Nebraska football fans could have been forgiven for a little surprise when Lloyd Carr, former head football coach at Michigan, talked about being “bothered” that Michigan shared the 1997 national title with Nebraska. Much of the article by Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com focused on how Carr felt Nebraska’s No. 1 ranking in the coaches’ poll came from a sentiment to give then-coach Tom Osborne a “lifetime achievement award” in his final game at the helm.
Fair enough, I suppose, if Carr would have left it there. But he didn’t. While reflecting that he was happy to have a national championship ring, Carr took this backhanded shot by saying “[w]hy would it bother you that someone else is out there claiming, inaccurately, that they had the best team?”
Inaccurately? Inaccurately? Oh, it’s on, Coach Appalachian State.
Let’s walk through the reasons (aside from the admittedly gratuitous shot above) why if there was any team that deserved an undisputed national title in 1997, it was Nebraska.
Body of Work in the Regular Season
We’re hip deep in the NCAA basketball tournament, so thinking about a team’s body of work is hardly a foreign concept. What did both teams do to arrive at their respective bowl games?
Michigan played six ranked teams in 1997, three ranked in the Top 10. Two of the Top 10 teams Michigan faced (Colorado and Ohio State) were at home, while one (Penn State) was on the road. Michigan also knocked off No. 15 Iowa at home, plus No. 15 Michigan State and No. 23 Wisconsin on the road.
Nebraska played three ranked teams that year, one in the Top 10. Nebraska’s Top 10 opponent (Washington) was on the road. It should be noted that the two teams had a common opponent in Colorado. When Michigan played Colorado at home, the Buffaloes were No. 8 nationally. By the time Nebraska played Colorado away, Ralphie was unranked.
So Michigan has an edge in terms of schedule strength. But take a look at what the two teams did with their schedules. Michigan won a number of close games, never scoring more than 38 points and only notching one shutout. Nebraska, on the other hand, was held under 30 points only twice in the regular season and notched two shutouts, with a defensive span allowing a total of seven points in three weeks.
I’d be willing to concede that Michigan has a slight advantage in body of work at this point. But as we will see, that’s about the only advantage Michigan would have between the two schools.
The Bowl Games
Michigan went to the Rose Bowl that year, defeating No. 8 Washington State 21-16. Nebraska went to the Orange Bowl, defeating No. 3 Tennessee 42-17.
Yes, that Washington State team had Ryan Leaf, who at the time looked like a world-beater. But that was about it on the Cougars’ roster. And Michigan still struggled in the game, leading 21-16 with Washington State driving as the game wound down. It took a controversial call allowing the play clock to expire after Leaf spiked the ball at the Michigan 26 for the Wolverines to hang on for the victory.
Tennessee, on the other hand, had Peyton Manning at the helm. But it’s easy to forget that the 1997 Volunteer squad wasn’t just Manning. Shaun Ellis, Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry, Leonard Little and Peerless Price were all on that team as well, a far more dangerous and talented squad than the Washington State club faced by Michigan.
And the Cornhuskers didn’t just beat the Volunteers, they demolished them. Manning was 21-of-31 in the game for 134 yards and never completed a pass longer than 20 yards. Nebraska outgained Tennessee 534-315.
So on the biggest stage of all for the 1997 season, Michigan struggled and was fortunate to beat an inferior Washington State, while Nebraska dominated a superior Tennessee. Advantage, Nebraska.
It’s fair to note that Michigan did have the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner in Charles Woodson. Michigan also had Steve Hutchinson, a dominant offensive guard. While Brian Griese was an all-conference quarterback in 1997, it should be noted that Carr had this guy named Tom Brady (you may have heard of him) riding the bench as a junior behind Griese.
But front to back, Nebraska’s roster was stronger in 1997. Nebraska had the Outland Trophy winner (Aaron Taylor) and the Lombardi Award winner (Grant Wistrom) on the same roster. Nebraska also had Jason Peter, a first-team All-American, and Ahman Green, who in 1997 was a second-team All-American, on the squad.
How Michigan Won a National Title
The only reason there’s even a discussion about Michigan having a split national title was what happened on November 8, 1997. Michigan delivered an impressive performance, beating then-No. 2 Penn State in Happy Valley. Nebraska won that day as well, in Columbia over a Missouri squad that would end the season ranked nationally.
But the win was on what would become known as the “flea kicker,” where a Scott Frost pass was deflected off the foot of Shevin Wiggins and drifted into the arms of Matt Davison in the end zone, allowing Nebraska to tie the score as regulation expired. Nebraska went on to win the game, 45-38.
Prior to November 8, Nebraska was ranked No. 1. Even though Nebraska won the game, though, Michigan leapfrogged Nebraska into the No. 1 slot, where they remained for the balance of the season. Had the pollsters not penalized Nebraska for winning (a curious decision, at its most charitable), Nebraska would have remained No. 1 and there would be little doubt that NU would have received the No. 1 slot in both polls after its demolition of Tennessee.
So, who really deserved the 1997 national title?
Look, it’s a fair argument to make. Both Michigan and Nebraska had impressive teams in 1997, and it would have been fascinating to see what a matchup between the two would have yielded. For as dreadful as the BCS was, looking back on 1997 does make you remember that it was at least an improvement over the ridiculous bowl system that existed prior to the BCS.
A split of the national title in 1997 was probably the fairest result (especially when Nebraska won the coaches’ poll and was awarded a way cooler trophy than the one awarded to Michigan). But if you’re going to pick between the two, I think it’s pretty clear that the weight of the evidence favors Nebraska over Michigan.
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