Is there a head coach with more on the line this weekend than Mike Riley? The embattled Nebraska head coach hosts Wisconsin on Saturday night. Riley’s seat is hotter than hot right now, but unlike other endangered coaches—i.e., Butch Jones at Tennessee—Riley can still salvage his team’s season with a strong run in conference play.
Nebraska to Oregon and Northern Illinois in non-conference play and athletic director Shawn Eichorst has already been fired as a consequence. It’s with good reason that Cornhusker fans are disgruntled—this is a program that should at least be setting the bar in the Big Ten West. Instead, they’re regularly chasing Wisconsin and Iowa.
A look at the recruiting rankings offers some insight into why this is unacceptable in Lincoln. Nebraska’s classes over the last four years have ranked anywhere from 15th to 28th nationally. That’s the best in the West, and by a lot. I fully understand recruiting isn’t everything—there’s a lot of player development that has to follow once kids are on campus, to say nothing of good schematics and strategy. But the recruiting rankings tell us that the natural pool of raw talent is significantly higher at Nebraska than any of the division rivals.
The on-field results haven’t followed. It’s Wisconsin that has consistently turned out the best teams in the division. It’s Iowa that enjoyed a 12-0 regular season in 2015 and came within a hair of making the College Football Playoff. Nebraska is the team that continually finds ways to lose games it should win.
Nebraska can’t afford to be complacent. They aren’t located in the high school football hotbeds of Michigan, Ohio or Pennsylvania. No matter how long the flagship programs of those states are down, the resources are nearby to quickly turn things around. Nebraska’s recruiting success relies on the power of its brand, and as the glory years fade further into history, the Cornhuskers risk becoming a 21st century version of Minnesota, who had a powerful football program in the 1930s and 1940s, but eventually faded to irrelevance.
The recruiting trends demonstrate that’s a real danger in Lincoln. The quality of this year’s talent pool is driven by a #15 ranking for the Class of 2014, which are this year’s seniors. The rankings of the past two seasons—Riley’s classes—are just outside the Top 25. If Riley can’t win with the players he has, the quality of that talent is to stay in decline.
There’s one way to change the narrative in sports and that’s to win a football game. Wisconsin is the opposite of Nebraska—the Badgers don’t rank well in the recruiting rankings, but their clear identity and player development means they’ve won games in the fall. If the Cornhuskers don’t win Saturday night on their homefield, it’s hard to see where this coaching staff ever turns it around.
The 1995 Nebraska football team was the defending national champion, having finally broken through in 1994 and ending a 23-year title drought for the program. They were hunting for bear in 1995 and they found what they were looking for.
Nebraska was ranked #2 in the preseason poll, trailing only Florida State, meaning they controlled their own destiny from the outset. Grant Wistrom was a rock at defensive tackle. Sophomore guard Aaron Taylor was getting started on a brilliant career that would eventually bring him the Outland Trophy. Tommie Frazier was healthy at quarterback after being hampered with a blood clot during the ’94 title run.
While running back Laurence Phillips was running into a series of off-the-field problems that would loom over the program, Ahman Green was a capable runner would go on to a fine NFL career. Nebraska started 5-0 and scored 275 points in the five wins as they stormed out of September on a collision course with history.
Nebraska blasted Missouri and Kansas State and set up a late October date at seventh-ranked Colorado. Would this be the game the Huskers were challenged? Green took a handoff on the first play from scrimmage and ended up in the end zone. Frazier threw for a career-high 241 yards. The final was 44-21.
No, the Cornhuskers would not be challenged in the Big Eight in the conference’s final year before merging with the Southwest Conference to create the Big 12. Not by 10th-ranked Kansas who fell 41-3, in spite of gaining nearly 200 yards in the first half. Not by Oklahoma who was beaten 38-10. Nebraska had taken over the top spot in the polls after the Colorado game and they were set for a Fiesta Bowl date with #2 Florida to determine the national championship.
January 2 marked a new era in college football. Just one year earlier, unbeaten Nebraska and unbeaten Florida would have been committed to the Orange and Sugar Bowls respectively. But the major conferences, save the Big Ten & Pac-10, had come together and agreed to pair up the top two ranked champions in their leagues—or their “Bowl Alliance”, as this forerunner of the BCS and the newly created College Football Playoff was called, in a pre-determined bowl game. The Fiesta was the bowl and it was pushed back a day from the rest of the New Year’s feast to give it a “Super Bowl” feel.
At this time in history the Super Bowl had a bad reputation for resulting in a blowout more often than not. And Nebraska did their part to give the Fiesta Bowl a Super Bowl feel. Though they trailed 10-6 after the first quarter, the second quarter was one for the history books.
Phillips took off on a 42-yard touchdown run. Nebraska sacked Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel for a safety. Later, Wuerffel was picked off and the ball taken to the house. Kris Brown kicked two field goals for Nebraska. Green hit the end zone. It was 35-10 at the half.
And lest anyone have any thoughts of a comeback, Frazier came out after intermission and scampered 35 yards for a touchdown. Nebraska kept pouring it on from start to finish. Florida’s “Fun-And-Gun” flash offense had been absolutely destroyed by the physical Cornhuskers.
The final was 62-24 and the 1995 Nebraska football team would be freely and correctly mentioned among the great teams of all time. The two-year run overall was the first time a team had run the table back-to-back years since Oklahoma in 1955-56. If you want one stat to remember, it’s this—in the Fiesta Bowl, the Nebraska rushing attack produced 524 yards. Just the rushing attack. That alone tells you how powerful this team was and why they deserve a special place in the history books.
