Published Wednesday, November 20, 2013 AT 11:51 AM / Updated at 1:10 PM
Mad Chatter: Putting in perspective early struggles — Osborne vs. Pelini
Dirk Chatelain Omaha World-Herald

“How would TO’s career have looked on social media after yr 6, 11, or year 20?” — Matt Simms (@Simba_Simms)

“Bo is very close. It took TO over 20 years for it to work exactly right. It is a much tougher league than Big 12/8.” — Shawn Lietz (@Leetsee36)

“Your rantings and data gathering about Pelini’s accomplishments could just as easily have been said about Dr Tom Osborne and his first six years (actually even longer). He didn’t win a conference championship during those early years either.” — reader Richard Hand

“Look how long T.O. took to win a National title, how many seasons in a row that he did not win a bowl game…” — reader Wallis Glassmyer

“In the glory days of Tom Osborne and the Big 8, we generally had 2-3 games we really needed to worry about. The competitive nature of football and our conference has totally changed. Osborne in no way coached in the weekly environment we play in now!” — reader Dale Spencer

* * *

The debate over the Pelini era grows more intense by the week, as today’s story in USA Today illustrates. I can appreciate some of the arguments on behalf of Bo (more on those later). But I can’t go any longer without addressing their No. 1 talking point.

Somebody needs to stick up for young Tom Osborne. Specifically, somebody needs to confront this narrative that Tom’s growing pains = Bo’s growing pains.

The essence of that argument goes like this: It took Osborne six years to beat Oklahoma and share a conference title. And from 1973-81, he won nine or 10 games every year — no more, no less. Against weaker competition than Pelini faces.

Why is the argument flawed? Where do we begin.

>> In six years, Pelini’s best AP poll finish is 14th (2009). From ’73-89, Osborne’s worst AP poll finish was 12th. Big, big difference.

>> Nebraska played 11 regular-season games in the 70s. Now the Huskers play 12, thus changing the prestige of nine wins.

In 1977, 26 college football teams won nine games — only 14 won 10-plus games. In 2012, the exact same number — 26 — had 10 wins or more. And 38 reached nine. That’s one-third of the country.

>> How ‘bout big games?

From ’08-’13, Pelini’s record against teams that finish in the Top-20 is 4-15. If we throw out 2008, an obvious rebuilding year, the record is 4-11.

From ’73-’77, Osborne was 11-8 against Top-20 teams. Nebraska beat as many Top-20 teams in 1973 — four — as it has the past six years.

(At the bottom of the blog, you’ll find Osborne’s and Pelini’s complete record against Top-20 teams. It isn’t intended to ridicule Bo’s record, but rather to show how great Osborne was even when he was “struggling.”)

>> What about the schedule?

You may notice in those five-year runs that Osborne faced four more Top-20 teams. That suggests a tougher slate.

We like to think the Big Eight was OU, NU and six dwarves back then. But in ’73, half the conference finished in the Top 20. In ’76, five of eight teams cracked the postseason Top 20 — take that, SEC. And Nebraska’s non-conference schedules were consistently more difficult.

There is certainly more parity in college football today. Several factors — scholarship limits, more games on TV, etc. — have closed the gap between a conference’s best teams and worst teams.

But one reason more games seem “losable” is that Nebraska simply isn’t as good. Does it look like Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Baylor are struggling with the “weekly grind”?

>> Don’t forget how good Oklahoma was back then. Yes, it took Osborne until ’78 to beat Barry Switzer. But the Sooners’ postseason rankings from ’73-’80 are ridiculously good — 3rd, 1st, 1st, 5th, 7th, 3rd, 3rd, 3rd.

The fact that Nebraska continually lost nail-biters to the best program in the country isn’t quite the same as losing 70-31 to unranked Wisconsin, or losing 41-28 at home to Michigan State.

For all those reasons, comparing Pelini 2008-13 to Osborne 1973-77 is a stretch. But it’s not as wacky as comparing the past six years to Osborne’s second notable slump — the early 90s.

Yes, it is fact that Osborne was hearing criticism then. I can dig through the World-Herald archives and find a few “Voices from the Grandstand” calling for a coaching change.

But to compare that period to this period is absurd. Why? Because from 1973-92, the five winningest college football programs went like this:

5 — Penn State (184-54-2)

4 — Michigan (184-47-8)

3 — Alabama (192-47-2)

2 — Oklahoma (186-43-6)

1 — Nebraska (195-46-3)

That’s right, Osborne’s program had won more games than anybody in the country before initiating the greatest five-year run in modern history.

