Published Saturday, December 28, 2013 at 10:52 pm / Updated at 12:34 am
Shatel: With Husker football, success isn't something you can count
Gator Bowl: Nebraska vs. Georgia
When: 11 a.m. Wednesday
Where: EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.
Radio: 1110 AM KFAB

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Tame the Bulldogs and shake this postseason slump on Wednesday and Nebraska can claim a number as its reward.

The number nine.

That number carries some clout around Nebraska. It's a standard. Tradition. It's a symbol of consistency. It's been used as an over-under bar for Nebraska coaches.

If you won nine games, you must be doing something right. Under nine? Find that alarm button.

And so it goes for the 2013 edition of Big Red. It's been a rough year: some injuries, some scrapes, some stitches, some Pepto-Bismol. But if the Huskers can beat Georgia in the Gator Bowl, coach Bo Pelini will have his sixth straight nine-win season.

And the jury can decide what it means.

Some will say that nine wins was a good year, considering the starting senior quarterback missed most of the season, the offensive line hobbled around and the defense was on training wheels.

Others will argue that they'd better win nine, considering they have only three wins against teams with winning records — FCS team South Dakota State and 7-5 Michigan and Penn State. And don't forget the Hail Mary.

The two sides can go round and round. The fact is, you can take any number and dress it up in a tuxedo and teach it to dance any which way you want. Numbers will do whatever you want them to do.

The thing is, the number nine has never defined Nebraska football.

Oh sure, Nebraska won at least nine games each year from 1969 to 2001, a staggering streak that blew historians' minds and made Tom Osborne the king of consistency.

But each nine was different. Some nines were better than other nines.

There was that 9-3 in 1977. What a nine. Nebraska lost to Washington State at home in the opener, then came back the next week and delivered Osborne's first big win, over Bear Bryant's Alabama. By the end of that nine, Nebraska had to beat 14th-ranked North Carolina in the Liberty Bowl for Osborne to keep his job.

Two years later, in 1979, it was a 10, with NU ripping off 10 straight wins to open the season, but then losing to OU and then losing to Houston in the Cotton Bowl. And Osborne decided to overhaul the way he played offense.

There was the nine in 1981, when the nonconference schedule was Iowa (Rose Bowl), Florida State, Penn State (Fiesta Bowl) and Auburn. That was a heck of a nine.

And there was the nine in 1990, which included the fourth-quarter comeback win by Colorado, the 45-10 stinker at Oklahoma and the 45-21 bowl loss to Georgia Tech that had alarms going off and even Osborne admitting he needed to change his team leadership model and the way he recruited.

And that nine in 2008, Pelini's first year, inheriting a mess of a defense and a program with no confidence. That 9-4 was a pretty good nine.

That 10 in 2012 (10-4) ended with big losses to Wisconsin and Georgia, and didn't feel like anything to celebrate.

To be sure, there is something good in that number nine. Something reliable. But with Nebraska football, it's not the quantity that matters. It's quality.

The comparisons are made to the Osborne Era. But usually they're the wrong ones, like conference championships or wins over ranked teams. Scholarship limits and the landscape of college football TV appearances, among other things, make comparing different eras a fruitless exercise.

The standard, or legacy, that Osborne left behind had little to do with numbers and more to do with good coaching and smart football. Player development. Special teams. Take one of those oranges lying in the Memorial Stadium end zone and squeeze all the juice out of it.

Yes, recruiting is important. So are big wins, big bowls. National relevance. That's the narrative now, right?

Well, from 1990 to 1992, Nebraska began the season ranked seventh, 14th and 11th. And the Huskers had a national reputation: How were they going to blow it this year? National media types were tired of seeing NU in big games. They were tired of watching them get trampled by Miami or FSU. That's how they were “relevant.”

So Osborne found more juice to squeeze out of the orange. Changed his defense, changed his recruiting, started a Unity Council. When NU had the players and had them lined up in the right scheme, it won big games by its clinical execution.

Quality, not quantity.

This is the standard that Nebraska chases in 2013. Sometimes it does well. We've seen it. Pelini has coached some top-notch games in six years, mostly in his first three seasons. But there was some coaching going on in 2013, too, winning with a walk-on quarterback, a scaled-back line, etc. Beating Southern Miss, yes, but also winning at Michigan and Penn State, and don't ever take those for granted.

What we also see too often is the Nebraska that gets in its own way, that doesn't take care of the ball, that forgets to play or coach smart. You can win nine or 10 games doing this, but when you lose 70-31, how good do you really feel?

Nebraska football could always live with itself when it maxed out on the field, in the weight room and on the chalkboard. Sometimes the other guy was just better, or had Billy Sims.

This offseason will be another opportunity for Pelini to pull back the curtain and examine whether he has the right coaching staff, a special teams philosophy, an offensive scheme that makes sense for his defensive scheme. Is there a vision here?

What I've learned about Nebraska football, from my perch up in the box, is that relevance is not a number. It's a way of football. It's having an offense that helps the defense and vice versa. It's an athletic director and coach who work together, instead of one leaving the other hanging out to dry.

This week Nebraska will try to win its ninth game, for the 41st time in the last 45 seasons. To beat a team like Georgia, it'll have to play well and coach smart. Do that, and it's never a bad thing.

* * *

Video: Nebraska practices Saturday

Video: Ameer Abdullah after practice Saturday

Video: Tommy Armstrong after practice Saturday

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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