The 1994 Nebraska football team was one of great expectation, having just missed a national title the previous year. The program was starving for its national crown since 1971 and the first in the career of head coach Tom Osborne.
Nebraska’s offensive line was its traditionally powerful self, with soon-to-be Outland Trophy winner Zach Wiegert, along with All-American Brandon Stai. On the defensive side, linebacker Ed Stewart keyed up a unit that would earn itself the nickname “The Black Death”.
The Cornhuskers were ranked fourth in the preseason polls, trailing Florida, Notre Dame and Florida State, but when the Huskers went to the Meadowlands for the Kickoff Classic and dominated West Virginia 31-0, they were quickly moved up to number two, trailing only Florida.
Nebraska’s running game was overwhelming people, and quarterback Tommie Frazier’s three touchdown runs of 25-plus yards in the opener were just the tip of the iceberg. Lawrence Phillips took over for Jones as the featured back and rushed for over 1,700 yards. And if you wanted a change-of-pace, Nebraska could do that to, with dropback passer Brooks Berringer coming in to spell Frazier.
After a 70-21 win over Pacific, Berringer had to do more than spell Frazier. The starting quarterback had a blood clot in his left knee and his status would be on and off the rest of the season. Berringer played the whole way in a 17-6 win over Kansas State, where the Huskers only led by a point after three quarters. Florida lost on that same day, but the number one ranking went to Penn State, who’d won a road game at #5 Michigan and the #2 spot went to Big Eight rival Colorado, who had hammered Oklahoma.
The college football world was pointing to an October 29 game in Lincoln when Nebraska and Colorado could settle their business head-to-head, the debate over the Big Eight vs. Penn State had just begin.
Nebraska won the preliminary round of that debate decisively. It didn’t matter who was playing quarterback. It didn’t matter that Colorado had a great all-purpose quarterback in Kordell Stewart and it didn’t even matter that the Buffs had the future Heisman Trophy winner, Rashaan Salaam, in their backfield. The Black Death yielded to no one and the Huskers won 24-7. They had homefield advantage, but as one who watched this game and foolishly picked Colorado, they could’ve played it in Boulder and guaranteed Colorado two possessions to every one for Nebraska, and it wasn’t going to matter. This was a shutdown defense.
Colorado and Nebraska had been splitting first-place votes and the first fruit of the inheritance was that Nebraska moved past Penn State in the AP poll, while staying at #2 in the coaches’ poll. Penn State was understandably chagrined that they managed to fall out of the top spot on a day they beat Ohio State 63-14.
Penn State’s anger got worse when voter sloppiness cost them the coaches’ poll. One week later Penn State had a road win over what was then an above-average Indiana team in hand, at 35-15. Joe Paterno put in his subs. IU scored two touchdowns, one on the game’s final play. Voters saw 35-29 as the final and penalized Penn State for what looked like a narrow escape. Nebraska had irrevocable control of its own destiny.
In the days prior to the Bowl Championship Series, Penn State was locked to the Rose, while Nebraska was locked to the Orange, and make no mistake about it—this would have been The Matchup For The Ages, with either team being better than probably 75 percent of the teams that have won national championships.
Nebraska’s Orange Bowl date was with Miami. The Hurricanes were ranked #3 and stood to win the national title themselves if Oregon could upset Penn State in the Rose the next day. New Year’s Day fell on a Sunday and while all the other traditional bowls pushed their games back to January 2, as was customary, the Orange kept the prime-time spot on Sunday night, ready to grab viewers who’d finished watching the Chicago Bears upset the Minnesota Vikings in the first round of the NFL playoffs.
From their hotel rooms in Pasadena, Penn State fans watched anxiously. The rest of the nation tuned in to see if Osborne, the favorite this time, could finally get that elusive national championship.
Miami jumped out to a 10-0 lead, reminiscent of the fast 17-0 start they had gotten off to back in 1983. Berringer threw a second-quarter touchdown pass to cut the lead to three at the half, but Miami counterpart Frank Costa threw his second long TD pass of the night, a 44-yard strike in the third quarter that made it 17-7 and an upset looked very real.
Even when Nebraska got a safety and cut it to 17-9, there was reason for hope among the Penn State faithful. Overtime play was still two years away and a tie would open the door for the Nittany Lions. Nebraska’s offensive line was taking over the game, and fullback Cory Schlesinger was muscling the ‘Canes in the middle. He took it in from 15 yards out and the two-point play tied it 17-17 in the fourth quarter, but Nebraska had to treat it as though they were behind.
The advantage of having a fullback blast through a powerful offensive front is that it seems like you can make a big play without leaving your regular offense. Schlesinger owned the fourth quarter of this game and the Black Death had finally caught up to Miami. When the fullback blasted in from 14 yards out, it was the finishing touches on a 24-17 win.
Even those of us who believed Penn State deserved a share of the crown after they beat Oregon 38-20 the following day, didn’t deny Nebraska was equally worthy and that Osborne had his long-sought ring. Little did anyone know, that like Mike Krzyzewski and Michael Jordan, two other notables who had a tough time getting Championship #1, once Osborne got started, there would be no slowing the freight train that the 1994 Nebraska football team got started.
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.