Nebraska's Mike Riley 'forever grateful' for 5-7 team's bowl opportunity

It would be easy for Nebraska coach Mike Riley to bemoan the plight of his football team, which lost seven games by a total of 31 points after a calamitous series of late-game collapses. But the optimist in him chooses to believe something good can come of a season that fell far below anybody's expectations -- the Cornhuskers, after all, are guaranteed of only their third losing season in the last 54 years.

Perhaps building those positive vibes can start with a gift from the college football rule makers. As most fans know by now, there are not enough six-win teams this season to fill out the 80 spots necessary for every postseason bowl game. The determining factor for selecting five-win teams comes from a one-time process that allows the NCAA Division I Council's football oversight committee to use Academic Progress Rate scores from the 2013-14 academic year.

As it happens, Nebraska is first in line among 5-7 schools with an APR of 985. That complicated formula means that the Cornhuskers are guaranteed of appearing in a bowl game once the pairings are set on Sunday. Maybe the Cornhuskers didn't earn a bid in the traditional sense. Maybe it's difficult to feel excited about a five-win team sliding into the postseason through the back door of an NCAA loophole. But try telling all that to Riley.

"I will be forever grateful for that," Riley told ESPN.com by phone this week. "I think it would be awesome to get to play again with this team. I think a bowl game is great for your next team, for the practices you get, the development. The only thing I can say is I'm thankful for that opportunity."

At this stage, the most likely destinations for Nebraska are the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, California, on Dec. 26, the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit on Dec. 28 or the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas, on Dec. 29. ESPN's Brett McMurphy lists Nebraska playing Arkansas in the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tennessee, on Dec. 30.

For Riley, whose first year at Nebraska has been met with significant on-field challenges, the opponent hardly matters. It merely provides the Cornhuskers with a chance to get better. Offensively, the team has put up a respectable 32.5 points per game, but quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.'s 16 interceptions are the second-most in the country. On the flip side, the pass defense ranks among the worst in the nation (288.2 yards per game).

Nebraska's first five losses were particularly excruciating and seemed to stack up in almost comically painful fashion. There was a season-opening loss to BYU on a last-second Hail Mary, a three-point overtime loss to Miami, a 14-13 defeat against Illinois due to poor clock management, a 23-21 loss to Wisconsin after Nebraska couldn't gain a first down in the final 86 seconds to salt the game away and a 30-28 loss to Northwestern when a late two-point conversion failed.

"The feelings from it, I think you have to put in the rear-view mirror to go forward," Riley said. "But I think the other part of it, football is such a great situational game that we will go back and study those situations. Like just the very first game, the Hail Mary deal, we've already re-examined that.

"But we'll do plenty of that in the offseason. I think you can't ignore it. There were reasons that we lost. Those are the kinds of things that we have to pinpoint and really emphasize in our situational work with our team."

There has been some debate about whether APR is the best method to pick bowl teams. But Riley praised Dennis Leblanc, Nebraska's senior associate athletics director for academics, as well as the rest of the school's academic support staff. He said determining bowl bids based on APR was "an appropriate way to do it" because it rewards teams whose players excel in the classroom.

Some 5-7 schools have opted to forgo the bowl game. Missouri declined a bid and East Carolina, which was unlikely to receive an invitation, also said it would not accept if offered.

Riley said he had been in touch with athletics director Shawn Eichorst "from the very beginning" when it first became a possibility that Nebraska could be bowl-eligible as a 5-7 team. Eichorst ultimately decided Riley and his assistants would forgo their bowl game bonus checks -- worth a total of $437,385 -- and Riley agreed. Both men have been in favor of playing the game.

"He's an advocate for it," Riley said. "I think he understands what it can mean to the football team and to the future team. So we've been on the same page on initial discussions since it was even first mentioned."

Nebraska fans generally travel as well as any fan base in the country, which makes the Cornhuskers especially attractive to bowl representatives. And though some fans might have difficulty coming to terms with the manner in which their team has reached a bowl, Riley is eager to find the beginnings of a turnaround in his brief tenure.

"I sure won't turn it down," he said. "I'd like to turn back the clock on probably a few things this year. But from where we are at this point, it's really just a tremendous bonus and a great opportunity."