The realization came suddenly and with smack-yourself-in-the-forehead clarity, just before halftime of the Fiesta Bowl on the second night of 1996. Defending national champion Nebraska had awakened from an early 10-6 deficit and was in the midst of running off 36 straight points on Florida en route to a 62-24 dismantling of the Gators in the de facto 1995 national championship game. But the Cornhuskers were not just defeating Florida, which had ridden coach Steve Spurrier's Fun 'n Gun offense to its first appearance in the national title game. The Cornhuskers were beating up the Gators in a bullies vs. bookworms schoolyard beatdown, transforming Florida from a rollicking offensive machine, champions of the mighty Southeastern Conference, into a giant quivering lip.
At some point in the middle of this steamrolling, I walked from my seat in the press box at Sun Devil Stadium and wandered down to where
Scott whipped his head around and said, immediately, "They are. They're Miami.''
As college football writers, we both understood the code in which we were speaking. For most of the previous decade -- beginning, symbolically, with a 31-30 victory over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl after the 1983 season -- Miami had been the standard for not just college football excellence, but anarchic, strutting college football intimidation. While winning four national titles from 1983 to 1991 under Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson, the Hurricanes had not just buried opponents with unparalleled, Florida-bred speed and skill, but had also danced on their graves afterward.
As 1995 turned into '96, it was almost impossible to think of Nebraska in these dynastic terms. Plain-spoken, vanilla Tom Osborne had taken over the program from his boss, Bob Devaney, in 1973. Osborne's teams were good, but he couldn't beat Barry Switzer and his wildfire Oklahoma teams. When Switzer went down in 1989 in a hail of NCAA violations (and gunfire), Nebraska started beating the reeling Sooners, but faced a familiar problem when it met Southern teams on bowl day: the Cornhuskers were not fast enough and not skilled enough. From the 1987 season through the '93 campaign, Nebraska lost seven consecutive bowl games -- four to Florida State, two to Miami and one to Georgia Tech. Three of those teams won the national title and left Nebraska exposed as big, slow lugs from heartland.
Yet even as that stereotype dug deep roots, Osborne was transforming his program, recruiting speed in Florida, Texas and California and permitting an edginess to develop. This was no longer your father's Nebraska. There was evidence, too. Florida State won the '93 national championship only when Nebraska missed a field goal at the gun and in '94 the Huskers won Osborne's first national title with a 24-17 victory over Miami in the Orange Bowl. Most of that team returned a year later and proved that not only was one title no fluke, it was the start of a mini-dynasty that nearly won four straight national championships. (After '95, the Cornhuskers missed a potential third-straight national title shot because they lost the first Big 12 title game when Texas quarterback James Brown completed a game-clinching, fourth-down pass on fourth-and-inches from his own 28-yard-line when he was supposed to run the ball; in '97 Nebraska shared the national title with Michigan for its third championship in four years).
What occurred to me that Fiesta Bowl night in the Arizona desert is even more apparent in hindsight. The '95 Cornhuskers averaged 52.4 points a game in the regular season and scored 49 points or more in eight of their 12 games. They trailed once, 7-0 in the first quarter to Washington State. They rushed for 399.8 yards a game and 27 members of the roster were signed to NFL contracts at some point.
The offense was a force of nature. Senior quarterback Tommie Frazier, a fullback with quick feet and a demanding leader, ran the midline keeper in Osborne's I-Bone option attack. If he didn't keep it, he would pitch it to Lawrence Phillips, until Phillips was suspended for dragging his girlfriend down dormitory stairs (keep reading), and then he would pitch it to freshman and future NFL star Ahman Green. The offensive line was pure Nebraska: refrigerators with feet. The fullback was Jeff Mackovicka, a walk-on in true Nebraska tradition. The Cornhuskers could score from anywhere on the field. On. The. Ground.
And there was an edge beyond just football. Phillips was suspended in September, reinstated in October and started the Fiesta Bowl, rushing for 165 yards and catching a touchdown pass (he is now in a California prison, serving 31 years on multiple convictions). Nose tackle Christian Peter was arrested eight times while at Nebraska and accused by at least two women of sexual assault (he was never convicted of the assaults, and has apologized nonspecifically for his behavior as a college student). His reputation was so bad at the time that the New England Patriots drafted him and then, under public pressure, released him before he played a game. Williams was charged with two felonies in September of his senior year. The Cornhuskers were not just good, they were a scary, villainous, black-hatted machine.
And for the record, they knew just how good they were, too. In mid-December I went to Lincoln to conduct interviews with Nebraska players in advance of the title game, which would be written on a tight deadline. I remember sitting in a film room of the Nebraska football complex talking with two linemen, who spoke then on the condition of anonymity and will remain anonymous. At one point I remember saying, "This game [against Florida] is going to be close, and you guys haven't played a close game all year.'' The linemen looked at each other. They had seen the film. They knew what was coming. One of them said, "It's not going to be close.''
There was an inescapable feeling that perhaps Osborne had sold out on his core values to build a prairie dynasty, populating the program with high-risk recruits and then defending them in the face of public (outside Nebraska) outcry. Osborne would vigorously deny this, and often cite his spiritual role in protecting and saving the young men in his charge. Yet had Miami and Florida State not done the same thing? National championships are not won with teams full of scholar-athletes (and to be precise, Osborne always populated his roster with enough to those to fill a few pages in the media guide, counterbalancing the lawlessness elsewhere).
That debate is long over. The image that lingers is a Big Red wave, rolling from September into January, until on the last play of the third quarter of the Fiesta Bowl came the signature on a portrait of greatness. Frazier ran right on an option play, slipped two tackles at the line of scrimmage and then was surrounded by four Gators and momentarily disappeared, only to emerge into open grass and run 75 yards for a touchdown. There was the metaphor: Unstoppable.