One second remains in the 1994 Orange Bowl, and No. 1 Florida
State leads No. 2 Nebraska 18-16. Seminole sophomore linebacker
Todd Rebol stands on the field, spent, waiting. The ball is on
the Florida State 28-yard line, and the Cornhuskers' Byron
Bennett is getting ready to attempt a 45-yard field goal that
could give Nebraska, a 17-point underdog, a remarkable victory
and its coach of 21 years, Tom Osborne, his first national
There is an odd calm, a blessed pause. "Twenty-two guys, and
nobody was saying anything at all," Rebol recalled recently.
"All I could think was the whole game had been a blur, so fast,
and all of sudden there's a break and you have this time to
think. You think, This is it, right here. Wow! This is really
it." Bennett's kick hooks left, into the mist. The Seminoles
celebrate their first national title.
Simplicity is the rarest of qualities in college football, in
which the NCAA recruiting manual is as arcane as tax law and the
national champion is usually decided by two unscientific polls.
The rankings have all the integrity of ward politics, and if
this process sometimes creates interest, it also can be
maddening. On the day following Florida State's victory over
Nebraska, Notre Dame lobbied for the national title because it
had beaten the Seminoles during the regular season. The Irish
had no shot: In college football, when the No. 1-ranked team
plays the No. 2-ranked team in a bowl game, the winner becomes
the national champion.
The Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2 between top-ranked Nebraska and
second-ranked Florida will be the 11th 1-versus-2 bowl game
since the Associated Press writers poll was initiated in 1936
(the United Press International coaches poll, which was the
forebear of the current USA Today/CNN coaches poll, started in
'58). The first such game was the 1963 Rose Bowl, in which USC
beat Wisconsin; the most recent was that '94 Orange Bowl. And
the importance of a matchup between the two top-ranked teams has
changed dramatically. When the Trojans played the Badgers on New
Year's Day 33 years ago, victory in the Rose Bowl was far more
significant than winning the mythical national title. "It just
happened to be Number 1 and Number 2," says Pat Richter, who
caught 11 passes for Wisconsin in the Badgers' epic 42-37 loss
that day and is now the school's athletic director. "There was
no talk at all about the national championship."
December 25, 1995
The demand for a national championship game has grown steadily
since then, with the bowl alliance, which was instituted this
year, designed to significantly increase the possibility of such
a test. Michigan's upset of second-ranked Ohio State on Nov. 25
cleared the way for unbeaten Nebraska and Florida to meet, with
the winner guaranteed the final No. 1 rating. But other than
that postgame reward, there is little else that these two teams
can be sure of as they prepare for their showdown. There are no
common themes when No. 1 plays No. 2, no promises--only slices
of history to be sampled.
Everybody remembers these games.
Joe Paterno has coached 352 games at Penn State--so many that
they should have blended into a blue-and-white stew of victories
and defeats by now. Not so. In the 1979 Sugar Bowl the Nittany
Lions were beaten by Alabama 14-7 when Tide linebacker Barry
Krauss stopped Penn State's Mike Guman on fourth-and-goal at the
'Bama one-yard line in the fourth quarter. Before the play
Alabama defensive tackle Marty Lyons shouted to Penn State
quarterback Chuck Fusina, "Chuck, you've got 12 inches to go--you
Paterno squirms at the memory, not just because he wanted to
pass--"Our staff and our players thought if we can't rush 12
inches down there, we don't deserve it," Paterno says--but also
because on the second-and-goal play from the six, split end
Scott Fitzkee had caught a Fusina pass and been stopped short of
the end zone by Tide cornerback Don McNeal. What's more, even
after that fourth-and-one stop, Penn State stuffed Alabama deep
in its own territory and forced a shanked punt, only to be
flagged for having 12 men on the field. Penn State eventually
got the ball back, but in a less advantageous position.
"I remember that game as much as any I've ever played in or
coached," says Paterno. "There was so much we could have done
differently. Twelve men on the field, Fitzkee not running his
pattern into the end zone before the catch. An awful lot goes
into a season like that, and then it comes down to a couple of
plays. Sometimes it's hard to get it out of your craw."
Well, almost everybody.
