What a long, strange generation it's been for Nebraska football. After decades of steadiness at the helm, from Bob Devaney in the '60s, to Tom Osborne in the '70s through the '90s, and six good years from longtime Husker player-then-assistant Frank Solich, Nebraska Football has been struggling to reclaim it's place atop the college football world. Off the field, Nebraska used to lead in recruiting, weight room, and nutrition, and on the field Nebraska laid claim to five National Championships: '70, '71, '94, '95, and '97. The 1995 team was perhaps one of the best all-time programs in college football history.
The world of college football began to change, however, as conferences grew (normally were eight or ten teams, now often up to twelve teams or more) and the NCAA allowed those conferences to stage a conference championship game. Television rights also played a role in conference expansion and the postseason bowl games also saw growth, from 19 in 1990, to 41 in 2016. The idea of a 'true' National Champion also played a big role, as 1997 was the last year the rankings at the culmination of the bowl season led by various writers' and coaches' polls determined the champion. The Bowl Championship Series commenced in 1998 and lasted sixteen years. The selection process was largely left to computers to select the top two teams for the championship game, based on their various algorithms. Top bowls, especially the Rose Bowl, desperately wanted to keep their historical conference tie-ins, so the Championship games were staged a week after the bowls were over. In 2014 the College Football Playoff was created and the new committee, with the help of computer power rankings, determined the top four schools who would play the 'semi-finals,' plaed in the historical bowls while rotating venues annually, followed by a Championship game in early January.
These new realities were hard for many teams, including Nebraska. For if you didn't win your division, you wouldn't play in the conference championship game. If you didn't win your conference championship game you probably wouldn't earn a spot in the BCS title game. The pressure was on everyone in college football to perform big time, and Nebraska, like so many others, often found itself on the outside looking in. But an odd quirk happened in 2001. Nebraska found itself co-champs of the North Division of the Big-12, but did not appear in the conference championship game, as Colorado defeated Nebraska 36-62 in the last game of the regular season and claimed that spot in the Big-12 championship game. Colorado went on to defeat Texas and claim the conference title game trophy, but the computers said Nebraska, a team who did not play in the conference championship game should get the spot in the BCS title game, to be played on January 3, 2002. Nebraska lost to Miami 14-37 in that game and much of the college football world was up in arms, especially the Colorado Buffaloes. Also of note is that the 2012 Rose Bowl first time since 1946 that the Rose Bowl hosted teams not from their tie-ins with the Big Ten and Pac-10 conferences.
2001 saw Husker quarterback win the Heisman trophy and Coach Solich won Big 12 Coach of the Year. 2002, however saw Nebraska drop out of the rankings with a 7-7 record, winning only two of the team's last nine games, including a loss at the Independence Bowl to Mississippi, led by quarter back Eli Manning. Tha rough season was turned around in 2003, but after going 9-3 in the regular season, Solich was let go.
Following the firing of Frank Solich after the 2003 regular season, Nebraska's Athletic Director, a one-time Husker Recruiting Coordinator, turned to Nebraska outsider Bill Callahan, who brought an Oakland Raiders Super Bowl Head Coach notation on his resume. Nevermind that he largely inherited those Raiders from Jon Gruden, Callahan came to Nebraska and installed his version of 'west-coast' offense. Since he helped Oakland set passing yardage records he figured this would work with student-athletes, but Callahan overplayed his card and Nebraska suffered it's first losing record since 1961, going 5-6 in his first season. Nebraska did not play in a bowl game for the first time in some 35 years, 1968 being the last season they were not invited to postseason play. A couple of OK seasons followed by another 5-6 campaing and Callahan was out, fired by former Husker coaching legend Tom Osborne, who had assumed the title of interim Athletic Director, following Pederson's ouster by the Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman.
Osborne found his head coach in Bo Pelini. Pelini had previously been a Defensive Coordinator at Nebraska in 2003, and following Solich's firing led the team as interim head coach at the 2003 Alamo Bowl, before moving on to stints as co-DC at Oklahoma and DC at LSU. He was a bit fiery, but the players responded, and the fan base quickly accepted him. Bo lasted seven years at Nebraska, overseeing the Huskers move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten Conference. Though winning a minimum of nine games per season, Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst relieved Pelini of his duties, possibly due to some words caught on tape. Many Husker fans grew tired of Pelini's demonstrative sideline outbursts, and his firing earned Pelini a hefty contract buyout.
Though it was never learned who Eichorst really pursued as head coach, the search seemed long and quite secretive. Eichorst settled on 'nice guy' Mike Riley, coming from the same position at Oregon State. Riley had been at his second stint leading the Beavers, but also had head coaching experience in the Canadian Football League as well as with the San Diego Chargers of the NFL.
Riley wasn't exactly who Husker fans had in mind for their ideal coach, but his demeanor was closer to 'Nebraska Nice' than Pelini's, so fans gave him a chance. His Oregon State teams didn't exactly set the Pac-12 Conference on fire and his best year was 10 wins in 2006, ending with his last season in Corvallis at 5-7 losing record before he was hired away. On top of that, Riley brought most of his coaching staff to Nebraska. 2015 would be a tough year for Husker fans, as Nebraska only won five games in the regular season. The only reason Nebraska was invited the the Foster Farms Bowl was there were't enough teams with the required six wins to play in the postseason. Nebraska had a high enough academic record that they earned the invite, where they defeated UCLA and Nebraska finished the season at 6-7. Like Callahan, that first season under the new coach was difficult for the Husker faithful to accept. After winning it's first seven games in 2016, Nebraska dropped four of the last six, losing two games (at Ohio State and at Iowa, badly). This fed a disastrous 2017 season, which saw Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst first let go, replaced by Washington State Athletic director in October, during the football season. When Moos was hired as AD, the football team was 3-4 and it's prospects were dim. So were Riley's and the team only one a single game the rest of the season. Following the Iowa game on November 24, Moos relieved Riley of duties.
Attention quickly turned to former Husker legend Scott Frost (his dad coached at my High School my Sophomore year) to become the Huskers' head coach. Frost had been an assistant and coordinator at Oregon from 2009 to 2015, and Husker fans wanted Frost to replace Pelini. But Frost hadn't been a head coach anywhere yet and in 2015 Frost accepted the position at Central Florida. in 2015 UCF finished 0-12. In Frost's first season UCF improved to 6-7 before having a breakout year in 2017, going 12-0 in the regular season UCF did not play for the National Championship Playoff as their ratings weren't considered good enough. Frost, despite taking the Nebraska job, was allowed to coach tenth-ranked UCF in the Peach Bowl where they defeated 7th ranked Auburn. Going 13-0 the university claimed title to the National Championship despite not being invited to the playoff. UCF was the only undefeated team in the top tier of college football in 2017.
Frost has downplayed a quick turnaround at Nebraska, but he was handed a seven-year contract paying some $35 million. Frost also brings the bulk of his staff from Central Florida, considering them to be worthy of the challenge. Needless to say, there are big expectations in Lincoln in 2018 and beyond.