Tom Osborne’s pursuit of a national title at Nebraska had been one of college football’s storylines for over 20 years. In the 1994 college football season, Osborne broke through. And in a debate that stirred no small amount of controversy, he did so at the expense of another great team, Joe Paterno’s Penn State.
Nebraska opened the season ranked fourth in the nation. Their “Black Death” defense was the key to success and linebacker Ed Stewart was a first-team All-American. The Cornhuskers of this era were famous for their great offensive lines. Outland Trophy winner Zach Wiegert was the latest example in this ’94 season, clearing the way for Lawrence Phillips to rush for over 1,700 yards.
There were injures at quarterback, with Tommy Frazier dealing with a blood clot in his leg, and Brooks Berringer took over. But Berringer was steady, the rest of the Cornhuskers were outstanding and they wasted little time in living up to the preseason hype.
But there was some stiff competition to Nebraska in the old Big Eight Conference. Colorado was ranked #8 to start the year and had some fantastic talent at key positions. Michael Westbrook was an All-American receiver. Kordell Stewart was a versatile quarterback. On the defensive side, Chris Hudson won the Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back. And the biggest award of them all, the Heisman Trophy was brought home by Buffalo running back Rashaan Salaam, who cleared the 2,000-yard threshold.
On September 17, both Nebraska and Colorado sent a message. The Cornhuskers hammered UCLA 49-21, while the Buffs buried Wisconsin 55-17. With the Bruins and Badgers being the previous season’s Rose Bowl teams, the games set an early tone. Nebraska and Colorado were pointing to a head-to-head battle in Lincoln on October 29.
But before that could happen, there were some hurdles to get through, particularly for the Buffaloes. One week after the Wisconsin win, Colorado went to Michigan. And the most famous moment of the season—indeed, one of the most famous moments of any season happened in The Big House. Trailing 26-21, and time for just one play, the Buffaloes were finished. Until Stewart uncorked a desperation pass that Westbrook pulled down in the end zone.
The stunning 27-26 win vaulted Colorado into the top 5. They beat 16th-ranked Texas a week later. The stage was set for the battle in Lincoln.
Only the battle proved to be simply a showcase for the great Nebraska defense. Colorado could do nothing offensively. The Cornhuskers won 24-7 and it never even felt that close. They rolled through the rest of the regular season undefeated and were ranked #1 going into the Orange Bowl.
Waiting for Nebraska at the Orange Bowl was an old nemesis, the University of Miami. The Hurricanes had deprived the Cornhuskers of a national title at this venue back in 1983. Just three years earlier, Miami had completely dismantled Nebraska in another Orange Bowl matchup. Perhaps it was fitting that the Hurricanes were Osborne’s last obstacle to that long-sought title.
It hadn’t been an easy road for Miami in 1994. Ranked #6 to start the season, they lost at home to Washington, 38-20 before September was out. But with the nation’s second-ranked defense, led by Lombardi Award winner Warren Sapp, the ‘Canes worked their way back into contention. They got big wins over Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Syracuse. By season’s end, they were #3 and still had a title shot of their own at the Orange Bowl.
Penn State had a compelling case of its own. Starting the season off at #9 in the polls, the Nittany Lions had gone undefeated on the strength of a dynamic offense. They had Kerry Collins at quarterback, Ki-Jana Carter on the backfield, two big-play receivers in Bobby Engram and Freddie Scott, and a future first-round draft pick at tight end in Kyle Brady. Jeff Hartings was an All-American on the offense line. No team in the nation scored more points than Penn State
The Lions had blown out USC to set the tone for their season in September. Penn State went into Ann Arbor on October 15 and won an excellent 31-24 battle over Michigan. The Lions rose to #1 in the polls. On October 29, they destroyed Ohio State 63-14.
But Penn State had a problem. Nebraska and Colorado had both been drawing substantial support for the #1 ranking. After their head-to-head game on that same day, the Cornhuskers consolidated the votes both teams had been getting and moved to the top of the AP poll. The Nittany Lions became the first team in history to beat a good opponent by seven touchdowns and get dropped in the polls.