In ’90 and ’91, the argument for getting rid of Osborne was that he’d gone stale, not that he wasn’t elite. In today’s landscape, it’d be like Oklahoma fans turning up the heat on Bob Stoops.

Would anyone compare Stoops’ current situation to Pelini’s? Of course not.

Osborne is one of the five greatest college football coaches of all-time. To cite his early struggles on behalf of Bo is like telling a struggling president, “Hey, Abraham Lincoln had a rough first term, too.” Or telling your son, who’s struggling with his jump shot: “Michael Jordan missed plenty of shots. You’re right on track!”

Let me be clear, as I wrote a year ago: “There is a legitimate argument for patience with Bo Pelini. It includes the high-character kids he’s recruited. It includes the inherent challenges Nebraska (and other northern schools) face in recruiting. It includes the swiftness with which he turned around the program. It includes inheriting Callahan’s offensive coordinator, which set back his offensive vision three years. …

“It includes the ridiculous cost of firing coaches — and how you better be confident the replacement will be more successful. It might even include the unquantifiable notion that he’s growing into the job.”

A year later, I’ll add a few more reasonable talking points: Pelini’s team dealt with more injuries than normal this year. The young talent on defense is intriguing. Memorial Stadium is still full and the money is still rolling in. Most of all, how do you fire a guy who’s never finished worse than 9-4?

I’ll listen to all those arguments. But the Tom Osborne comparisons need to stop.

We should study history, Husker fans. Not rewrite it.

* * *

>> Chris Mahr makes the case for Joe Moglia as an FBS coach (not necessarily at Nebraska). I think Moglia will get a BCS-conference job in the next 14 months. And I think he’ll succeed.

>> Mike Gundy says the Sports Illustrated investigation actually helped the Cowboys in recruiting.

>> As Missouri and Texas A&M thrive in the SEC, Big 12 newbies West Virginia and TCU have flopped. Dana Holgorsen says his program wasn’t ready for the promotion.

>> Charlie Pierce profiles Tyrann Mathieu, who’s had a quiet and solid rookie season in Arizona.

>> The Baltimore Sun’s Peter Schmuck examines parity in the NFL. Has it gone too far? The top six or seven teams are obviously pretty good. But it feels like that middle tier of teams is shakier than usual.

>> I caught some of Marcus Smart’s red-hot first half last night against Memphis. The Oklahoma State sophomore drew praise from Kevin Durant, sitting courtside.

College basketball doesn’t have anywhere near the star power it had 20 years ago — we all know that. And by the time you find out who’s good, it’s often February or March already.

But this season and this particular crop of All-American candidates, including Doug McDermott, seems more capable of drawing you to the TV on a random Tuesday night. Hopefully performances like Smart’s become the norm.

>> Seth Davis’ weekly college basketball column starts with the “new rules” in college basketball, which aren’t affecting the game as much as advertised. John Gasaway has a slightly different take — Coach Miles linked this one on Twitter.

>> As promised, here are Nebraska’s end-of-season AP rankings from 1973-92 in parentheses, followed by their opponents who finished in the final Top 20. Below that, you’ll find the same information for Pelini.

Two things worth noting:

1) Why do we use Top 20, rather than Top 25? Because the AP didn’t begin ranking 25 teams until 1989. “Others receiving votes” began appearing in 1983.

2) Why do we use postseason rankings rather than ranking at game time? It’s more common to list an opponent’s game-time ranking, but in trying to get a feel for how good/bad non-conference foes were, it’s much more accurate to look at postseason ranking.

In Osborne’s first 20 seasons, he faced 72 teams that finished in the Top 20 — 3.6 per year. His record: 34-37-1. It’s a bit deceiving, though, because 25 of those (35 percent!) were against teams that finished in the Top-3. Osborne was 2-23 in those games. He was 32-14-1 against teams that finished ranked 4th-20th.

Pelini, in his first six seasons, faced 19 teams that finished (or currently stand) in the Top 20 — 3.2 per year. He’s 4-15. And only two games have come against Top-3 finishers.

Again, this exercise is not designed to indict Pelini’s record — there are hundreds of coaches who have very, very similar numbers. It’s designed to show how great Tom Osborne was. And how ridiculous the Bo vs. Tom comparisons are.

