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T A D    S T R Y K E R
January 5, 2010

The window of opportunity has closed in the Big 12 North.

What appeared last summer to be a topsy-turvy division has become rather predictable again. You’ve got to go through Lincoln to get to the Big 12 title game. Nebraska ruled out all other options in San Diego on Dec. 30 with one of the most dominant bowl performances ever.

If there’s any college football program on the way up, it’s Nebraska, although its divisional rivals may want to believe otherwise. Nebraska will not win the North every year from here to kingdom come, but we’ve come to the place where it will be a big story if the Cornhuskers fall short.

The Huskers have some problems to fix on offense, but I – along with many others – was a little too harsh in my criticism of Zac Lee (torn tendon in his throwing elbow) and an offensive line that probably was beat-up for part of the season. That doesn’t excuse the questionable decision-making at quarterback or all the false-start penalties by the line, but the offense showed me enough against Arizona to improve my opinion of the job that Shawn Watson and Barney Cotton did in 2009.

If they get the kind of play from the quarterback and offensive line that we saw in the bowl, the Huskers could win the Big 12 crown and make the top 10. The good news is they should have some depth at both positions this fall.

What about in 2011 and thereafter? Nebraska’s best hope for staying on top is that its head coach, Bo Pelini, appears to be stabilizing the program once again.

It wasn’t long ago that stability was thought to be Pelini’s main liability. When Tom Osborne went looking for someone to replace Bill Callahan, the two main reasons to avoid Pelini were his lack of head coaching experience and his well-known temper. We in the media made his confrontation with Bill Snyder at the end of K-State’s 38-9 win in 2003 into something legendary, but Pelini put that to rest last July during Big 12 Media Days, and it never became an issue before or during the Kansas State game, which decided the North title.

Pelini hasn’t been flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct in his last 22 games after drawing two in his first five outings as NU’s head coach. His temperament is aggressive, but he appears to have found the line that he must not cross. That goes for his team, also. For a while, it appeared that penalties would be the downfall of this year’s Huskers, but that trend improved at the end of the season. NU averaged 63.9 penalty yards a game – an increase of about two yards from 2008 – but only about 51 yards per contest over the last five games of the season.

Pelini has kept the signing of junior college players to a reasonable level. He has shown a willingness to sacrifice short-term improvement for long-term development. His decision to redshirt several freshmen who could have helped the 2008 defense already has started paying off. The offense should start benefiting from that patience in 2010.

Missouri had achieved a certain degree of stability under Gary Pinkel, but a lot of that evaporated this season when he lost both his coordinators. You’ve got to believe that Snyder will bring coaching stability back to Manhattan, and ditto for Turner Gill in Lawrence, but the Huskers have a headstart on both. Paul Rhoads at Iowa State already is better than Dan Hawkins at Colorado, but has a long way to go to build up the Cyclone program.

If instability were plaguing Pelini, there would be evidence. You’d see at least one or two of his assistant coaches jumping ship by now, but it’s just the opposite – no one appears anxious to make a lateral move to leave Pelini’s staff; in fact, it’s likely the staff will remain intact for a third straight year.

The Big 12 North was up for grabs last summer, but Nebraska seized the opportunity like a traditional power should. It has positioned itself to stay at the top for years to come. NU has a defensive staff that has a good handle on how to contain today’s wide-open passing attacks, and it’s hard to understand why the region’s best defensive players would want to attend any of the other North schools.

What about the best offensive players in the region? Nebraska will get its share of the top linemen and running backs. As for good-catch, no-block wide receivers and quarterbacks like Tyler Gabbert, who want to throw the ball 35 or 40 times per game, they probably will avoid Lincoln, because Pelini has made it clear he wants a physical running attack. But if the Holiday Bowl is any indication, he has not abandoned the passing game either. It seems clear that Pelini and Watson plan to average at least 26 passes per game, like they did in 2009.

The dynamic tension that exists between Nebraska as a power running team and Nebraska as a spread-the-field offense is a topic for another day, but there seems little doubt that the Huskers will be able to recruit more good skill-position players – especially if they want to get used to the cold-weather games they’ll see several times a year in the NFL.

Stability doesn’t necessarily mean an uninterrupted string of conference titles – if you followed Nebraska football during the 1970s, you know that already. But when you’re emerging from the decade the Huskers just went through, it looks very attractive.


Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at [email protected]. | Archive