll see a lot of major indicators.