Penn State still had the top spot in the coaches’ poll, but a narrow 35-29 win over Indiana dropped PSU to #2 here as well. This might have been even more aggravating than the AP situation. That’s because the Lions actually won this game rather comfortably and only a couple garbage-time touchdowns made it appear close.
Lion head coach Joe Paterno had been here before—his perfect seasons in 1968, 1969, and 1973 had gone unrewarded by pollsters. This Penn State team closed out the regular season, surviving a close call at Illinois, and their Butkus Award-winning linebacker, Dana Howard, and were still #2 in the polls.
It wasn’t until 1998 that the Big Ten and Pac-10 entered into an agreement with other conferences to create a 1 vs. 2 game, so Penn State was locked into the Rose Bowl. They had to hope that either Miami could beat Nebraska, or that polls might split and create a co-national champion. To that end, the Lions were not helped when three-loss Oregon won the Pac-10 and became the Rose Bowl opponent.
The preseason #1 team had been Florida, starting to emerge as a national power under Steve Spurrier. The Gators had an explosive offense of their own, with All-American receiver Jack Jackson and a good 1-2 punch at running back with Fred Taylor and Elijah Williams.
Florida blew out SEC East rival Tennessee 31-0 in September. A tough 36-33 loss to Auburn cost the Gators the top spot, but they still reached the SEC Championship Game. An undefeated Alabama team was waiting. The Tide didn’t have big names, and the offense was often lacking, but they had a top 10 defense and kept finding ways to win. The biggest regular season win was a 21-14 triumph over Auburn in the Iron Bowl.
The SEC Championship Game was one of the best games of the season, with Alabama ranked #3 and trying to keep in the conversation with Nebraska and Penn State, and Florida looking to continue its upward trajectory. The Gators pulled out a 24-23 win and went to the Sugar Bowl.
Florida State was the defending national champion and had opened the season ranked #3. The October loss to Miami ended hopes of a repeat, but the Seminoles kept on churning towards the goal of an eighth straight national top 5 finish. All-American linebacker Derrick Brooks led the defense. Warrick Dunn, a 1,000-yard rusher and versatile receiver, was the key to the fifth-best offense in the nation. FSU cruised through the ACC. They also beat Notre Dame, who had opened the season ranked #2, but suffered a disappointing four-loss campaign.
Florida State’s final regular season game came against Florida. A wild battle ended 31-31. With the existence of overtime in college football still two years off, we had an epic tie. The Sugar Bowl extended an invite to the Seminoles to play the Gators again. It would be a rematch—or, as the game became dubbed, it would be “The Fifth Quarter at The French Quarter.”
The stage was set for the major bowls. New Year’s Day fell on a Sunday, which meant that the traditional January 1 bowls would be moved to Monday, while NFL wild-card games were played on New Year’s. But there was one exception—with the prime-time slot on New Year’s Night still open, the Orange Bowl didn’t move. So the biggest game, Nebraska and Miami, would go in advance of everyone else.
For three quarters, it looked like Osborne’s nightmares might continue. The Cornhuskers trailed 17-9. With no overtime, this was effectively a two-score deficit—because a tie would open the door wide open for Penn State. But Nebraska’s big offensive line took over the fourth quarter, scored a couple TDs and the 24-17 win gave Osborne his long-sought ring.
Penn State did what they could to make a case for themselves. Carter took off an 80-yard touchdown run on the first play of the Rose Bowl and the Lions won 38-20. But minds were made up and Paterno’s team had to settle for #2.
Florida State won “The Fifth Quarter” down in New Orleans, a 23-17 final that put the Seminoles at #4. Alabama beat Ohio State 24-17 in the Citrus Bowl to finish #5. And if you’re wondering why the Tide was not in a major bowl…well, it’s because the Fiesta Bowl, in a flagrant display of putting TV ratings ahead of football quality, chose 6-4-1 Notre Dame as the opponent for Colorado. The game went as you might expect, the Buffaloes closing out their great season with a 41-24 blowout that wasn’t even that close. Colorado finished #3.
But the ultimate story of the 1994 college football season was Thomas William Osborne. At long last, he was a national champion. And he wasn’t done. Nebraska repeated in 1995 and won a share of another national title in 1997.