Mike Riley was a big-time surprise when former athletic director Shawn Eichorst hired him following a messy divorce with Bo Pellini back at the end of the 2014 season. Three years later and it seems as if the shine has worn off and Riley’s days are numbered in Lincoln, Neb.
With a new athletics director in place, one that certainly isn’t afraid to go his own way, some are assuming its a matter of when, not if Mike Riley exits as the Huskers head coach.
But, this season is only half over and there will be plenty of time for Bill Moos to figure out his game plan. With six games left on the schedule, there is also still plenty of time for Riley to save his job.
It may seem far-fetched, but there is a way in fact a four-step process in which Riley can keep his job in Lincoln.
Step 1: Beat Purdue Confidently
Nebraska is coming off its bye week and is getting a Purdue team that has seemingly hit a brick wall heading in to Week 9 of the 2017 season. After looking good in a loss to Wisconsin, Purdue laid a complete egg against Rutgers and gave the Scarlet Knights back-to-back Big Ten wins for the first time.
Meanwhile, the Huskers were last seen getting blown out by both Wisconsin and Ohio State in back-to-back games of their own. Something is going to have to give this weekend, and what better way to shut up a few critics than to win on the road against a team who is stung from a bad loss the week before?
Showing some killer instinct sure wouldn’t hurt Riley’s chances, but this can’t be a close game. Nebraska needs to show it can dominate a Big Ten opponent, and this is the perfect opportunity to do just that.
Step 2: Continuing Winning
Win over Purdue? That’s helpful, but the schedule doesn’t get much more difficult than what comes up following a visit to West Lafayette, Ind.. Nebraska faces Northwestern, then travels to both Minnesota and Penn State before a season-ending matchup with Iowa.
Seeing that schedule in front of the Huskers has to be worrisome if you’re a fan. However, it’s also a massive opportunity against two of the better teams in the West division and the Big Ten’s best team today. If you can win two or three of the final four games along with the Purdue game, you’ve got a strong case for Riley keeping his job.
Northwestern has been on fire the past few weeks, Minnesota is starting to find a rhythm and most importantly, a trip to Penn State could be the upset win needed to really show Riley’s teams are capable of playing with the best.
Getting to bowl eligibility with wins over Purdue, Northwestern and Minnesota certainly would be a statement made.
Step 3: Win on the Recruiting Trail
This is one area that Mike Riley can really hang his hat on. This is his second full recruiting class and so far this has been one impressive haul. How do you get this program to the level it needs to be to have full offensive success? Adding athletes in droves certainly helps, and that is exactly what Riley has done so far in the 2018 recruiting class.
Now…can they also turn up the heat on the defensive side of the football? That has happened a bit as well, with the highest-rated commit being 4-star and No. 7-ranked cornerback Brendan Radley-Hiles.
That’s an impressive haul already, considering six of the 11 committed players to date are 4-star players. Do you really want to break up that kind of momentum on the recruiting trail? Depending on who comes aboard you could run the risk of blowing up an impressive recruiting class in the face of the first round of early commitments coming in.
Normally a new coach would have about a month and a half to put together a class. Now, with the first early signing date on the books, a new coach has weeks to figure out where everyone stands and get “his players” in place. The pool of players gets slim quick and Nebraska already has a killer class committed.
Is it worth breaking that up and putting your program in further chaos? Perhaps, but you better be damn sure you’re hiring a winner on the recruiting trail if you want to take Riley out of the equation.
Step 4: Let the Chips Fall Where They May
Honestly, Mike Riley can only control so much about what is going to happen to his job.
New athletic director Bill Moos holds all the cards there, and the good news is that Moos seems to be a very transparent guy when it comes to his coaches. The other part of the good news is that Riley likely knows exactly what the expectations are in front of him.
As long as he continues to believe in his process and the team is still buying in, it’s really all he can control. After that, it’s all about letting the chips fall where they may.
If he can demonstrate progress on the field, get to a bowl game and continue to win on the recruiting trail, why shouldn’t he keep his job? There isn’t exactly a home run hire sitting out there as we speak, and Riley’s future seems brighter by the recruiting class.
Let’s see if any of these steps will be enough, or if Moos just wants to make a clean break and get moving on a different direction. My gut tells me that unless Riley’s Huskers can showcase a dangerous offense or a changed defense, the writing is likely on the wall.