1984 Nebraska football came into the season looking to bounce back from the heartbreak to end all heartbreaks. They came within one play of winning a national title in 1983 before an upset loss to Miami in the Orange Bowl, a game where Cornhusker head coach Tom Osborne eschewed playing for a tie and a sure national title to try a two-point play and go for the win.
Even with the crushing 31-30 loss ending the dream, the Cornhuskers were still riding high. After futilely chasing Oklahoma from 1974-80, Nebraska had won three straight Big Eight titles and had a 27-game conference winning streak. They were the team to beat in their own backyard and they were ranked #2 in the nation to start the 1984 season.
Nebraska had its trademark powerhouse offensive line, led by consensus All-American center Mark Traynowicz. Guard Harry Grimmings also got some All-American mention. The Cornhuskers had a 1,000-yard back in Doug DuBose, and Jeff Smith almost got there with 935 yards.
DuBose and Smith were 1-2 in the Big Eight in rushing, and their path was paved by fullback Tom Rathman, who would have a better NFL career than anyone, going to the San Francisco 49ers and playing with Joe Montana.
Osborne alternated quarterbacks, with Craig Sundberg and Travis Turner splitting duty. Sundberg was the more effective of the two, with a superior completion percentage (65-49) and yards-per-attempt (8.8 to 7.2), but Turner would step up at some key moments in the 1984 season. Defensively, Bret Clark got All-American mention in the secondary, but otherwise no one stood out.
Nebraska pounded mediocre Wyoming 42-7 to start the season and when top-ranked Miami lost at Michigan, the Cornhuskers moved to the top of the polls. They blew out subpar Minnesota 38-7, and then traveled to play eighth-ranked UCLA.
The Bruins had won the previous two Rose Bowls and would make the January 1 Fiesta Bowl this season. The Cornhuskers simply leveled them. Smith and DuBose each cleared the 100-yard threshold, the defense held UCLA to 41 rush yards, got eight quarterback sacks and the final was 42-3. It looked like another steamroller was coming out of Lincoln this season.
But the next week a letdown came and Nebraska dumped a 17-9 decision to a Syracuse team that would only win six games. The Cornhuskers were down to #8 and a coming home date with Oklahoma State to start conference play would be anything but easy.
Oklahoma State was ranked #9 and they would get into the top five and contend for the national title themselves before the season was over. Nebraska couldn’t get its offense in gear, as Sundberg threw three interceptions and was lifted for Turner. The Cornhuskers trailed 3-0 in the fourth quarter.
After a tying field goal early in the final period, punt returner Shane Swanson stepped up with a 49-yard return for a touchdown. With Nebraska playing great defense, they got the ball back and Turner threw a clinching touchdown pass. Nebraska had escaped 17-3. The following week’s 33-23 win over a poor Missouri team wasn’t impressive, but it had the Cornhuskers back in the top five.
Nebraska then rolled through three straight bad teams, Colorado, Kansas State and Iowa State, by a combined score of 130-21. The Cornhuskers then rolled an average team in Kansas—one that had already beaten Oklahoma—by a 41-7 count on November 10. The same day, top-ranked Washington lost to USC and Nebraska returned to the #1 spot.
Only one game remained and it was with Oklahoma, ranked #6, and it would be in Lincoln. Nebraska simply did not play well on this day, missing three field goals, committing four turnovers and being stopped on 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line with 5:32 left when they trailed 10-7. Once again, the Cornhuskers went for the win and came up short, although in this case, a tie would have been fatal to their national title hopes.
Nebraska slipped to #7 in the polls and when Oklahoma beat Oklahoma State in a 2 vs. 3 battle the following week, the Sooners got the Big Eight’s Orange Bowl bid. The Cornhuskers accepted the nod for the Sugar Bowl.
Normally the Sugar Bowl means the best team in the SEC is waiting for you and this season that would have been third-ranked Florida. But the Gators were on probation. #11 LSU came in their stead.
So Nebraska saw the Sugar Bowl as a consolation prize, while LSU was grateful to be here. That showed in the first half, as the Tigers stunned the Cornhuskers with 291 yards worth of total offense. But that only translated into ten points and when DuBose ripped caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from Sundberg, the score was a manageable 10-7 at the half.
Nebraska found its bearings defensively in the second half, and got rolling on offense. Sundberg threw two more touchdown passes, the ground game finished with 280 yards on the night and the Cornhuskers won 28-10, securing their third straight Top 5 finish in the final polls. They might not be winning national championships, but they were still as consistently good as anyone in the country.