Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne waited over two decades to win his first national title in 1994. Osborne didn’t have to wait nearly that long for his second. In the 1995 college football season, Nebraska not only won a repeat title, but they did it with one of the sport’s all-time great teams.
A fearsome, option-based offense was the key reason. Quarterback Tommie Frazier ran the option to perfection. Ahman Green was a 1,000-yard rusher running behind a line anchored by All-American center Aaron Graham. The Cornhuskers dropped 53 points per game on opponents, the best in the country. That combined with a defense that ranked in the national top five.
And those stats weren’t compiled against weak competition. The old Big Eight Conference was in its final year of existence before becoming the Big 12, and the old league went out in style. Colorado, Kansas State, and Kansas all finished the season in the Top 10. But none of them could stand up to mighty Nebraska. The Cornhuskers beat the Wildcats 49-25 on October 21. A week later, the ‘Huskers pounded the Buffaloes 44-21. And on November 11, the Jayhawks were subjected to a 41-3 beatdown. Nebraska finished the regular season undefeated, ranked #1 and ticketed for the Fiesta Bowl.
1995 was the first year that most of the conferences banded together to ensure their two highest-ranked teams could play each other in a rotating bowl game. While the Big Ten and Pac-10 were still locked into the Rose, the best teams outside of that group would pair up in the Fiesta.
Florida State was the preseason #1 team. The Seminole offense, led by versatile running back Warrick Dunn, was the second-most potent attack in the nation behind Nebraska. But FSU had some defensive vulnerabilities this season, ones that were laid bare in a 33-28 upset loss at Virginia on a Thursday night in early November.
Tennessee was another good team with high hopes. The Vols had a sophomore quarterback named Peyton Manning, a 1,400-yard rusher in Jay Graham and a 1,000-yard receiver with Joey Kent. But the Vols too, had a defense that was—at least by a national championship standards—a little suspect.
Then there were the Florida Gators. A program that was on the rise under Steve Spurrier had an explosive and creative passing game. Danny Wuerffel pulled the trigger and he had a 1,000-yard receivers in Chris Doering and Ike Hilliard. The Gators had the same defensive issues that their conference rival in Knoxville and their in-state rival in Tallahassee had, but in the head-to-head matchups, it was Florida’s offense that produced.
In mid-September, Florida delivered a shocking 62-37 rout of Tennessee. The Gators knocked off good teams in LSU and Auburn, and then concluded the regular season with a 35-24 win over Florida State. It was Florida who got the chance to meet Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl. Florida State still got an Orange Bowl bid, while Tennessee went to the Citrus Bowl.
But before a Florida-Nebraska game could be an undisputed national title showdown, the contenders from the Big Ten and Pac-10 had to be out of the picture. Ohio State had a loaded roster and was squarely in the hunt.
Buckeye running back Eddie George won the Heisman Trophy. Orlando Pace, a future #1 overall pick in the NFL draft, was at offensive tackle. Terry Glenn was an All-American receiver. Rickey Dudley was an imposing 6’7” target at tight end. There was little Ohio State couldn’t do. They beat ranked teams in Washington and Notre Dame in September, then escaped Penn State 28-25 in early October. Heading toward the season finale against Michigan, the Buckeyes were ranked #2, right between Nebraska and Florida, and hoping to make a national championship case of their own.
Michigan wasn’t Ohio State’s key rival for the Big Ten title. Nor was Penn State. In one of the sport’s great storylines of any season, Northwestern jumped out of nowhere to contend. The Wildcats went to South Bend and stunned Notre Dame 17-15 to open the season. Northwestern beat Michigan 19-13 in October, then knocked off Penn State 21-10 in November. Only a loss to Miami-Ohio marred Northwestern’s resume. The Wildcats and Buckeyes didn’t play each other, so the possibility of a co-championship existed.
Ohio State, by virtue of being undefeated overall, still had the inside track to the Rose Bowl when they went to Ann Arbor. Even though this wasn’t a vintage Michigan team, they still made their season in the rivalry game. A little running back, Tim Biakabutuka, ran for over 300 yards. Michigan upset Oho State 31-23. Northwestern was, quite improbably, going to the Rose Bowl as outright Big Ten champs. The Buckeyes were settling for the Citrus Bowl against Tennessee. And Nebraska and Florida would be an undisputed title fight.
Awaiting Northwestern in Pasadena was a more traditional Rose Bowl contender—USC. The Trojans, with All-American Keyshawn Johnson at wide receiver and an 1,100-yard rusher in Delon Washington won the Pac-10.
One of the few down parts of USC’s first Rose Bowl trip since 1989 was their mid-October game in South Bend. Notre Dame, having lost to the two Big Ten powers, needed this game to stay alive for a major bowl. The Irish, still in the Lou Holtz era, pounded USC 38-10 and Notre Dame’s 9-2 finish ultimately earned them an Orange Bowl date opposite Florida State.
The major bowls—then dubbed “The Alliance”, and including the Fiesta, Orange, and Sugar, with the Rose sort of running parallel, still had one more matchup to create. The Sugar Bowl spots went to Virginia Tech and Texas. The Hokies had the nation’s best defense under coordinator Bud Foster and they won the Big East. The Longhorns, in the final year before the top programs of the old Southwest Conference merged into the Big 12, won the SWC. Texas had a potent 1-2 punch at running back with Shon Mitchell and a freshman star named Ricky Williams.
With so many good teams in conference runner-up spots and not enough Alliance berths to go around, there were some terrific matchups on the bowl undercard in 1995. In one of the best, Tennessee nipped Ohio State 20-14 in the Citrus Bowl. And the Big Eight flexed its muscle—Colorado, Kansas State, and Kansas won their bowls by a combined score of 143-47. Call it a prelude to what was coming.
In the big bowls, Virginia Tech beat Texas 28-10, a win that really put the Hokies on the national stage for the first time in the Frank Beamer era. Northwestern’s Cinderella story finally struck midnight in Pasadena, as USC won the Rose Bowl 41-32. In a good Orange Bowl battle, Florida State rallied to beat Notre Dame 31-26.
That set the stage for the night of January 2 in Tempe. It was supposed to be a contrast between Nebraska’s run offense and Florida’s passing attack. Instead, it turned into a showcase for how much better the Cornhusker defense was. Nebraska essentially did whatever they wanted on the ground. And their D made life miserable for Wuerffel. The game turned into an epic 62-24 rout.
In the span of two short years, Tom Osborne had gone from the man who “couldn’t win the big one”, to the architect of back-to-back champions and a historically great team. And two years later, he and his Cornhuskers would do it again.