The Times’ annual college football countdown continues its march toward No. 1 with our pick for No. 24: Nebraska.
Nebraska’s football Cornhuskers may not be better this year with Mike Riley as coach but, goodness knows, they’ll be nicer.
Going from Bo Pelini to Riley is like switching channels from “The Sopranos” to “Sesame Street.”
Pelini averaged nine victories in his seven seasons in Lincoln, but his penchant for foul-mouthed tirades was anathema to the decent folks who sang from hymnals beneath the spire of wholesome Tom Osborne.
Pelini had an ugly temper and built a YouTube catalog screaming at players and ripping fans with language that could strip rust off a muffler.
Riley is a program air-freshener, a foundation layer at his best while coaching up lesser players with fun and pro-style fundamentals. He once treated his Oregon State team to hamburgers after a big Pac-12 Conference victory in Los Angeles.
Riley expected to end his career at Oregon State but Nebraska caught him at a vulnerable time, when he was not feeling the love from the Corvallis community. He could have continued on, grinding out seven to nine victories per year. Instead, he chose to see what it would be like coaching higher-grade recruits at a pedigree program.
This is Riley’s last chance to coach at a place like USC, a job he was offered before Pete Carroll took it in 2001, with a lot less traffic.
Lincoln is Corvallis with a bigger stadium and much higher expectations. Riley will be fine so long as he keeps the annual victory total at nine or above.
His nice-guy image is real, but not to be confused with weakness.
“My dad always taught me just be yourself and enjoy what you do because players see through phonies,” Riley said at Big Ten Conference media day.
Change is hard and some players actually loved Pelini, most notably star quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., who tweeted out to Nebraska, “biggest mistake you ever made,” after his coach was fired.
Riley should be able to help Armstrong tighten up his game. Armstrong completed only 53% of his passes last season and has had 20 passes intercepted the last two seasons. He is a fine runner but will have to become more of a pocket passer in Riley’s system.
Nebraska is weakened with the departures of tailback Ameer Abdullah and receiver Kenny Bell, and the nonconference schedule includes Brigham Young and Miami. But the Cornhuskers don’t have Ohio State and Michigan on their conference schedule this season, and they also reside in the winnable, weaker, Big Ten West division.
Riley has been cramming to learn the nuances of a new conference.
“We don’t have any books on anybody,” he said.
It helps that football around the country is more the same than it is different. The Big Ten, no longer a plow-horse league, is filled with modern-day offenses.
“There are spread teams in every league,” Riley said.
Lincoln will enjoy the vibe the new coach brings to the local feed store.
Those of us who knew Riley in the Pac-12 never heard him utter a swear word.
So, yes, it’s a new, gosh-darn day at Nebraska.
Top 25 so far: 25. Michigan.