Who is Mike Riley?
Hazard a guess as to where the Nebraska head coach played his college ball, and you are likely to be wrong. He played defensive back at Alabama… but is originally from Idaho. What a psychic journey Riley has made, then and since. He is like the good-angel version of Rich Rodriguez, a rootless Johnny Upset-Seed whose departure from Oregon State for the coastlessness of Nebraska seemed as logical as Gary Andersen’s being hired there. Small wonder there has not been a birther controversy surrounding Riley’s true origins.
If he is guilty of being square, still there is subtle genius to be found in the ever-present half-smile at the left corner of Riley’s mouth, best deployed as the clock winds down on an upset win over Oregon.
Let us contemplate that mouth. Frowning on the right side — where the left, reason-driven half of the brain controls the face, and thus the paucity of one’s talent is most logically clear — it grins mischievously on the left, where the creative right side feeds on fantasies, among them the psychic desire to overcome one’s earthly limitations, one’s destiny.
That mouth is the story of Riley’s Nebraska program. It is not particle but wave, it fluctuates like a sine. Its stability is merely an illusion created by the calculation of an average, for Nebraska’s fortunes have pinballed wildly under such a demure-seeming man.
For every brilliant win — against an undefeated MSU team in 2015, against Oregon — there has been a sickening, sometimes a blowout, loss — at Ohio State and at Iowa last year, at Purdue — Purdue! — in 2015.
Under Riley, the Oregon State Beavers’ best record was 10-4. Yes, the team that fired a man guilty of going 9-4 in seven consecutive seasons hired a man who would seem fortunate to do so.
Yet Riley accomplished as much in year two.
Down to that half smile, Mike Riley is the Big Ten’s George Washington (before France got involved in the War). He wins by jerry-rig and subterfuge, retreats with gallantry, and is diciest when the battle is hat-on-hat. His best defense is the unstated but widely known excuse that injuries to personnel were ultimately to blame for the poor showing, that if the soldiers would stop defecting with their arms, and the winds weren’t so unlucky…
Is Nebraska content with this half-constructed man? Much depends on year three, always a pivotal year for evaluating head coaches, especially ones with murky pasts and uncertain affiliations. That Riley is not controversial in any fashion, that he does not throw embarrassing tirades, that no one will ever record him making denigrating remarks about the fanbase off the field, is a mark of credit whose value diminishes with every passing year.
Sooner or later, one must transcend the bald fact that Riley is still not above .500 as a coach, and Nebraska must taste greatness, even if it is repackaged Iowa greatness — that is, a 12-0 season in which the two wins of consequence are by the slimmest margins, and which ends with two damaging losses — or Riley will be sent packing.
Or, perhaps, the long game for Nebraska is in Riley’s rootlessness, in the fact that he has the no-face of a no-man, and is the type of coach who could abscond with a program’s conference affiliations on a single foggy night, stealing away to the PAC-12 or Big 21 without a single shot fired. For if Nebraska is no longer the newest member of the conference, it is surely the most reluctant. In seven years of Big Ten play, the closest the Huskers have come to a conference championship is getting blown out by Wisconsin in the 2012 Big Ten championship game. After all these meh years, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Nebraska would prefer to play weaker competition and be great than be scoured yearly through the Big Ten mill by hands as rough, as familiar, as farmerly, and yet as foreign, as one’s own.
Last year, one was led to believe, for a while, that things might be different. The Huskers rattled off seven straight wins, and rose to No. 7 in the polls. Indeed, they were surrounded by sevens, a cosmically unlucky number that has somehow gained reputation as the opposite. One could see Riley pulling into a gas station in Pleasant Dale at the end of a recruiting trip and buying straight sevens in the state lotto.
But because the universe operates more like a crapshoot, throwing sevens ultimately meant crapping out. The Huskers lost painfully close at Wisconsin — a game that featured the peak of Tommy Armstrong’s senior year, which occurred arguably at the moment Todd Blackledge, in a Freudian slip, referred to him as Tommie Frazier — and then fortunes tumbled horrifically at Ohio State. The Huskers redeemed themselves with two tough wins, reconstituting their myth just long enough to get smoked by Iowa. Their loss in the bowl to Tennessee was merely the universe saying, “Huskers, your cosmic win limit has been reached.”
Retrospect makes it easy to identify Nebraska’s schedule as spring-loaded to produce unreasonably high expectations. If there was a man more suited than Riley to exposing a bad Oregon team “coordinated” defensively by Brady Hoke, he would be hard to find. Similarly, whatever sadist pitted the Huskers on the road in back to back games at Wisconsin and Ohio State must have had some unstated loathing for Riley — or more likely, for his predecessor, Bo Pelini.
“At what point does undefeated quiet the critics?” So begins ESPN’s rhetorical propaganda machine as the lights come up on Nebraska’s fateful road game at Wisconsin. The Huskers’ charmed season ended on that day, ended brutally on a play of perfect embodiment, a prayer of a pass on 4th and 8 (following a dicey pass interference no-call) that was simply not good enough to be completed. Indeed, it is nothing special, and thus it is signature Riley, an incompletion as faux-surprising as Riley’s response is faux-incredulous:
This year, Nebraska’s fortunes seem pinned to quarterback Tanner Lee, a Tulane transfer. One listens to the enthusiastic voice of this gal announcing Tanner Lee’s true freshman numbers — “just” under 2000 yards, with 12 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions — and hears the makings of a true Mike Riley quarterback.
