On Sept. 22, I took my 10-year-old son to his first Michigan game. In between showing him my favorite study spot in the Grad Library, throwing a football around the Law Quad, and playing a bunch of retro video games at Pinball Pete’s, we had an amusing interaction with a drunk Nebraska fan.
This fan, who lived up to the reputation of Nebraska fans as a friendly group, told my son that Nebraska used to be excellent and that he should appreciate Michigan being good, because it can all disappear.
The idea of Nebraska ever being good was news for someone born in 2008 who had just seen Michigan jump out to a 39-0 lead by halftime. The Huskers have not finished in the top 25 since 2012, or the top 10 since 2001. Their last conference title was in 1999.
Nebraska’s 1999 team finished by pulverizing Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl. Tennessee and Nebraska finishing the ‘90s by playing one another was a fitting close to a decade in which they combined for four national titles.
While my son was getting a lesson from a traveler from an antique land, those Vols were inflicting special misery on a packed Neyland Stadium, being routed by Florida. The Vols have not won the SEC since 1998 or finished in the top 10 since 2001.
Nebraska and Tennessee are similar in a number of ways, other than the fact that they were both excellent up until about 2001 and have spent the better part of two decades struggling.
- Both went downhill after they fired long-term coaches in the Aughts. Tennessee fired Phil Fulmer one year after the Vols won the East and nearly the SEC. Jeremy Pruitt is the fourth coach who is trying to replicate the results that got Fulmer fired. In an even more hare-brained decision, Nebraska fired Frank Solich after 2003, abandoning a lineage that had worked for the Huskers since 1962. Nebraska finished No. 19 in 2003, then achieved a better rank only once in the 15 seasons since.
- Both have inferior recruiting bases as compared to conference rivals. There are typically few blue chip recruits in Nebraska. There are more in Tennessee, but the Vols have less local talent than Florida or Georgia. Moreover, Knoxville is far from the western part of the state where much of the talent resides, and the different parts of the state are so distinct that the state flag represents the divisions.
- High school students have little or no memory of either contending for conference titles. They only have memories of coaches who have come in with optimistic pitches and left with reputations in tatters.
So which is more likely to come back to prominence in the near future?
If forced to interpret the liver of a sacrificed sheep, a haruspex would likely put his bet on Nebraska. There are a few reasons.
- Scott Frost has a better resume than Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt’s is within the acceptable range for a major program (the profiles are usually “championship-winning coordinator” or “success on the G5 level”), but there are concerns about his personality that Pruitt hasn’t entirely assuaged. Add in the fiasco that was the coaching search, and you have a head coach in less-than-ideal conditions. In contrast, Frost checks both of the boxes for a coaching hire: star coordinator at Oregon and huge success at UCF. His resume is one of the best of the coaches hired by major programs in recent years. He’s a former Nebraska star, so he has added capital with the fan base. Huskers fans should still have faith in him, despite a bad 2018.
- Frost’s offense is designed to succeed without a talent advantage. The spread option at Oregon allowed the Ducks to play at a top-five level without top-five recruiting. It worked in a similar fashion at UCF, culminating in a Peach Bowl win over a more talented Auburn. In contrast, Pruitt is a defensive coordinator, which means his expertise is on the side of the ball where talent is more important than scheme. Moreover, Pruitt was at Florida State, Georgia, and Alabama, schools used to having better players than their opponents. Pruitt does not have Frost’s experience at deploying underdog strategies.
- Mike Riley was not a bad recruiter. Riley was a disaster, but his two full classes ranked fifth in the Big Ten, and the Riley-Frost bridge class was fourth. Frost has some decent talent, although he is trying to accomplish a radical scheme change. Meanwhile, Butch Jones’ last two full classes were seventh in the SEC, and the bridge class was eighth. Relative to conference peers, Frost has better talent.
- It’s easier to win in the Big Ten West. A shallower pool should give Frost some Big Ten wins, even if 2018’s are only over Illinois and possibly Minnesota. Pruitt might have to explain another 0-8 season in the SEC. Tennessee is not favored in any remaining SEC game according to S&P; their best odds are 45 percent at Vandy.
The present is undoubtedly gloomy for both, though.
The Huskers have been handled at home by Purdue, while Tennessee’s big accomplishment has been covering the spread against Georgia. Both are in the cycle of trying to sell optimism to fans and playing time to recruits. Ultimately, they will need to sell results on the field.