Nebraska Fan

There has been no honeymoon period for Nebraska coach Mike Riley. After taking the reigns of Husker football from Bo Pelini -- a man who made his living cranking out 9-4 seasons with surprising consistency -- the former Oregon State head coach has deeply divided a fan base not accustomed to such rocky starts to the season.

By local measures, the 2015 season is a downright nightmare. Riley's six-game tenure is singularly defined by the team's penchant for late-game collapses. The Huskers are 2-4, and all four losses have been decided on the opposing team's final offensive play of the game.

BYU's Hail Mary. Miami's overtime field goal. Illinois' touchdown drive in the waning seconds. Wisconsin's long field goal -- its second attempt in the final 90 seconds -- splitting the uprights with four seconds left.

Mike Riley

This isn't the progress fans were promised when Riley came in as Pelini's replacement. But as painful as the present has been, concerns about the future loom even larger.

Is this 2-4 start merely a consequence of transition -- a growing pain as Nebraska finds itself under Riley's leadership? Or are these struggles the symptom of a program falling even further from grace?

From the body of evidence -- limited as it is after only six games -- you could make an argument either way. Ask BYU to recreate its 42-yard touchdown pass as the clock read zero, and you'd be smart to bet against failure. That loss broke Nebraska's streak of 29 straight season-opening victories, yet another mile-marker on its gradual decline as a college football powerhouse.

Then again, that streak was largely built on cupcake opponents who visited Lincoln to be steamrolled. BYU is no Alabama, but the team it brought to Nebraska had the chops to hang with a good team, and it showed that with a late rally to win.

Similar excuses can be made for Nebraska's road loss at Miami. The Hurricanes aren't great, but they're good, and Nebraska's furious 23-point fourth-quarter comeback served up reasons to be optimistic, even though the Huskers eventually lost in overtime.

At 2-2, and even with a flat eight-point win over Southern Miss, it was easy to frame Nebraska as a program with potential, and some minor kinks to work out.

But then Illinois happened: A 14-13 road loss to a program that fired its head coach just before the season. Nebraska pounded Illinois 45-14 one year earlier. That represented a new low for the Huskers and served as the catalyst for true signs of smoke: Reports surfaced that Nebraska's locker room was divided.

Illinois Football

Some players had reportedly remained loyal to Pelini after his firing, sitting in quiet protest against the athletic administration for canning their coach after a 9-3 regular season.

Jack Gangwish, one of Nebraska's six team captains, shot down rumors of locker room dissent but challenged players to step up as leaders in an already tumultuous season.

"I think in some situations those guys can be even more influential than what a coach can be. It's massively important for our leaders, captains and otherwise, to step up and lead this team in the right direction," Gangwish said.

Nebraska 247's Mike Schaefer says those rumors have been largely blown out of proportion.

"There's some guys that maybe still wish they had the previous staff, but these guys still want to win," Schaefer tells ThePostGame. "You're going to have your troublemakers and that's going to happen everywhere, but it's not an epidemic."

Riley took further heat for his leadership -- and particularly his playcalling at the end of the game -- when Wisconsin hit a long field goal to take a 23-21 lead with four seconds left. That score came after an earlier missed field goal by the Badgers, handing possession over to Nebraska.

The Huskers only needed a first down to win the game. Instead, they called three uninspired running plays, punted the ball, and let the Badgers advance down the field just in range for the kicker to redeem himself.

And now Nebraska finds itself in an unfamiliar place: Up against the ropes and in desperate need of pulling itself together. Fans have been thrown into chaos: As some call for patience with Riley, others are running Facebook and Twitter accounts calling for the coach to be fired.

Bo Pelini

The rest of the season will be closely watched for signs that Riley can right the ship -- or that his tenure is doomed. But even a full season of evidence is unlikely to provide a conclusive answer. As demanding as today's fans may be, building a program is a time-intensive process. Coaches routinely face the hot seat -- and suffer the axe -- before they've had a chance to field a product that if wholly their own.

Administrations want results, and turnarounds in football aren't always instant. For every Jim Harbaugh who walks in and lights a program back on fire, there are a handful of other coaches trying to do their best with the resources at hand.

Riley is in far from an ideal situation. He's the new man on campus and doesn't have the trust or regard he enjoyed at Oregon State. He's also trying to run his system with Pelini's players. Only the team's true freshman are Riley recruits, and until those players are able to take on more prominent roles, the Nebraska coach has to work with what he has available.

And it's possible that Riley is enduring a horrible streak of luck, seasoned with some poor decision-making at critical junctures.

But if there are signs that a first-year coach is a dead man walking, they haven't cropped up in Lincoln yet. For every heartbreak and rumors of division, Nebraska comes out and competes every game. A resigned team wouldn't find itself battling down to the wire every game -- it would be steamrolled early on and listless well before the game's end.

For the most part, Riley's roster is playing for him.

Nebraska Football

Another sign of impending doom would be recruits jumping off ship before it leaves port. It would make sense if high school commits became alarmed by the downturn in success at Nebraska, and decided to cast their fate with a more stable program.

But the thing about recruits: According to Schaefer, they're hardly ever scared off by losing.

"Recruits view it as, 'Nebraska lost today, but they wouldn't have lost if I was playing,'" Schaefer says. "They think a team just needs another talented player. "You never talk to them about, 'Hey, you're probably going to spend most of your time playing under .500 in conference play.' It doesn't matter to them."

There's no way of knowing whether Riley is right for the Nebraska job. Try as everyone might, you can't diagnose a coach's tenure based on a handful of games that went the wrong way.

Is it possible Riley never accomplishes more than the close-but-not-quite success of Pelini's teams? Of course. And that's not a disaster: Nine wins in the Big Ten is a solid track record.

Nebraska Fans

But Nebraska's administration wasn't happy with earning straight B's on its report card. It saw the football program stagnating and new a change was needed.

Change comes with risks. No matter how bad things get, Riley doesn't deserve to be fired after this season. Building a football program takes time, and there's much work to do at Nebraska. Give him time to recruit, time to gel with his current players. Time for his system to take root.

"There's upheaval pretty much any time you change a coach, but I think you'd be setting a program back even further by [firing a coach after one season," Schaefer says. "Not only is 2015 a lost season, but 2016 is probably lost, too. And these coaches are already working on the 2017 and 2018 classes, building relationships with those players.

"That's a lot of relationships to sacrifice. ... Really, you need to let things run the course for at least a couple of years before you know where things are going."

Nobody wants to hear the line, "Good things come to those who wait." But just six games into the Mike Riley era, Nebraska fans have no other option.

More: Nebraska Better Off Without Big 12

-- ThePostGame senior editor Jonathan Crowl is the author of The Nebraska Way.

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