 

OSBORNE:

 

’73 (NU ranked 7th): Oklahoma 3rd, UCLA 12th, Texas 14th, North Carolina State 16th, Missouri 17th, Kansas 18th

Record against Top 20 teams: 4-2

 

’74 (NU 9th): Oklahoma 1st, Florida 15th

Record against Top 20 teams: 1-1

 

’75 (NU 9th): Oklahoma 1st, Arizona State 2nd, Colorado 16th

Record against Top 20 teams: 1-2

 

’76 (NU 9th): Oklahoma 5th, Texas Tech 13th, Oklahoma State 14th, Colorado 16th, Iowa State 19th

Record against Top 20 teams: 3-2

 

’77 (NU 12th): Alabama 2nd, Oklahoma 7th, North Carolina 17th

Record against Top 20 teams: 2-1

 

’78 (NU 8th): Alabama 1st, Oklahoma 3rd (twice), Missouri 15th

Record against Top 20 teams: 1-3

 

’79 (NU 9th): Oklahoma 3rd, Houston 5th, Penn State 20th

Record against Top 20 teams: 1-2

 

’80 (NU 7th): Oklahoma 3rd, Florida State 5th, Penn State 8th, Mississippi State 19th

Record against Top 20 teams: 2-2

 

’81 (NU 11th): Penn State 3rd, Iowa 18th, Missouri 19th, Oklahoma 20th

Record against Top 20 teams: 2-2

 

’82 (NU 3rd): Penn State 1st, LSU 11th, Auburn 14th, Oklahoma 16th

Record against Top 20 teams: 3-1

 

’83 (NU 2nd): Miami 1st, UCLA 17th, (Penn State 22nd in votes, Oklahoma State 23rd, Oklahoma 24th)

Record against Top 20 teams: 1-1

 

’84 (NU 4th): Oklahoma 6th, Oklahoma State 7th, UCLA 9th, LSU 15th

Record against Top 20 teams: 3-1

 

’85 (NU 11th): Oklahoma 1st, Michigan 2nd, Florida State 15th, (Oklahoma State 23rd)

Record against Top 20 teams: 0-3

 

’86 (NU 5th): Oklahoma 3rd, LSU 10th, (Florida State 21st)

Record against Top 20 teams: 1-1

 

’87 (NU 6th): Florida State 2nd, Oklahoma 3rd, UCLA 9th, Oklahoma State 11th, South Carolina 15th, Arizona State 20th

Record against Top 20 teams: 4-2

 

’88 (NU 10th): Miami 2nd, UCLA 6th, Oklahoma State 11th, Oklahoma 14th, (Colorado 25th)

Record against Top 20 teams: 2-2

 

’89 (NU 11th): Florida State 3rd, Colorado 4th

Record against Top 20 teams: 0-2

 

’90 (NU 24th): Colorado 1st, Georgia Tech 2nd, Oklahoma 17th

Record against Top 20 teams: 0-3

 

’91 (NU 15th): Miami 1st, Washington 2nd, Oklahoma 16th, Colorado 20th

Record against Top 20 teams: 1-2-1

 

’92 (NU 14th): Florida State 2nd, Washington 11th, Colorado 13th, Kansas 22nd

Record against Top 20 teams: 2-2

 

PELINI:

 

’08 (NU unranked): Oklahoma 5th, Texas Tech 12th, Virginia Tech 15th, Missouri 19th

Record against Top 20 teams: 0-4

 

’09 (NU 14th): Texas 2nd, Virginia Tech 10th, (Texas Tech 21st)

Record against Top 20 teams: 0-2

 

’10 (NU 20th): Oklahoma 6th, Oklahoma State 13th, Missouri 18th, Texas A&M 19th

Record against Top 20 teams: 2-2

 

’11 (NU 24th): South Carolina 9th, Wisconsin 10th, Michigan State 11th, Michigan 12th

Record against Top 20 teams: 1-3

 

’12 (NU 25th): Ohio State 3rd, Georgia 5th, Northwestern 17th, (Michigan 24th)

Record against Top 20 teams: 1-2

 

’13 (NU unranked): Michigan State 13th, UCLA 14th

Record against Top 20 teams: 0-2

 

About Dirk Chatelain

Dirk Chatelain is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and covers Nebraska football and general assignments. You can follow Dirk on Twitter (@dirkchatelain) or email him at dchatelain@owh.com