If there is a legacy for Riley, it is in the way his subtlety, his blandness, fires the imaginations of the fans and sportswriters around him. Nothing could strike more perfectly at the heart of this than Riley’s reply to Brian Ferentz’s missive that Nebraska’s storied pipeline to the NFL is more like a pipe dream:
“No, no, I didn’t hear it,” Riley said of Ferentz’s comment. “I didn’t hear it. I was gone last week. I’m not sure what that means. I don’t even know. I really don’t.”
When a reporter attempted to summarize Ferentz’s comments in a few seconds, Riley nodded, smiled politely, and elected to stay out of the fray. “I don’t have reference to that,” he said. “So I better not comment.”
Mike Riley was gone last week. He is gone every last week. He missed what you were talking about entirely, even though he heard it. He doesn’t know, he really doesn’t.
Yes, perhaps the whole of Riley’s search for an identity can be found in the line, “I don’t have reference to that.” Small wonder Nebraska fans have no choice but to invent myths about their program. God knows, Riley won’t do it for them.
Best Case Scenario
9-4, of course, with losses at Oregon, to one of Wisconsin and Ohio State — played at home in consecutive weeks — and then to two of Minnesota, Penn State, and Iowa in back-to-back-to-back weeks to close the season. If the Huskers salvage a win at Oregon — perhaps via a well-timed fake punt — they will have freed themselves to go 5-0, even 6-0, before it is again time to crash to earth, to not know, to be not there last week, to have no reference, to not comment on the Big Ten.
Worst Case Scenario
Nebraska didn’t lose at home last year, but in Week 1, a game Arky State team pulls off the upset. Then they lose at Oregon, they’re 0-2, and you can smell Mike Riley’s pants cooking from Davenport. No way they beat Ohio State or Wisconsin or Penn State, or even Northwestern, Minnesota, or Iowa. A 4-8 finish sends Riley out the door, but he’ll understand, this is a business, he’ll have no hard feelings whatsoever and will send Christmas cards to the Nebraska athletic department for the rest of his days.
Most Likely Scenario
Mike Riley continues to make an indifference in people’s lives as the Huskers go 6-6 with 336 points for and 336 against. That’ll be good for a bowl appearance, which they’ll win, putting Nebraska AD Shawn Eichorst in the difficult position of keeping Riley or flying to Youngstown and begging Bo Pelini to come back and win 9 games in 2018.
Did You Know?
It’s been twenty years.
Tommy Armstrong went second overall in our draft last year, but it’ll be a while before any Husker comes off the board this season.
Good news: Tanner Lee has starting experience. Bad News: At Tulane. Worse News: Where he threw 21 interceptions against 23 touchdowns. If you punish turnovers like our league, that’s a 63 point hole, and you’d have been lucky to get 200 points out of Lee to begin with. There’s a chance that talented youngster Patrick O’Brien can overtake him in fall camp, but if he struggled to get a leg up during spring ball, he’s got a long way to go. Verdict: look for Lee after the middle rounds as a backup.
The Huskers have the horses to implement Mike Riley’s heavy run-boring offense in Devine Ozigbo, Mikale Wilbon, and Tre Bryant. The trio combined for 673 yards last season behind Terrell Newby. Ozigbo accounted for most of those yards early, before an injury derailed his season. Small samples sizes make these guys increasingly difficult to handicap, and in fantasy drafts, if you’re guessing, you’re losing. If one of them clearly seizes the starting job in camp, he could be a solid third rounder.
Stanley Morgan, Jr. is the top returning option, but with a shaky QB and unproven RBs, how much of a fantasy impact can he have? He’s seventh or eighth rounder on our board. Flanking him is De’Mornay Pierson-el, whose 2015 season had the makings of a fantasy triple threat–catching, carrying, returning–but has struggled to recapture the magic after injury. DPE is a mid-to-later-round prospect until he proves otherwise. The returning player with the third-most catches? 6’5” former walk-on Byran Reimers with 5. At that height, he’s the kind of red zone threat Lee will target before getting picked off. A slew of freshmen including JD Spielman, Jaevon McQuitty, and Tyjon Lindsey and Fresno State transfer Keyan Williams will get their chances to contribute, but it’s too much of a crapshoot to waste a pick. Our prediction is that an undrafted Nebraska WR ends up the best fantasy option on the team.
Senior Tyler Hoppes and redshirt freshmen Jack Stoll and David Engelhaupt have a combined 0 catches. Mike Riley wants to use his TE, but this is too much of a risk to waste a draft pick on. Check the waiver wire after week 1. You should be sensing a pattern here.
Veteran kicker Drew Brown is one of the Big Ten’s best and a top fantasy option since Nebraska will be settling for a lot of field goals this season…if they get close enough.
The Huskers D was one of the surprises of last year, finishing the regular season in the fantasy top 30. Losing safety Nate Gerry is crushing, but he’s the only departed member of a secondary that ranked among the nation’s best. Six starters return, including Mick Stoltenberg, the 6’5”, 305 lbs nose tackle, who hails from a town called Gretna, which is the name I imagine for every mother of someone that size. Look for the Huskers in the third tier of fantasy defenses along with Iowa and Northwestern.
Suggested Nebraska viewing material:
Nebraska’s 2016 road loss to Wisconsin:
Nebraska’s 2016 home win v. Oregon:
Mike Riley’s ASMR video from Big Ten Media Days: