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New era, old challenges block resurgence for Nebraska, Miami

A top 10 this week in the Associated Press poll that features Ohio State, Alabama, USC, Florida State and Notre Dame speaks well to the state of traditional powers in college football.

The absence of Florida, Miami, Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State, Tennessee and Texas tells a different story.

Reality, in fact, resides in the middle.

"Last year," TCU coach Gary Patterson said, "there were probably 60 to 80 teams that, on any given date, could give anybody a problem. I think, going forward, this is where we’re at."

Where we’re at, amid the climate described by Patterson, is here: For established powers that experience a fall from their once-comfortable spots among the nation’s elite, the climb back to greatness is exceedingly difficult.

But why? The answer, depending on whom you ask, rates as one of the sport’s enduring complexities or an exercise in obviousness.

Consider that Saturday in south Florida, unranked Nebraska visits unranked Miami (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Four times between the 1983 and 2001 seasons, they met in bowl games that produced the national champion.

The Huskers, in a stretch that started in 1993, finished among the AP top 10 in eight of nine years. Yet to open this season under Mike Riley -- Nebraska’s fourth coach in 13 years -- it hasn’t won a conference championship since 1999, a drought five times longer than any other it experienced after 1963.

The Hurricanes, culminating in 1991, won four national titles in nine years, then saved their best team for a decade later. Miami closed a season no lower than fourth nationally between 2000 and 2003. But it hasn’t since finished in the top 10 and last ranked among the final top 25 in 2009.

Sure, the sport spins on a different axis than it in the era of Nebraska and Miami dominance. The emergence of Oregon, TCU, Baylor, Boise State -- even programs like Ole Miss – heightens the challenge of traditional powers.

And perhaps the road back to glory is simply littered with more potholes than fans of long-established programs would prefer to imagine.

According to Bill Curry, former Georgia Tech, Alabama, Kentucky and Georgia State coach, it takes more than just the right coach at the right place. It takes more, Curry said, than a few solid recruiting classes and a staff prepared to develop talent.

For a program to complete a full revival that stands up to time, Curry said, it requires something of a magical mix of the exceptional coach and supportive surroundings.

"Just as surely as there are only a few programs that will always come back because of the culture on campus, there are a very few individuals who are great football coaches," Curry said.

"They can go, I think, to Timbuktu, and get their guys to be better than the other guys."

The most recognizable example in the game today is Nick Saban, who followed six coaches over a quarter-century of unrest at Alabama in the post-Bear Bryant era.

Saban’s teams jumped from seven wins in 2007 to 12 and an SEC title in 2008 to 13 and a national title in 2009.

"He had the Master Plan in terms of building," said Indiana University of Pennsylvania coach Curt Cignetti, receivers coach and recruiting coordinator for Saban’s first four Alabama teams. "He knew how he wanted to do everything. And he’ll be the first to tell you it’s all about two things -- recruiting and development."

Saban had good timing on his side, too. His first full recruiting class featured 15 players from the state of Alabama, including three first-round NFL draft picks. That 2008 group produced five first-rounders and nine draftees in all, accelerating Alabama’s resurgence.

The coach galvanized support almost immediately from the university community.

The same happened under Pete Carroll at USC, which struggled through 1990s under three coaches. Carroll arrived in 2001 and won no fewer than 11 games every year from 2002 to 2008.

"You need a leader there who is able to communicate and fit in all those worlds," said Chris Claiborne, the Butkus Award-winning linebacker who played for John Robinson and Paul Hackett from 1995 to 1998. "That’s No. 1. Pete Carroll did. He went to the inner-city, and he did his part in working with the alumni. He was approachable everywhere he went."

Nebraska’s Riley coached 14 of the past 18 years at Oregon State, sandwiched around a stint in the NFL. He removed himself from consideration at USC before it hired Carroll, but Riley quickly marveled at the work away from the field of his rival coach.

"Pete embraced everything about SC," Riley said, "And then Pete recruited like crazy. It scared me."

But they are the exceptions -- Carroll at USC; Saban at Alabama; Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, who took the Sooners from seven victories to 13 and a national title and in 2000, his second year, before winning seven Big 12 titles in 11 years.

For all the explanations of their ability to work wonders, the fact remains that others try regularly to duplicate it and fail. Reconstructing a big name is not easy -- whether for reasons obvious or complicated.

Nebraska-Miami on Saturday serves as just one display on the avenue of traditional powers attempting to re-climb a formidable hill.