Before even trying to prognosticate the 2008 Husker football season, there's a fundamental question that needs to be answered first: “What the hell caused Nebraska to go 5-7 in 2007?”
And the corollary: “What is being done to change that in 2008?”
Right now, the answer to the first question is pure speculation. I think that we'll have a better idea as this season evolves what it was, but until the season kicks off, it's simply speculation.
To be sure, there were some talent and experience issues in 2007, starting at quarterback. Sam Keller may have started eight games at Arizona State, but that was in a completely different type of offense. The battle with Joe Ganz, who had only seen sporadic mop-up duty in his first three years in Lincoln was very much real. Bill Callahan's variant of the West Coast Offense depends primarily on an experienced quarterback to lead the team, such as Rich Gannon (2002 Super Bowl season) or Zac Taylor (2006 Big XII North Champions). Don't discount the departure of I-back Brandon Jackson, who was able to run both inside and outside, catch passes, and pick up the blitz. While Marlon Lucky, Roy Helu, and Quentin Castille each had their abilities, none of these backs provided the full package like Jackson did in 2006 or Cory Ross did in 2005.
On defense, no returning starters on the defensive line created issues right up front at the line of scrimmage. It all starts up front on defense, and that inexperience was exploited early and often last season. In the secondary, inexperience with the arrival of junior college transfers Armando Murillo and Larry Asante combined with Zackary Bowman's slow recovery from both ACL and patella tendon injuries raised issues there. The linebacker corps had experience, and were supposed to be the strength of the team, but they were literally caught in the middle trying to fill the gap between the problems up front and back.
In my opinion, those problems were minor in comparison to the much larger problem with Nebraska fooball: the direction of the football program, if you will. Ever since Bill Callahan was fired, the picture of a football program in disarray began to emerge. (I personally call it a clusterfool.) Just this week, Matt Slauson talked about how the team would try to prepare 250 plays for each game, even though they'd actually use a fraction of them. Of course, they never really mastered any of them. We've heard the reports of how the strength and conditioning program emphasized physical bulk at the expense of speed and agility, allowing players to be dominated by smaller, quicker opponents.
Last year's team ended pre-season practices by chanting “National Championship!” Of course, that talk pretty much ended after the USC game as the season began to spin out of control. Much was said about the coaching staff, though Bill Callahan tried to twist it around and divert the blame towards the players. Not surprisingly, as the season went on, the team performed worse and worse. A 4-1 Septebmer led to a winless October, and a November where the Huskers gave up 172 points in three games.
All this took a toll on the mental psyche of the team. Several players suggested that they would not have returned if Bill Callahan had remained with the team. Tom Osborne touched on this last week when he told the Associated Press that his goals for this season have less to do with wins and losses, but rather with "a team that is well-organized, plays with a lot of heart, gives great effort and is well-prepared."
When you review the 2007 games, there's no question that USC and Missouri were clearly better teams and deserved to win those games. But what about the other games? Kansas had a great season, to be sure. But do many people really believe that the Jayhawks were a more talented team than Nebraska? What about Texas A&M? Or Colorado? Or Oklahoma State? Only with Texas could you make an argument (and a very solid argument at that) that the Huskers were out-talented.
Maybe it's just me, but I think Nebraska had better players than those teams. Don't get me wrong, they outpeformed Nebraska in every way and deserved those victories. I just don't believe those opponents were more talented than Nebraska.
Call me a homer, call me delusional, call me insane, (please don't call me Shirley) but I think Bill Callahan turned an 8-4 (or possibly even 9-3) team into a 5-7 team. Some of the results from last season (losing 45-14 to Oklahoma State at home, eighth worst defense in college football) just boggle the mind.
During the day (and occasionally at night), I frequently have to troubleshoot problems with computer systems. Frequently, I've found that when systems fail, frequently it's the result of the failure of some key component of the system. If that key component fails, everything dependent on that component will not perform...and in some cases, it makes the whole system malfunction. When you finally trace the problem back to it's root cause and correct it, the system starts performing as you originally expected.
I believe that last November, Tom Osborne traced the problem with Nebraska football back to it's root cause. Did he correct the problem? We'll find out this fall, but if it turns out that he did, Nebraska football could rebound very quickly.