Keith Jackson, an itinerant NFL tight end now with the Green Bay
Packers, played for No. 2 Oklahoma in the 1988 Orange Bowl
against No. 1 Miami, a matchup of the two police-blotter
programs that dominated the '80s. Miami won the game 20-14, but
Jackson retains a single, vivid image. "It was the greatest game
I ever saw Brian Bosworth play," says Jackson of the flamboyant
Sooner linebacker. "I remember him actually having to be carried
off the field. He had 25 unassisted tackles and was dehydrated."
Which is very sweet, except that Bosworth didn't play a down in
the game. He had been drafted by the Seattle Seahawks a year
Then there is Jeff Kinney, Nebraska's star running back in the
1972 Orange Bowl, which the Cornhuskers, who had already beaten
Oklahoma 35-31 in the so-called Game of the Century on
Thanksgiving Day, won, drilling overmatched SEC champion Alabama
38-6 in the most lopsided 1-versus-2 bowl. "Look, everybody
tried to make the Orange Bowl another Game of the Century," says
Kinney, "but before we played the Sooners, you wouldn't even let
anybody put dressing on your salad for you, and there were
30,000 people at the airport when we came home from Oklahoma.
The Orange Bowl was fine, but to be honest, I don't remember
much about it."
Mouthing off is not a good idea.
In big games the slightest provocation is transformed into an
apocalyptic challenge to manhood. Before the 1964 Cotton Bowl,
Navy coach Wayne Hardin and Texas coach Darrell Royal were
interviewed together on television. Hardin, whose Midshipmen,
led by Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach, were ranked No. 2,
glared into the camera and said, "When the challenger meets the
champion and the challenger wins, then there's a new champion."
Longhorn defensive coordinator Mike Campbell says, "That made
Darrell madder than hell." When it was his turn to speak, Royal
said only, "We're ready." Texas won 28-6. "I've been around a
lot of Longhorn teams, and I don't ever remember one being
readier to play than we were," says David McWilliams, Texas's
center that day, who also coached the Longhorns from 1987 to '91.
Miami, of course, has retired the trophy for pregame trash talk.
There was the notorious steak fry five days before the 1987
Fiesta Bowl game against Penn State, when the late Jerome Brown
led fatigue-wearing Hurricanes in a walkout. And at midfield
before the start of the game, referee Jimmy Harper called
together the two teams' captains and instructed Miami's to call
the toss. "No," Harper recalls one of the Hurricane captains
telling him. "Just give the ball to those ---- and let's get
started." Harper flipped the coin, caught it and, without
looking at it, gave Penn State its option.
"I thought they were a bunch of idiots," says Penn State
linebacker Shane Conlan, who went on to play what Paterno calls
"one of the great football games ever" in the Nittany Lions'
14-10 victory over top-ranked Miami.
The Hurricanes went one step further before the 1993 Sugar Bowl
in New Orleans, trashing Alabama players when they ran into them
outside Pat O'Brien's bar on Bourbon Street. The lowlight was
Miami linebacker Rohan Marley's assessment of 290-pound Alabama
offensive tackle Roosevelt Patterson. "You must be an offensive
lineman, you fat, sloppy bastard," Marley said. On New Year's
Eve, Alabama coach Gene Stallings drawled, "The game'll be won
on the field, not at Pat O'Brien's." By game night Alabama was
suitably stoked and won going away, 34-13.
Coaches actually make a difference.
Two lessons for Nebraska coach Osborne and Florida coach Steve
Spurrier to heed:
1) Chalkboard preparation can break down a good system.
Heading into that 1987 Fiesta Bowl, Miami's Heisman
Trophy-winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde had been nearly
flawless, having thrown 116 passes without an interception over
the course of two seasons. In the bowl, playing for the title,
he was picked off five times, in no small part because
second-ranked Penn State's undersized, underrated defense
altered its schemes. "Such a disappointment," says Gary Stevens,
the Hurricane offensive coordinator then who is now on the Miami
Dolphin staff. "We were a better team, but they won the battle."
Top-ranked Miami was similarly exposed in that 1993 Sugar Bowl,
when Alabama defensive ends Eric Curry and John Copeland
terrorized another Heisman winner, Gino Torretta, in the Tide
victory. "We had studied those guys to a tee," says Tommy
Johnson, who was a sophomore defensive back for Alabama and who
now is playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars. "We knew we could
go in and beat them."
