Another New Year's Day has passed with no Nebraska sighting. It has happened twice in the last three years -- and I know the folks in Cornhusker Nation are keeping count.
This program was 108-16-1 in the 1990s, a record bettered only by Florida State's 109-13-1 mark during that span. But that seemed like ancient history as the Cornhuskers battled Northwestern in the Alamo Bowl. At least Nebraska ended the season on a positive note, thrashing the Wildcats 66-17 and setting the record for points scored in a bowl.
Don't get me wrong. The Alamo Bowl is great for burgeoning programs like Northwestern. But Nebraska, even with the big victory, must feel like a guy from the country club who got caught at the bowling alley.
"Today, it seems that a lot of teams have a lot of talent, and coaches are doing a better job of using that talent where they need to," says Huskers quarterback Eric Crouch. "A lot of teams are out there that can play and match up against anybody.
"With the success this program has had over the years, that's kind of been the mind-set that people get -- you've got to be in the national championship game every year, you've got to blow out every team every week. And a lot of times, that's not going to happen."
The gap between Big Red and the rest of the world used to be as thick as a Huskers lineman's neck. Ten years ago, a bowl pairing the Huskers and Wildcats would have been unheard of. But the reality of the 85-scholarship limit has narrowed that gap.
Still, it's hard to explain what went wrong with Nebraska's season -- scholarship limit or not. This was supposed to be a team that brought pride to the plains like the big, bad Nebraska teams that won national championships in 1994, '95 and '97. But it didn't happen. Now schools such as Stanford, Oregon State and Purdue have as many Bowl Championship Series appearances as Frank Solich's Huskers.
Many want to blame Solich, who they think shouldn't be calling plays in addition to his head coaching duties. It didn't help that in his first season, the team finished 9-4 -- the program's worst record since 1968 -- including a loss to Arizona in the 1998 Holiday Bowl. But Solich is cut from the same sturdy stock as predecessor Tom Osborne, and the problems of a team that began the season a near-consensus No. 1 ran far deeper than Solich.
Even The Sporting News was excited about this team. And why not? It had a talented quarterback, veteran offensive line, dynamic playmaker in Bobby Newcombe, solid special teams, strong front seven on defense and 27 seniors. The result: 10-2. OK at most places, but not Nebraska -- at least not for this team. So what in the name of John Deere went wrong for the Cornhuskers?
Defensive line: The unit suffered from the lack of a consistent pass rush, and the interior was softer than in recent seasons. Tackles Jason Lohr and Loran Kaiser were pushed around too often. None of the ends developed into a playmaker in the mold of former great Grant Wistrom. The team managed only nine sacks in its first five games before improving down the stretch to finish the regular season with a measly 25.
End Kyle Vanden Bosch and linebacker Randy Stella tied for the team lead with 5 1/2 sacks each. Nebraska allowed an average of 19.4 points a game, its highest figure since 1958. The 322 yards it gave up each game was the most since 1991.
Secondary: Projected before the season to be the team's weak link, it held true to form. The inexperienced group struggled without Ralph Brown and Mike Brown, two of the six starters who had to be replaced on defense. Without the benefit of a consistent pass rush, the defensive backs were doomed.
Several teams -- Oklahoma (300 yards), Colorado (254), Missouri (283) and Iowa (252) among them -- had better passing days against Nebraska than they had any reason to expect. Aside from the Sooners' Josh Heupel, golden boys didn't quarterback those teams.
I-back: Since Ahman Green left for the pros after the 1997 season, Nebraska has lacked a game-breaker at this position, which has made the offense easier to defend and less dangerous to face. Dan Alexander and Correll Buckhalter are ham-and-eggers who aren't going to run away from defenders. Junior-college transfer Thunder Collins arrived amid much fanfare but soon found himself in over his head.
Alexander's team-leading 1,154 yards in the regular season made him the first Huskers back to eclipse the 1,000-yard barrier since Green in 1997. But he needed more games like his Alamo Bowl performance: 240 yards and two touchdowns. At least the team reduced its fumbles from a school-record 49 in 1999 to 25.
Crouch: He was on most preseason Heisman watch lists, but he didn't fulfill expectations. To be fair, Crouch often thought he had to carry a big load -- if he wasn't going to get it done, who was? He was right, but that meant he often forced things and put undue pressure on himself.
He's one of the nation's most deadly weapons on the run, but his passing needs work. Crouch completed only 48 percent of his passes with seven interceptions for a passing attack that ranked 111th out of 115 Division I-A schools. And when Crouch had to be at his best, he fell flat. In a 31-14 defeat at Oklahoma, Crouch hit 12-of-27 passes for 133 yards. Things were even uglier in a 29-28 setback at Kansas State, where Crouch hit 2-of-13 attempts for 39 yards.
Special teams: Nebraska consistently failed to get good field position, which forced the offense to travel great distances to score. Joe Walker, the team's main kick returner, averaged fewer than 20 yards on his run-backs. And Josh Brown was 5-of-10 on field-goal attempts.
"We certainly did not accomplish all the goals that we had, but we did a lot of good things," Solich says.
Certainly, a 10-2 record and an impressive bowl win are nothing to scoff at. But Nebraska is used to more. The Huskers will return a lot of talent in 2001, led by Crouch. So if you're a Nebraska fan, don't make any plans for New Year's 2002.
Staff writer Tom Dienhart covers college football for The Sporting News. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.