Today, I’m going to debate myself on which coaching job is better: Nebraska Cornhuskers or Tennessee Volunteers?
Neither job is open at the moment; Butch Jones has been fired, so the Tennessee job is open, and, coach Mike Riley is believed to be squarely on the hot seat, as each team has yet another disappointing season, and the athletic directors who hired them are no longer on the job.
Let’s stipulate that the difference in salaries at both programs is rather negligible.
Nebraska: Nebraska is a much more storied program than Tennessee.
Forty-six conference titles, five national titles (including three in the last quarter century), and three Heisman winners. Both jobs have been down for a while, but Nebraska is the easier sell with its tradition.
Tennessee: You used the word “sell.” Who are you selling? Coaches and recruits.
Remember, neither has any recent success to sell to recruits. None were born the last time we were on top.
There are better players around Knoxville than there are around Lincoln. And the coaches you’ll be selling know this. There’s a reason Nebraska has been down for 20 years now, and unlike Tennessee — which has made bad coaching hire after bad coaching hire — Nebraska’s problem is fundamental: It can’t get players.
The lack of local talent has always been an issue at Nebraska. As SB Nation’s fine Nebraska outlet, Corn Nation, detailed, the lack of recruits within a 500-mile radius is glaring.
And many of Nebraska’s old loopholes have since been closed. Nebraska’s walk-on program, once fueled by “academic” scholarships, is no longer brilliant. No longer can Nebraska fly recruits to campus on a private jet.
Most importantly, Nebraska used to live on partial qualifiers. This isn’t news, but Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden did an absolutely masterful job of calling his shot in January 1996 in his piece titled Headed for a fall? Nebraska may win another national title, but the days when such a colossus ruled the game are over.
Still, what most threatens Nebraska's championship streak is the Big 12's policy on accepting partial and non-qualifiers under NCAA freshman eligibility guidelines. (A partial qualifier is a prospective athlete who meets only one of two minimum academic requirements — grade point average or standardized test score. The minimums are a 2.0 GPA with a 900 on the SAT or 21 on the ACT; or a 2.5 GPA with a 700 SAT or 17 ACT. A non-qualifier meets neither standard. If a school accepts a partial or non-qualifier, the athlete is ineligible for athletics for one year). On Dec. 20 the Big 12 presidents voted unanimously to limit each school to four partial qualifiers per year (two men, two women) and no more than one in a single sport. Non-qualifiers were excluded entirely.
In the Fiesta Bowl, Nebraska started four partial or non-qualifiers (cornerback Michael Booker, defensive tackle Christian Peter, cornerback Tyrone Williams and defensive end Jared Tomich), and two others, wideout Reggie Baul and outside linebacker Jamel Williams, played almost as much as the starters. According to Nebraska officials there were at least 12 partial or non-qualifiers in the program last fall. "Among elites schools Nebraska is a true haven for partial and non-qualifiers," said the coach of another elite school.
Layden looks smarter with each passing year.
Add to that the fact that Nebraska’s advantage in strength training (the Huskers were the first major program to adopt serious heavy lifting) is now gone.
Oh, and with the move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten, gone are two more Nebraska advantages: 1) the extent to which over-signing was allowed, now mostly cured, and 2) tapping into the recruit-rich state of Texas for players, since Nebraska went from playing two games in the state yearly, plus another at a nearby Oklahoma school, to zero.
Nebraska: Tennessee might be able to get better players, but can’t out-recruit its competition like the Huskers can.
To use a blackjack reference, I’d rather have a 19 to a dealer’s 18 than have a 20 and lose to a 21.
Setting aside the fact that Nebraska has been able to recruit well in California and other out-of-state locales of late, let’s assume that everyone in the Big Ten and SEC has their act together and is operating at peak efficiency.
How many teams that Nebraska faces on a yearly basis would have better players than the ideal version of the Huskers? One? Two? Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan are all in the other division, and on average, Nebraska has to play roughly three of those games every two years.
Within Nebraska’s division, there is not a single team that can recruit with the Huskers if Nebraska makes the right hire. Not Wisconsin. Not Iowa. Certainly not Northwestern, Minnesota, Purdue, or Illinois.
Now compare that to what Tennessee faces. If everyone is operating at peak efficiency, Florida and Georgia are absolutely going to have a decided talent advantage against Tennessee. So too will Alabama, which Tennessee must face every year as its designated SEC West opponent. And potential cross-over opponents like LSU, Auburn, and Texas A&M also out-recruit the Vols on a regular basis.
If you look closely at when Tennessee was at its best, it was a unique and rare combination of Tennessee being on fire and key programs (mostly Alabama and Georgia) being down. There’s a reason for that.
More Nebraska: Tennessee doesn’t measure up when its major rivals are good.
