The Nebraska Cornhuskers football program is one of the most storied programs in all of college sports. The Huskers are fourth on the all-time college football wins list, have been to more bowl games than every program but Alabama and Texas, including a record 35 straight from ’69-’03, and have won the National Championship five times, good for fifth-place tie on the all-time list. A few of their teams from the 90’s have been deemed arguably the best of all time, compiling a 60-3 record over a five year stretch in which they won three national titles.
I could keep going, but I think I got my point across. Nebraska is still a national power, but certainly not an elite program on par with the likes of Alabama, Oregon, or Ohio State. While Nebraska dug themselves out of the gutter when Bo Pelini became head coach, they haven’t been able to win more than ten games in his tenure, going either 9-4 or 10-4 every season. For most programs, that’s more than enough, but that doesn’t flow for the folks who follow the Big Red. On top of that, the Cornhuskers haven’t been to a national championship game in over a decade, with their last appearance being the beat down Miami gave them in the 2002 Rose Bowl. It’s been even longer since they won a BCS bowl – they beat Tennessee in the 2000 Fiesta Bowl.
Needless to say, it’s been fairly disappointing for Huskers fans all over for more than a decade. It leaves many fans wondering what’s wrong with their beloved team, and why they can’t fulfill the lofty expectations beset upon them every year.
Many might point to the decline of their storied defense, the Blackshirts, which have been inconsistent, to say the least, over the last five years or so. Others point to Bo Pelini and his inability to win big games such as conference championships (Nebraska is one of two programs to have been to a conference title game in three of the last four seasons – and have lost all three) and bowl games (lost three straight after winning first two).
But what truly is the problem for the Cornhuskers is their proclivity to give the ball to the other team. As highlighted by Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald, Nebraska has an immense problem holding onto the football, and is among the country’s worst teams in that category. Since 2008, Nebraska is last in turnover margin among the winningest 25 programs, by a very large margin. Nebraska’s turnover margin, which is -20 over that time, is 14 turnovers in front of the second-to-last team in turnover margin, South Carolina, which has a -6 margin. To put it in perspective, Nebraska has had 77 fumbles lost over the last five seasons. Alabama has had 72 total turnovers over that same time span.
Last season in particular, the turnovers really got out of control, and the Huskers had the second most turnovers in the country with 35. Of those turnovers, 22 were fumbles and the other 13 were interceptions. The only team with more turnovers was a 1-11 Idaho squad, which gave the ball up 39 times.
While Nebraska’s offense is no doubt their strength, it has also been their Achilles’ heel in many games. Last season against UCLA, the offense had two crucial fumbles which led directly to a Bruins’ score, including a interception with less than three minutes that sealed the win for UCLA.
The offense tends to reflect the quarterback under center, and that is certainly the case for the Huskers and their quarterback Taylor Martinez. He had had more fumbles than any other player over the last two seasons, and add that to his twenty interceptions over the last two seasons and he’s easily among the worst in the country in that category.
It’s bad enough they have an inconsistent defense as well as a suspect passing game from Martinez, albeit he is improving every season. But the turnover issue absolutely kills them, and largely because 18 of their turnovers led directly to opponent scores, with 16 of them coming by way of a touchdown. That’s good for 31 percent of all of their opponent’s scores, or approximately 8.5 points per game.
So if there was any doubt about Nebraska’s status as an elite college football program, it can be directly attributed to their turnovers. In Chatelain’s article, he noted that Notre Dame in 2011 was second-to-last nationally in turnovers, but came roaring back to go undefeated and make the national championship the following season. That likely won’t be the outcome for the Huskers, but even if they cut their turnovers in half, or not let every turnover lead to a score, they should have a much easier time both defensively and offensively. Their turnovers give opponents way too many opportunities to score, and with an inexperienced defense heading into 2013, the offense will need to do a better job at keeping pressure off the defense by scoring points and holding on to the damn football.
Nebraska will once again be an elite program if they can limit their turnovers and capitalize on other’s mistakes. Then and only then will the Huskers be able to return to past glory and maybe (hopefully) find themselves in the same echelon of college football with teams like Alabama and Oregon.