Is there a head coach with more on the line this weekend than Mike Riley? The embattled Nebraska head coach hosts Wisconsin on Saturday night. Riley’s seat is hotter than hot right now, but unlike other endangered coaches—i.e., Butch Jones at Tennessee—Riley can still salvage his team’s season with a strong run in conference play.
Nebraska to Oregon and Northern Illinois in non-conference play and athletic director Shawn Eichorst has already been fired as a consequence. It’s with good reason that Cornhusker fans are disgruntled—this is a program that should at least be setting the bar in the Big Ten West. Instead, they’re regularly chasing Wisconsin and Iowa.
A look at the recruiting rankings offers some insight into why this is unacceptable in Lincoln. Nebraska’s classes over the last four years have ranked anywhere from 15th to 28th nationally. That’s the best in the West, and by a lot. I fully understand recruiting isn’t everything—there’s a lot of player development that has to follow once kids are on campus, to say nothing of good schematics and strategy. But the recruiting rankings tell us that the natural pool of raw talent is significantly higher at Nebraska than any of the division rivals.
The on-field results haven’t followed. It’s Wisconsin that has consistently turned out the best teams in the division. It’s Iowa that enjoyed a 12-0 regular season in 2015 and came within a hair of making the College Football Playoff. Nebraska is the team that continually finds ways to lose games it should win.
Nebraska can’t afford to be complacent. They aren’t located in the high school football hotbeds of Michigan, Ohio or Pennsylvania. No matter how long the flagship programs of those states are down, the resources are nearby to quickly turn things around. Nebraska’s recruiting success relies on the power of its brand, and as the glory years fade further into history, the Cornhuskers risk becoming a 21st century version of Minnesota, who had a powerful football program in the 1930s and 1940s, but eventually faded to irrelevance.
The recruiting trends demonstrate that’s a real danger in Lincoln. The quality of this year’s talent pool is driven by a #15 ranking for the Class of 2014, which are this year’s seniors. The rankings of the past two seasons—Riley’s classes—are just outside the Top 25. If Riley can’t win with the players he has, the quality of that talent is to stay in decline.
There’s one way to change the narrative in sports and that’s to win a football game. Wisconsin is the opposite of Nebraska—the Badgers don’t rank well in the recruiting rankings, but their clear identity and player development means they’ve won games in the fall. If the Cornhuskers don’t win Saturday night on their homefield, it’s hard to see where this coaching staff ever turns it around.