So you think the Fiesta Bowl--bless its lucky little
tortilla-chip-sponsored heart and thank you very much,
Michigan--has not only matched the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the
country but also given us Ali-Frazier again. Or
Russell-Chamberlain or Clark-Cochran. That is, Florida and
Nebraska are not just the only candidates to win the poll-bowl
faux national championship; they are also college football's
incarnation of boxer and slugger, finesse and power, and lord
knows, in some quarters, probably good and evil.
You think all this because No. 1 Nebraska arrives in Arizona for
the Jan. 2 showdown, cornfed and beef-eating, straight from the
heartland, and because the Cornhuskers are coached by Tom
Osborne, a taciturn man who dresses like a Sunday-school
teacher, treats public opinion as if it were a foul odor, says
patronizingly of his own offense, "Oh, you know, we run up the
middle, pass every 10 plays ..." and looks every bit of his 58
years. And because Nebraska plays football as if it were
building a flat stretch of Midwestern highway: pave, flatten,
You think this because Florida wings in from the 21st century,
playing Ultimate Frisbee in pads, and because the Gators are
coached by Steve Spurrier, a brash, confident man who dresses
like a guy who cleans pools, who always looked to shoot in the
lunchtime pickup basketball games when he coached at Duke ("He
didn't play any defense," says Blue Devil hoops coach Mike
Krzyzewski), says seriously of his own team's offense, "Field
goals--we don't kick many of those," and looks a decade younger
than his 50 years. And because Florida plays football as if it
were a 10-year-old sitting on your living room floor, busily
manipulating the controls of a video game.
But these are generalizations that scarcely scratch the surface
of the matchup and entirely miss the point. Sure enough,
Nebraska and Florida are different forms of entertainment: Think
of the Cornhuskers as It's a Wonderful Life and the Gators as
Toy Story. But what the two schools share is far more
significant--and far more central to the outcome of the
game--than what they do not: a stubborn, cocksure arrogance
rooted in the belief that their system is the best.
Think about it: Nebraska runs with impunity, against everybody,
mixing in a passing game that is more complex than fans realize.
In recent years the Cornhuskers have added team speed and
quickness, completing the package. Florida passes with impunity,
against everybody, mixing in a running game that is more complex
than fans realize. In recent years the Gators have added power
and size, completing the package. Neither team has been stopped
this year, which is why they are here, a combined 23-0.
Which leaves us with four questions, the answers to which will
decide the game:
1 Is Florida's passing game the key to ending Nebraska's recent
Possibly. In early October, USC coach John Robinson had just
finished preparing his team for Washington State and thus had
watched films of Nebraska's 35-21 win on Sept. 30 over the
Cougars. Through the air Washington State was 20 of 37 for 278
yards and two touchdowns. "Throw the ball down the field, put
pressure on [Nebraska's] corners," Robinson said. "Maybe a team
like Colorado could do it." Colorado couldn't, though Buffalo
coach Rick Neuheisel thought he had a solid plan. "Draws and
short passes, then hit the long ball," Neuheisel says. The
problem was that Colorado quarterback John Hessler completed
only 21 of 43 passes, and he was sacked twice and intercepted
twice. But a question hung in the air after Nebraska's 44-21
victory on Oct. 28: What if Colorado's first-string QB, Koy
Detmer, had been healthy?
Says Washington State coach Mike Price: "You can throw the ball
against Nebraska. We did."
Florida, meanwhile, has the most advanced passing game in the
country. "Steve's passing attack, I don't know of another one
that's quite like it," says Florida State coach Bobby Bowden,
whose team lost to Florida 35-24 on Nov. 25. For the season,
Gator quarterback Danny Wuerffel completed 64.6% of his passes
for an average of 296.9 yards a game, with 35 touchdowns and
just 10 interceptions. But none of these statistics do justice
to the lethal efficiency of the Florida system. "Nebraska's not
used to seeing anything like they're fixing to see against
Florida," says Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix.
Nebraska rushes the passer with its front four, tackles (and
brothers) Christian and Jason Peter and ends Jared Tomich (page
88)and Grant Wistrom, and it rarely blitzes. However, the
Cornhuskers often leave their cornerbacks, Michael Booker and
Tyrone Williams, in man-to-man coverage, and against Florida's
army of skilled wideouts (Chris Doering (page 82), Ike Hilliard
and Reidel Anthony chief among them), that is dangerous. Says
Bowden, "The problem with playing against Steve's offense is
that you get fooled, and once you get out of position, Wuerffel
is so accurate and they're so good at catching the ball that
you're in big trouble. Now, Nebraska made a physical transplant
about four years ago and got faster boys to play in the
secondary. But Wuerffel, I see him as hot and hotter. He'll have
to be hotter for them to win, and that's what he was against us."
