Is Year 3 the season Nebraska coach Mike Riley turns the corner from ‘sleeper’ to ‘contender’?

Bob Devaney won nine games in Year 3. Tom Osborne won 10. So did Frank Solich. Bill Callahan, the heretic, won nine; Bo Pelini, the hysteric, won 10.

The last Nebraska Cornhuskers coach who didn’t produce at least a .643 winning percentage in his third season at the controls was William Jennings in 1959, with a mark of 4-6. The next five men after him, over a span of 50 years and change, averaged 9.6 victories.

Mike Riley, the floor is yours.

The ceiling, too.

It’s a high bar. A mesospheric bar. And the telling year starts now, for better or worse. Arkansas State looms on Saturday night, the launch point for Year 3. The season when the picture of what this era is — or what it’s supposed to be — starts to come, like an old Polaroid, into focus.

Riley has his pass-first quarterback, with more strong arms waiting in the bullpen. He’s overhauled the defense and special teams. He’s built up a bedrock of young, fast, athletic talent. He’s abandoned old loyalties — and old friendships — to tweak and upgrade his staff.

The tradition and infrastructure in Lincoln are such that it’s awfully hard to roll a turkey down Stadium Drive with a straight face. And harder still to be irrelevant:

Calling Nebraska “a sleeper” is like calling Gene Simmons “subtle.”

It doesn’t exactly mesh with the DNA.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a point, premise be damned. Someone, it stands to reason, is going to have to make Wisconsin earn the West division crown the Badgers have been fitted for, feted for, since the spring.

Why not the Big Red?

Why not them?

Why not now?

You’ve got foundations of a solid offensive line, if you can keep the horses together and upright.

You’ve got speed off the edge.

You’ve got beef up the gut.

You’ve got a pro-style signal-caller with NFL size and an NFL release.

You’ve got a senior kicker and a special teams unit that’s a year wiser.

You’ve got Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern and Iowa at home.

You’ve got the wind at your back.

You’ve got 86,000 of your closest friends behind you, unconditionally.

Well, usually.

Again, it’s a high bar. And a special place. A place where the coach isn’t judged by the wins.

He’s judged by the losses.

The second-wisest thing Riley can do is keep them out of mind. The wisest is to keep them out of sight.

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