They’ll line up on opposite sides this week in Nebraska, fans and media and anyone with an opinion -- with seventh-year Cornhuskers head coach Bo Pelini in the middle -- and trade angry shots.
The argument is futile and redundant, and it nearly ripped this football program in half a year ago. Yet for the fourth straight season, it’s unfolding, with a little more exasperation and resentment each November or December.
Remember those good vibes in the offseason as Pelini showed his playful side? Turns out, it was never more than a distraction. The seemingly timeless debate is back: Support Pelini for his consistent winning ways and unwavering loyalty or skewer him for the Huskers’ repeated flops on the big stage.
The latest, a 59-24 defeat Saturday at Wisconsin in which Melvin Gordon rushed for an FBS-record 408 yards and the Badgers outgained Nebraska 627 yards to 180, destroyed momentum from the Huskers’ eight wins in nine games to open this season.
Since Pelini arrived in 2008, Nebraska has lost 10 games by 20 points or more. It has allowed 45 points or more six times since the 2011 move to the Big Ten. Wisconsin has twice set the all-time rushing record by a Nebraska opponent and won three of four games against the Huskers by an average of 35 points.
Next will come the calls for Pelini to revamp his coaching staff. Major change is unlikely. Pelini showed last year he would rather be fired than disassemble the group around him.
As the drama progresses, inevitably, a big-name coach or commentator will issue this advice to the Pelini detractors:
Be careful for what you wish. Dozens of programs with more natural advantages than Nebraska would gladly trade spots with the Huskers, who need one victory to reach the nine-win plateau for the seventh time in seven seasons under Pelini. Don’t take for granted such success, says the narrative, and, oh, stop living in the 1990s. Your days of dominating college football are gone and never coming back.
Such an argument is comically out of touch with reality at Nebraska, where repeated embarrassments in meaningful moments are threatening to steal the soul from a proud program and its passionate fans.
Media in attendance for the Saturday debacle in Madison offered strong words, all of them justified. Wrote Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel of Pelini:
Yes, he’s won a bunch of games. But Pelini’s era is defined by victories you don’t remember and losses that you do.
From Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal Star:
The latest embarrassment is frankly inexplicable for a program with Nebraska's wide array of resources and energy poured into the program.
And the World-Herald’s Dirk Chatelain on the post-Wisconsin comment of defensive coordinator John Papuchis that the next game, Saturday in Lincoln against Minnesota, would reveal much about the Huskers:
No. No. A thousand times no. ... These are the games that MATTER. These are the days that define a coach and his program.
Nebraska football is officially in a dangerous place. Its reputation nationally has absorbed hit after hit, dipping after Saturday perhaps to its lowest point of Pelini’s time at the school.
Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst, a protégé of Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez, no doubt felt uncomfortable in the return to his old home.
But the second-year boss in Lincoln stays notably quiet, especially in these times.
A year ago, Nebraska struggled to the finish, losing by three touchdowns to Iowa in a regular-season finale overshadowed by speculation about the coach’s job security. Eichorst said nothing in public until the morning after that game. Most observers interpreted his silence to mean Pelini was in trouble.
The coach appeared to believe it, too -- or maybe he was just sick of the scrutiny. Regardless, it's coming back.
And it's more clear than ever that leaders at Nebraska face a decision. Maintain the stability in place or risk change to make a run at the top in the College Football Playoff era?
The choice is up to Pelini, unless Eichorst makes it for him.
The 46-year-old coach, resolute as ever, said on Saturday that he would not engage in “big picture” conversation.
Nebraska is inching closer to that tipping point, where the school and the fans, who ultimately pay Pelini’s salary, demand some attention paid to the big picture over the comfort of another nine-win season.