There's also such a thing as too much preparation. For the 1969
Rose Bowl, No. 2 Southern Cal set up its offense to avoid Ohio
State monster defensive back Jack Tatum. Because Tatum usually
played to the wide side of the field, this plan effectively
limited the Trojans to less than a third of the gridiron. Mike
Holmgren, USC's backup quarterback and now coach of the Green
Bay Packers, says, "I thought to myself, Gee whiz, we have a
pretty good team too. This one player is dictating a whole bunch
of stuff to us."
Tatum was neutralized, but Ohio State won 27-16 to earn the
national championship. "I thought it was a big mistake that they
were willing to do that, but limiting their offense was just
fine with me," says Tatum.
2) Beware of the hoopla.
There are two ways to treat the bowl-city carnival: Embrace it
or run from it. Neither is guaranteed to bring success. When
Bear Bryant brought No. 2 Alabama to the 1972 Orange Bowl
against top-ranked Nebraska, he sequestered his team in a Miami
Beach hotel. "Pretty much a letdown," says Johnny Musso, a Tide
running back who went on to play three seasons in the NFL. "In
terms of it being any fun at all, it was a major
disappointment." The Cornhuskers, meanwhile, attended many
social functions and stomped the Tide 38-6 on New Year's night.
Of course, freedom can have a price. In preparation for the 1993
Sugar Bowl, Miami coach Dennis Erickson turned his No. 1 team
loose in the French Quarter. "He let us do what we wanted to
do," says Coleman Bell, a Hurricane tight end who is now with
the Washington Redskins. "He kind of left it up to us to get
prepared, and we went through the motions."
Don't expect the stars to star.
Seven Heisman winners have played in No. 1-versus-No. 2 bowl
games, and five were on the losing side. As for the two who were
winners, Nebraska's Johnny Rodgers ran back a punt for a
touchdown in the 1972 Orange Bowl, and Florida State's Charlie
Ward played one of his poorest games in the '94 Orange Bowl.
Staubach was contained by the Texas defense and outplayed by
Longhorn quarterback Duke Carlisle in 1964. O.J. Simpson was
brilliant for USC in the '69 Rose Bowl, but he was overshadowed
by Buckeye quarterback Rex Kern. Georgia's Herschel Walker was
held to 3.7 yards per carry in the Bulldogs' 27-23 Sugar Bowl
loss to Penn State in '83. And, of course, Testaverde was awful
in '87, as was Torretta in '93.
The reasons for those subpar performances could be simple: In a
game played by 18- to 22-year-olds on the largest stage they've
ever been on, the honorific star is an accursed one. "Poor
Charlie, he had two security guards assigned to him, and he
couldn't go anywhere," says Rebol of Ward. "He was quiet, but it
made him even quieter than usual."
The perks can be sensational.
When Ohio State's Kern arrived for the Rose Bowl, he and his
teammates found vans awaiting them at the airport with Rose Bowl
Princesses ready to escort them to their hotel. Kern was
immediately attracted to one of the women, a Pasadena City
College student named Nancy Henno, and yelled to a teammate,
"Grab that one and get her in our car." Four years later Rex and
Nancy were married, and now they live, with their two sons,
John-Ryan and Michael, in Columbus, Ohio. Says Rex, "That trip
worked out pretty well for me."
The winner and national champion ....
In most years, members of the media gather in some hotel
ballroom in various bowl cities on the morning after the major
bowl games, to await the final poll results. The tally is
customarily delivered on copies of dot-matrix wire-service
printouts. Sometimes there is controversy, sometimes not.
Always, it feels a little silly, as if the games were a prelude
to a phone-in contest.
When No. 1 plays No. 2, no polls are needed. On the morning
following Alabama's 1993 rout of Miami, Tide sophomore
quarterback Jay Barker opened his hotel-room door to retrieve
the complimentary newspaper left in the hallway. ALABAMA:
NATIONAL CHAMPIONS screamed the headline. Barker looked to his
left and to his right. "All the way down the hall, that's what
you saw, newspapers that said, ALABAMA: NATIONAL CHAMPIONS,"
That is the sweetest thing of all. When No. 1 plays No. 2, there
is only the game.