Can Nebraska regain elite status?
After a major drop, the Huskers are primed to rise again -- with some fixes
In the mid-1990s, the Nebraska Cornhuskers reigned atop the college football world. Nebraska claimed three national championships in a four-year span from 1994 to 1997 and lost a grand total of three games between September 1993 and October 1998. The Huskers won many of those games in blowout fashion, including a 62-24 Fiesta Bowl thrashing of the Florida Gators at the end of the 1995 season.
According to our Program FEI ratings, a five-year measure of possession efficiency, the strength of the Nebraska program peaked following its 1997 championship season. In the last 25 years, only six programs have held the top position in our PFEI ratings: Miami (1988-92; 2002-03), Florida State (1993-94; 1999-2000), Nebraska (1995-98), Florida (2001, 2009), USC (2004-08) and Alabama (2010-12). Nebraska's peak PFEI rating was eclipsed only by Alabama last season.
Just as it would be hard to imagine Alabama plummeting from its lofty position today, it would have been difficult to imagine in 1997 that Nebraska would fall so far. From 1998 to 2008, Nebraska fell steadily from the No. 1 PFEI rating to the No. 57 PFEI rating, a drop matched by only a handful of programs in the last 25 seasons, only one of which (Washington) had ranked as a top-five program before its precipitous nose dive.
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini injected new life into the program upon his arrival in 2008, claiming Big 12 North division championships in each of his first three seasons. Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011 and played for the conference championship last season. In his five seasons at the helm, Pelini has won at least nine games each campaign, and as a result, Nebraska's program ratings are on the rise. Entering this fall, the Cornhuskers have a PFEI ranking of No. 21, fourth best in the Big Ten and tops in the Legends division.
We are measuring program advancement with the PFEI ratings even while casual observers may be inclined to think Nebraska is treading water. Pelini's Nebraska teams have lost four games each season, and the Cornhuskers failed to live up to their top 10 preseason rankings in 2010 and 2011. The Cornhuskers are likely to be ranked around No. 20 heading into this fall, and our preliminary projections agree with that assessment.
In order to exceed expectations this season -- and continue its climb back to the top of the college football world -- Nebraska needs to improve in the following key areas.
To read Brian Fremeau's full article on what Nebraska must fix to become an elite team, you must be an ESPN Insider.
Brian FremeauESPN Insider
• Creator of the Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI), a measure of college football team efficiency
• Contributor to Football Outsiders and his own site, bcftoys.com