It’s that time of year where people want predictions on Matt Rhule’s first Nebraska season. This just in: I have no idea.
But this year, I’ll do one better.
I’ll give you history.
Something significant to Nebraska football history will happen this season.
History says so.
You can look it up. I did — sort of.
Recently I heard someone mention that this season is the 40th anniversary of the celebrated 1983 “Greatest Team of All Time” season.
A very good year. But then I turned back the clock another 10 years. This is the 50th anniversary of Tom Osborne’s first season as head coach.
Then I kept going. And I stumbled onto an interesting, kind of weird trend.
People are also reading…
Every 10 years — or seasons that ended in “3” — something important happened in Nebraska football. A breakthrough year. A turning point in Husker history.
It all started 60 years ago.
As Bob Devaney entered his second season at Nebraska, he had already gone 9-2, won at Michigan and led the Huskers to their first bowl game in seven years.
But the 1963 season represented a giant step up to a new frontier.
The Huskers went 10-1, with an only loss to Air Force. They swept the Big Eight, 7-0, to win their first Big Eight championship and go to their second-ever Orange Bowl.
It was the school’s first league title and New Year’s Day bowl since 1940. The first of many more to come: four straight Big Eight titles and New Year’s Day bowls.
The 1963 season was the door to a new era. Nebraska football would never be the same.
1973: Who was this Osborne guy?
Was there life after Bob Devaney? And Johnny Rodgers and Rich Glover? Was Nebraska football about to go off a cliff?
There was anxiety in the stands and tension on the coaching staff.
Osborne was Devaney’s choice, but not the popular choice.
This season put the fears to rest. Osborne led the Huskers to a 9-2-1 season and tied for second in the Big Eight. After starting the season ranked No. 4, NU finished No. 7 with a win over Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
To show their support, the players carried Osborne — wearing a suit and tie — off the field. It was a symbolic scene. Maybe the new guy was going to make it.
Twenty five years later, they would dump Gatorade on him after winning his final game in the Orange Bowl.
Nebraska has won five national championships. The 1983 team isn’t in the club.
And yet, this was a season that changed the program and college football. It boggled imaginations and set the table for 1995.
The Huskers might have been the game’s first “super” team — as anointed by Sports Illustrated, which did a cover story on the “Greatest Team in College Football History.”
They went undefeated in the regular season. They destroyed all but two teams. They set numerous offensive records. They returned Nebraska to association with the Heisman Trophy and the national title game.
The 1983 Huskers lost the national title to upstart Miami. But knowing what Miami would become, and Osborne’s decision to go for two and the victory on that Orange Bowl night, have elevated this team and season to legend status.
This was one of the greatest Nebraska teams that doesn’t get the credit, a season that falls through the cracks of history. But it had a major accomplishment.
The 1993 Huskers won the Big Eight and went to the Orange Bowl. That wasn’t new. Their first undefeated regular season since 1983 was new. But that wasn’t the headline.
When NU began the 1993 season, the program was still the one that couldn’t win a bowl game or play with the big boys. By the end of the 1994 Orange Bowl, the nation had a much different opinion of Nebraska.
The unity council. The 4-3 defense. Upgraded recruiting and speed on the roster and on defense. And sophomore quarterback Tommie Frazier’s leadership and playmaking.
Everything Osborne had been building came out as NU crashed Florida State’s national title party. The Huskers were 17 1/2-point underdogs.
Nebraska lost a breathless finish, 18-16. The Huskers didn’t wilt. Given a call here or there, they could have won. And after matching FSU play for play until the final missed kick, they won back their respect.
The morning after the loss, Osborne’s voice was full of pride. The 1993 team lifted NU back into the national title picture. And opened the door for a decade of history.
Entering his sixth season as head coach, Frank Solich had a new coaching staff, new hope and a new lease on his career.
But after NU lost at Texas on Nov. 1 to fall to 7-2, athletic director Steve Pederson held a news conference to announce a new football facilities project. Solich wasn’t invited and wasn’t mentioned.
It was clear what was coming.
The decision to fire Solich after a 9-3 season was debated then and in the years following. There was no debating that it was a major turning point in program history.
By dismissing a coach after a nine-win season, reaching for a new Nebraska and doing away with the priorities and formula that made the program a consistent winner, Nebraska football lost its way.
It’s still finding its way home.
We can argue forever whether Bo Pelini would have kept winning nine games or would have elevated Husker football to a championship level.
But there’s no question that the 2013 season was a turning point for Pelini.
NU went 9-4 in 2013. There was an ugly second-half collapse to lose to UCLA, 41-21, at home. There were wins at Michigan and at Penn State in November. There were double-digit losses to Michigan State and Iowa at home in-between.
But this season was a story of two Pelini rants.
One came out after the UCLA loss. It was a recording of a conversation Pelini had with a Nebraska radio network host just before a post-game interview in 2011.
On the tape, Pelini berated Husker fans and some media members with harsh, colorful language. The conversation was never meant to be aired. It was released by someone with a grudge against the coach.
The other rant came after the final regular-season game, during Pelini’s news conference after the Iowa loss. Frustrated by the loss and his distant relationship with athletic director Shawn Eichorst, Pelini said, “If they want to fire me, go ahead.”
Pelini never recovered from those two incidents. He was almost fired the day after the Iowa game. It happened a year later. Mike Riley was on deck.
So 2013, in its own way, was a history-changing season.
It’s hard to imagine Matt Rhule getting in his own way like that. It’s also hard to picture him having the kind of success Osborne did in 1973. The program isn’t in that same place.
But Rhule aims to make an impact on a program that hasn’t been to a bowl since 2016 and shift the sails on Nebraska football.
What will he do?
Here in 2023, I can’t wait to find out.