The great and revered Phil Fulmer is considered the recent gold standard at Tennessee. Fulmer won the SEC East in six of his 17 seasons. Yet he had a losing record against almost all of the good SEC coaches during his tenure.
- He was 5-12 against Florida, going 2-1 against Ron Zook, 0-4 against Urban Meyer, and 3-7 against Steve Spurrier.
- While he had an 11-6 record against Georgia, he was just 3-5 against Mark Richt.
- He went 8-2 against Alabama coaches Mike Dubose, Dennis Franchione, and Mike Shula, but just a combined 2-4-1 against Gene Stallings and Nick Saban.
- If you’re scoring at home, that is a combined record of 8-20-1 against Meyer, Spurrier (at Florida), Richt, Stallings, and Saban (at Alabama).
Tennessee’s best simply doesn’t measure up to the best of the teams it has to play on a yearly basis. Nebraska’s, for the most part, does.
Even more Nebraska: Also, let’s no go overrating the talent around Knoxville.
Knoxville is not in the talented part of Tennessee. It’s surrounded by national forests and mountains. Not much good high school football is played in those parts.
It takes six hours to drive from Knoxville to the talent-rich city of Memphis. And going from Memphis to Knoxville, you lose an hour due to the time zone switch.
Alabama is two hours closer and in the same time zone. Auburn is roughly the same distance from Memphis. Ole Miss is about an hour. The Razorbacks are 90 minutes closer than the Vols. Mississippi State is less than half the distance away, as is Vanderbilt. Missouri and Kentucky are roughly the same distance as the Vols. It is so unfortunate for Tennessee that eight programs within its own conference are as close or much closer to a huge talent base in the Volunteer State.
Nashville, the other major talent spot in the city, is better, but still almost four hours away when accounting for the time change going east.
That’s to say nothing of how Tennessee used to be able to raid North and South Carolina when NC State, UNC, Clemson, and South Carolina were all down, but now has to fight legitimate battles for at least some players from Charlotte, Raleigh, and Greenville.
Still more Nebraska: That also extends to expectations. It’s much easier to win at Nebraska.
If you’re the coach at Nebraska, and you handle your business, you are often going to have a chance to play two or three games to make the College Football Playoff: Wisconsin, the good team you draw from the Big Ten East, and the Big Ten Championship Game. The Big Ten champion is not going to be left out if undefeated, even if it sometimes plays in the weakest division in the Power 5.
Compare that to Tennessee, which routinely has to play at least double the number of games at a talent disadvantage as Nebraska. Good luck getting to the Playoff with that slate.
Finally, some Tennessee: Do you want to win a title or just reach the Playoff?
We’ve seen what happens to teams that reach the Playoff but don’t have enough talent to win it: They get stomped, either in the first round or the second. Oregon couldn’t physically match up with Ohio State. Alabama went 38-0 on Michigan State and dominated Washington. Clemson beat Oklahoma by three scores.
There’s a baseline level of talent needed to win it all. Tennessee has a much better chance of getting to that level, and even if it has the harder schedule, at least it will be battle-tested and have a shot if it does get there.
Making the Playoff, but not having the talent to win it, is a Buffalo Bills sequel. Who wants that tease?
Nebraska: Do you really think either is going to win a national title? What about stability? What about expectations? What about being able to coach at a place for a decade and make $50M?
Let’s be real here. These are top-30-level jobs, but they aren’t top-10-type jobs. They don’t automatically come with serious title expectations.
You can win a lot of games and coach for a long time at Nebraska. The Big Ten doesn’t operate like Tennessee. There’s potential for real stability.
Bo Pelini went 67-27 with the Huskers, which is roughly 10-4 each year. And Pelini is not some amazing coach. Nobody is getting fired at Nebraska for consistently going 10-4 unless, well, you’re a huge jerk. And with the benefit of hindsight, and having gone through the Mike Riley experience, Nebraska almost certainly won’t be firing someone who matches Pelini’s on-field record with a bit more off-field couth.
The Nebraska job asks that its coach consistently dominate most of the Big Ten West, hold his own against Wisconsin, and very occasionally knock off the best from the East in the conference championship game.
Consider quality of life. You can raise your family at Nebraska if you win the West Division more often than not. Your kids can grow up with the same friends through middle and high school. You can be happy, not constantly on the hot seat, and not compared to Georgia, Florida, and Alabama on a daily basis. The chances you get a second contract at Nebraska are so much better.
What if you improve on Jones at Tennessee by a game per season? Instead of averaging 7-5 like Jones, maybe you average 8-4, with one SEC East title, but no conference championship during your five-year deal. Do you really think Tennessee’s boosters won’t be reaching out to the next hot commodity?
Every major program has outsized expectations, but between programs of similar resources, Nebraska’s seem much more realistic. Pick a place where a good job will be recognized as such. Pick Nebraska.