Breaking down Nebraska football and Bo Pelini's future with Hail Varsity's Erin Sorensen
Throughout the offseason, Campus Union will talk with a few team experts to go over some of the most intriguing storylines and questions in advance of the 2014 campaign.
A cat can't cure everything, but it's a start. Outside of Florida's Will Muschamp, Nebraska's Bo Pelini was arguably the head coach on the hottest seat after the 2013 campaign. A 24-19 win over Georgia in the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day (a rematch of the previous year's Capital One Bowl) helped matters, and Pelini received a one-year extension in March through the 2018 season.
Still, the Cornhuskers aren't out of the woods just yet. Expectations are high heading into 2014, and underachieving isn't exactly an option. Campus Union caught up with Erin Sorensen from Hail Varsity (and Bleacher Report) to get the scoop on Pelini's long-term job security, the '14 recruiting class, what to make of that darn cat and more.
SI: So, let's get this thing out of the way. The cat. The freaking cat. Catch people up on how Bo Pelini hoisting a cat at the Nebraska spring game happened. Was it planned? Or was it a surprise to even those close to the Huskers?
Erin Sorensen: Ah, yes. Bo Pelini and the now very famous cat. Obviously, a small group of people had to know what was going on to an extent. (I mean, if you were listening to the Lincoln police scanner that day, you were in on it by default.)
Scanner chatter: Memorial Stadium security verifying if a cat for @BoPelini should be allowed in the stadium. #Huskers
— Robby Korth (@RobbyKorth) April 12, 2014
But for the most part, it was a total surprise. How it remained such a well-kept secret, even with the Lincoln Journal Star tweeting about a cat being taken into Memorial Stadium before the spring game, is proof that this moment was meant to happen and quite possibly could never be replicated with the same amount of success.
SI: It's been a wild year for Pelini. Between the leaked profanity-laced audiotape, the on-field results, the spring game and the extension, it's hard for outsiders to get a read on what the Nebraska faithful is thinking about Pelini these days. Are folks in wait-and-see mode? Or is this a make-or-break year?
ES: I think there is still a little tension between the fans and Bo, but that's to be expected. Last year was such a roller coaster. Between the leaked audiotape and Bo daring the Nebraska athletic director [Shawn Eichorst] to fire him after the Iowa game, he lost some fans. And some of those fans may never be able to be convinced otherwise.
As for the rest, the offseason has been filled with moments [including Pelini tweeting at @FauxPelini during the national championship game] that have definitely eased tensions. Beyond all that, I think it is a make-or-break year, but most fans are in wait-and-see mode right now. That may be because it's April. Regardless, there will be a lot of pressure for Bo to win in 2014. Honestly, it's Indianapolis or bust.
SI: You can't get to Indianapolis without players, and some of them came on National Signing Day. What's the makeup of the Cornhuskers' latest recruiting class? Is anyone ready to play now?
ES: As a whole, the class turned out solid enough. It boasts 24 players from 13 different states. It ranked 35th nationally and sixth in the Big Ten, according to 247Sports. It ended up being ranked lower than most people had hoped, but that doesn't mean there aren't players within the class who won't make an immediate impact. One of those players is Tanner Farmer. Nebraska was in definite need of some big blockers for the offensive line, and Bo secured that with Farmer, Nick Gates and D.J. Foster. There were a lot of injuries on Nebraska's line last year, so that's why this position was in need of some help. The 2014 class addressed that.
Ultimately, there were some big needs for the 2014 class. Bo and his staff filled those needs. It didn't make for the highest-ranked class around, but that's OK. Most fans are of the mindset that you can't fully evaluate a class until it's had some time on the field anyway.
SI: I know defense was a major concern last season, especially early on. Is there evidence to suggest that unit will improve in 2014?
ES: It was absolutely a concern early in the 2013 season. The youth on the defensive side of the ball was clear as day. I mean, the Huskers gave up 38 points to UCLA [on Sept. 14] and 465 yards to South Dakota State [on Sept. 21]. It wasn't pretty. However, the group started to get it figured out. Wins over Michigan [on Nov. 9] and Penn State [on Nov. 23] were made possible because of the defense. The victory over Georgia in the Gator Bowl can't be forgotten, either. Those wins help build confidence for the defense.
Also, I'd keep an eye on defensive end Randy Gregory to be the big vocal leader of the group next season. If he has his way, this unit will be very physical. Based on the spring game alone, the defense looks much sharper than it did last year.
SI: I'm glad you mentioned the Gator Bowl. Was that win important simply from a momentum standpoint? Or were there other key takeaways?
ES: First and foremost, it was extremely important for momentum. A bowl game win helps with recruiting and getting a team started on the right foot heading into the offseason. It was especially important because Nebraska hadn't won a bowl game since the 2009 Holiday Bowl. After three consecutive bowl losses, the team needed that victory over Georgia.
But beyond just the win, fans got to see some big improvements from key positions. After a rocky 2013 season, Tommy Armstrong had a good day at quarterback. Before the game, many folks (myself included) were calling for Ron Kellogg III to start, assuming Armstrong couldn't handle the pressure. Boy, did he prove us wrong. Additionally, the defense had a good day against Georgia, which only helps build confidence going forward.
SI: What was the team's primary focus in spring ball? Is the quarterback situation sorted out?
ES: The primary focus of spring ball was working out the issues from the 2013 season. One of those focuses was ball security. If you watched Nebraska play last season, it's not shocking to know that the Huskers lost the ball 29 times. Sixteen of those were fumbles and the other 13 were interceptions. Yikes. That sort of feeds into the quarterback question nicely. Bo is confident his starting guy is Tommy Armstrong. He made it clear after the spring game that he's the guy. As for Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe, they're battling it out for the No. 2 spot. Do I think those two could make a push for the top spot? Absolutely. All is fair in love and football (or something like that). But for now, Armstrong is the guy and he was also a primary focus in spring ball. Getting him more comfortable as a game manager was crucial, and it's something he still needs to work on.
SI: What’s your realistic prognosis for next season?
ES: This is the million dollar question, isn't it? There's always a fine line in Husker Nation of being a homer and being too pessimistic. Really, you can't win either way. But I like how this team looks for 2014, so I'd be willing to bet the Huskers make it to Indianapolis. I'm not positive the road to that point will be the prettiest, but the Big Ten's new East-West division alignment make things a little simpler for Nebraska. I'm betting with the potential record it will take to get there, but I'll put my money on Nebraska in the Big Ten title game. And I'd be willing to bet it'll face Michigan State, too.
Also, I can't wait for someone to crawl out of the woodwork and remind me of this if I'm wrong seven months from now.
SI: The Internet: A place where no one cares if you're right and no one will ever let you forget it if you're wrong. ES: And for what it's worth, if Nebraska is at home on Saturday, Dec. 6 ... there is always the cat.