For the sake of variety, the Gators will try to run, and they
gained an average of 173.6 yards per game on the ground merely
by keeping the backpedaling and blitzing defenses honest.
However, as with any pass-heavy offense, the Gators' favorite
running play is the draw. "And here's the question," says
Neuheisel. "Will Steve have a running offense other than the
draw? Because the draw was not an effective play for us against
It comes down to the quarterback. Wuerffel is going to get hit,
but "he'll sacrifice his body," says Arkansas defensive end
Steven Conley, whose team lost to Florida 34-3 in the SEC title
game. Nebraska will blitz Wuerffel and try to confuse him by
mixing in zone defenses, but if he hangs in, Florida will score
touchdowns. Colorado and Washington State had the right plan,
Florida has the right people.
2 We know Nebraska can run, and so does Florida. Can the
Cornhuskers overpower the Gators or, failing that, diversify
Nebraska is the most physically imposing team in college
football (tackle to tackle the Cornhusker offensive line
averages 298 pounds). "I'll tell you what the deal is with
Nebraska," said one Florida State defensive veteran who played
in the '94 Orange Bowl against Nebraska and has played more than
once against Florida. "They are tough mothers, no other way to
put it. I saw [offensive tackle] Zach Wiegert [now with the St.
Louis Rams] hit [linebacker] Derrick Brooks [now with the Tampa
Bay Buccaneers] like I've never seen anybody get hit in my life.
I don't know if Florida can deal with that physical toughness."
Nebraska lost four starters from its offensive line of a year
ago, yet it may have improved. The Cornhuskers rushed for an
average of 399.8 yards a game despite losing starting I-back
Lawrence Phillips (after a much-publicized arrest for assaulting
a former girlfriend) for the middle six games of the season.
"Nebraska can grind you," says Neuheisel. "They take that thing
down and sledgehammer you, sledgehammer you."
A year ago, when Nebraska won the national championship by
beating Miami 24-17 in the Orange Bowl, the Cornhuskers beat the
Hurricanes into mush in the fourth quarter, primarily with
brutal offensive-line play. They will attack Florida similarly
and blend in quarterback Tommie Frazier on the option. Florida's
defense is going to take a pounding. But the Gators are very
quick on defense, which helps against the option. "And they're
what I call a closet eight-man front," says Bowden. "I mean, you
think they've got a lot of coverages and drops, but they wind up
with eight men close to the line of scrimmage."
That's what Colorado employed, and held Nebraska to 226 yards on
the ground, the Cornhuskers' second-lowest total of the season.
But Frazier killed the Buffaloes by passing for two touchdowns
and a career-high 241 yards. If he puts up similar numbers
against Florida, the Gators will croak as well.
3 Which team will thrive in the Big Bowl atmosphere?
Football teams thrive on routine. They are like little armies,
their coaches like little generals. A major bowl game--with its
endless press conferences, interaction with fans and unfamiliar
practice surroundings--works to disrupt that routine. "And that
is a factor," says Bowden. "If you've never been through it, it
can be difficult." It can be difficult even if you have. Once,
when Bear Bryant brought a team to play in the Orange Bowl, they
brought the wrong practice shoes. It happens. This will be
Nebraska's third consecutive appearance in the de facto national
championship game. It's as routine for this year's Cornhuskers
as fingerprinting and mug shots.
But Spurrier is different. He has never obeyed the coaches'
credo--thou shalt always be humble in victory--and has never shied
from passing in the fourth quarter of a blowout. "Spurrier says
this is the first bowl he's ever played in that's meant
anything," says Neuheisel, who took his offensive staff to
Gainesville last spring to study the Florida system. "He loves
playoffs. And this is the Super Bowl of college football."
4 Does fate enter into this?
Nebraska has been on an incredible roll for three full seasons,
winning its last 24 games, and 35 out of 36, in an era when
scholarship reductions have left coaches everywhere bleating
about parity. (Did you notice? Northwestern won the Big Ten.)
Nebraska's winning streak stretched this fall through a gauntlet
of "distractions"--college football's code word for alleged
criminal behavior--that exceeds anything Miami or Oklahoma or
Florida State has endured in recent years.
But Florida will be the toughest opponent that Nebraska has seen
during its run (the possible exception being Colorado in '94,
but that game was in Lincoln). Everything the Gators do--throw
deep and wide, jam the line of scrimmage--fits the profile of
what it would take to beat the Cornhuskers. Over the past five
years Florida's program has elevated itself from an airborne
novelty with a snotty coach to this year's perfection. This is
what Spurrier has been building toward.
There is change in the air. Expect an epic game in the desert.
Expect creators of the alliance to congratulate themselves for
making it happen. Expect Nebraska to play like mad, as always,
and to play well. Expect the Cornhuskers to lose, barely. It's
Florida's time now.