Nebraska has a lot going for it: A dedicated and large fanbase, excellent facilities, a storied history and membership in a Power Five conference. This is a program that, only a couple years ago, sent Ndamukong Suh to Detroit to wreak havoc on the NFL.
In one sense, Bo Pelini’s tenure in Lincoln was a success: No fewer than nine wins in each of his seven seasons, three conference championship appearances (and one fraction of a second away from knocking off Texas and winning the Big 12 in 2009) and four AP top 25 finishes. Plenty of programs around the country would kill for that success.
But in the lens of Nebraska’s history, Pelini didn’t live up to the expectations set 20 years ago by Tom Osborne’s championship-winning sides. This is a program that fired Frank Solich after 7-7 and 9-3 seasons followed AP finishes of No. 3, No. 8 and No. 8.
The goal of firing Pelini was to get Nebraska back to the national relevancy it had under Osborne from 1973-1997. But is that possible?
Let’s start with Nebraska’s recruiting class rankings in the Rivals era (2002-present).
2009: 28 (Pelini’s first full recruiting class)
2008: 30 (Bill Callahan fired after 2007 season)
2005: 5 (Callahan’s first full recruiting class)
2004: 58 (Solich fired after 2003 season)
That’s one top-10 recruiting class in 14 years and an average ranking of 27th.
In 2005, Nebraska pulled from California two four-star recruits (DT Ola Dagunduro, OL Rodney Picou) and one five-star recruit (RB Marlon Lucky). It grabbed four-star QB Harrison Beck from Fort Lauderdale, five-star CB Zackary Bowman from New Mexico and a four-star Suh from Oregon.
Compare that to Nebraska’s top-ranked recruiting class under Pelini, 2011: Four four-star players from Texas, one from California and one from Florida (Ameer Abdullah, an Alabama native) was a three-star prospect in this class). That’s not bad, but it’s not the California pipeline that once existed.
In Pelini’s final recruiting class, he signed just four four-star players: Two from Illinois, one from Missouri and one from Las Vegas.
It’s fair to wonder if Nebraska leaving the Big 12 for the Big Ten hurt recruiting as the program’s main base became decidedly more Midwest/Great Plains without annual games in Texas. Compare to that to fellow Big 12 defector Missouri — a school that notoriously out-performs its recruiting rankings — which, in moving to the SEC, lost some of its Texas reach but gained footholds in talent-rich states like Georgia and Florida.
From 2012-2014 the Huskers signed nine Texas natives, only one of whom earned a four-star ranking. From 2009-2011, Nebraska signed 18 players from Texas, seven of whom were four-star recruits.
So what can Nebraska do? Pelini was relatively successful at recruiting the Midwest/Great Plains, but there’s not a wealth of talent there. Bringing in a coach with strong connections in California, Texas or Florida could be a good starting point, though that’s easier said than done.
Getting Nebraska back to being an annual championship contender will be a tough task for whoever gets the job, though. It’s not the 1990’s anymore, no matter how badly Nebraska wants to turn back the clock.