Sticking Through a Slump
At the midpoint of the 2012 season, the outcome is still unknown. Mathematically, the Huskers could still go 12-2 with a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl victory. By that same logic, a 4-8 season is also possible. The likeliest scenario is probably somewhere in between those two extremes. If the season were to end with eight to ten wins and four or five losses, there would likely be a fair amount of grousing from NU fans. There are those who believe that by now in this, his fifth season, Pelini should have Nebraska back in the top ten and playing in a BCS bowl. If that doesn't happen, the talk may grow about casting him aside. How wise would that be?
Going back to Bob Devaney, every Nebraska head coach has showed some regression around season five (give or take a year). Devaney had immediate success, going 9-2 or 10-1 in each of his first five seasons and winning the Big Eight four times. He even played for a national championship in his fourth year. Then in seasons six and seven the program took a huge step backward with back-to-back 6-4 seasons. Petitions circulated to fire the coaching staff. By then, Devaney was Athletic Director and opted not to fire himself. That proved to be a good decision as his teams would lose only four games over the next four years and won two national championships.
Osborne's slump was milder. The 9-3-1 record he compiled in his fourth season as head coach was the worst of his career as was the fourth-place conference finish. The fifth season didn't start much better as he lost a home opener to unranked Washington State and his team dropped to 4-2 after a home loss to Iowa State. The team rallied to win five of six with a narrow victory in the Liberty Bowl. Osborne was told by a booster that had he lost the bowl game, he would have been fired. That nearly drove him to accept a job coaching Colorado. A year later, Osborne scored his first victory over Oklahoma and his first Orange Bowl trip. His program improved from there and by the time he retired he had won three national championships and thirteen conference championships.
Frank Solich won 42 games over his first four seasons, won a Big 12 championship and had taken the Huskers to a national championship game. In his fifth season, NU had its worst finish in forty years at 7-7. Still, a year later his squad had improved to 9-3 when he was fired before the bowl game by Athletic Director Steve Pederson. Solich went on to become the head coach at Ohio University, where he has the highest winning percentage of any coach at the school since the 1940's. He took the school to their first bowl since the 1960's. His fourth year at the school was a bad season, but the school retained him and he won 27 games in the next three seasons. His team now sits 6-0 with the toughest part of the schedule behind it.
Bill Callahan came in and had seasons of 5-6, 8-4, and 9-5. After a division title in his third season, the team regressed to 5-7 the following year and he was fired.
Pelini instantly boosted Nebraska from a 5-7 season (the worst since before Devaney arrived) to 9-4. The next two seasons each brought ten wins and division titles. Last year, after navigating a conference change and an offensive coordinator switch, his team finished 9-4. This season, his team stands at 4-2 with a new defensive coordinator and two new defensive assistants. Phil Steele is still projecting the Huskers to go to the Rose Bowl. Athlon projects NU to play again in the Capital One Bowl. A number of preseason projections had the Big Red playing in the Outback Bowl, which would be in line with an 8 or 9 win season.
Why the Slumps?
Transitions aren't easy. Bo Pelini's class of fifth year seniors are players recruited hastily in 2008 that redshirted. Probably half of that class would look different it not for the late season coaching change. With the exception of Devaney, coaching transitions could do a lot to explain the season five slumps. Mark Mangino slumped in his fifth year at Kansas. In year six, his team was 12-1 with an Orange Bowl victory. Gary Pinkel had a slump in his fourth season at Missouri before becoming a true contender in his division in the years that followed.
Stay the Course
Time and again, teams have been rewarded for sticking with coaches that have experienced slumps around year five. Hopefully, the remainder of the season plays out as Phil Steele predicts and this becomes a moot point. But if the season does end at 8-5, it's not time to break out the torches and show up on Pelini's lawn. Instead, it's time to continue to support a program that may still be on the verge of the kind of major turnaround seen on the heels of these slumps.
They say you can schedule more wins than you can coach. In 2013, the schedule gets a lot easier with Wisconsin and Ohio State rotating off for Purdue and Illinois. UCLA must come to Lincoln. Taylor Martinez will be a senior and if he spends another offseason polishing his game, imagine how good the offense that still features Martinez, Ameer Abdullah and Kenny Bell could become. If the defense continues to struggle in 2012, you might expect some improvement if for no other reason than regression to the mean. There are a lot of reasons to think 2013 could be Pelini's best season yet.
The sky isn't falling, it just might be darkest before the dawn of a new era of prosperity under Pelini.