The 1997 Nebraska Cornhuskers were looking to get back on top. After consecutive national championships in 1994-95, the Huskers had missed out in 1996 after an upset loss to Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game ended hopes for a three-peat.
September 20 was Nebraska’s first test, at #2 Washington, and two first-quarter touchdowns set the tone for a decisive 27-14 win that moved the Huskers up to third nationally. Two weeks later Kansas State, starting to become a legitimate challenger in the Big 12 North hung in with Nebraska for a quarter, and was still in the game at halftime, but Nebraska blew it open in the third for a 56-26 win in Lincoln. Consecutive wins over Baylor, Texas Tech and Kansas wrapped up October, and Nebraska had moved up to #2.
Ironically the team ahead of them was Penn State, the team that Nebraska had won the national championship vote over in 1994 when both teams were unbeaten. The days of being able to have a guaranteed 1 vs. 2 matchup were still two years away—the best of the Big 12, SEC, ACC & Big East were allied together to have their best two teams play, but if the national top two included the Big Ten or Pac-10, those leagues were still bound to the Rose Bowl.
The arrangement hurt Penn State in 1994 when they were #2. Was 1997 going to be payback time? Not after PSU barely escaped Minnesota 16-15 and moved the Cornhuskers to #1.
On November 8, Nebraska went to Missouri. It was a huge day for college football, with showdown matchups among unbeaten in the Big Ten (Michigan-Penn State) and ACC (Florida State-North Carolina). Those proved anti-climactic, with Michigan and Florida State winning big. No one thought the game in Columbia would become the first ever shown on ESPN Classic.
Missouri matched Nebraska blow-for-blow and took a 38-31 lead with under five minutes to play. Nebraska couldn’t answer, but the defense got them one last chance at their own 33 with 1:02 left.
The quarterback was now Scott Frost, a pure game-manager and dropback passer and he managed the Huskers to the 12-yard with seven seconds left. He threw a pass into the end zone toward receiver Shelvin Wiggins. It hit his chest and bounced off after a hit from the free safety. The ball hurtled to the ground. Somehow Wiggins kicked up his foot as the ball was inches from the turf and kicked it up. It was caught by a Nebraska player. Touchdown. And Nebraska won in overtime.
Nebraska’s unbeaten season was alive, but pollsters weren’t impressed. Michigan and Florida State both vaulted Nebraska. While the Cornhuskers could control beating Florida State in a bowl game, they could do nothing about Michigan, and with the way the Wolverines had dismantled Penn State 34-8 in Happy Valley, it looked like style points alone wouldn’t be enough.
Then Florida State lost to Florida, moving the Cornhuskers up to #2. While they still needed help to get past Michigan, arguing your case from #2 and being the only other unbeaten team in the nation is different than asking pollsters to jump you two spots. And Nebraska helped themselves—they won 27-24 at Colorado, a game they led 27-10 after three quarters, and then the Huskers went to San Antonio and smoked Texas A&M 54-15 for the Big 12 title.
Michigan being the #1 team meant that the Orange Bowl—the showcase game in the bowl format would stage a #2 vs. #3 matchup. Nebraska’s opponent was Tennessee, with Peyton Manning at quarterback.
Nebraska’s legendary head coach Tom Osborne had planned that 1997 would be his last season and what better time to make the announcement? Unless Washington State could upset Michigan in the Rose Bowl, Osborne was going to need some kind of political game-changer to win a third national title in four years. And when Michigan didn’t look impressive in surviving the Cougars 21-16, it emboldened those in the Nebraska camp.
The Cornhuskers needed to give voters a reason to say yes. And they did exactly that in the Orange Bowl. As many good days as Manning had ahead of him with the Indianapolis Colts, his college finale would not be one of his good days. While he completed 21 of 31 passes, he only got 134 yards, as the Huskers kept everything underneath.
In the meantime, Green was running all over the Vols. He would pile up 206 yards on the ground. It was 14-3 Nebraska at half, and a pair of Frost touchdown runs blew it open at 28-3 in the third quarter. It ended 42-17.
The display on the football field and the movement of votes by Osborne worked and brought justice. The Cornhuskers deserved a share of the national title on the merits and they got it, with them and Michigan each winning one poll.
It’s unfortunate the same courtesy was not given to Penn State in 1994, but regardless of how you feel, the 1997 Nebraska Cornhuskers deserved to be a team that capped off a run of three national titles in four years.