The 1990s started with Osborne again making a philosophical change, but this time, instead of changing the offense as he did in the late '70s and early '80's, the defense was the focus of the Nebraska rebirth.
For much of the previous 30 years, Nebraska's base alignment on defense had been a read-and-react 5-2 that didn't always play well against teams that had fleet, athletic playmakers on offense. Nebraska was left trying to defend these smallish, faster players with oversized linebackers and safeties and cornerbacks that were unable to contribute at running back for Nebraska.
Not only did the on-field philosophy change, so too did the way Tom Osborne recruited. Nebraska and Osborne started recruiting elite athletes to play defense instead of turning players into defenders that couldn't make it on offfense.
The fruits of this were first felt in 1993 when Nebraska finished the regular season 12-0 featuring an option offense maestro in sophomore quarterback Tommie Frazier.
Frazier and Nebraska would meet Bobby Bowden's Florida State Seminoles in the Orange Bowl with the first National Championship on the line for both Osborne and Bowden. It was heartbreak once again for Osborne and Nebraska even though the reworked defense held Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward and the high-powered Florida State offense to 18 points.
For the prior Orange Bowl performance and with the respect of returning a very deep, experienced and talented roster, including 1994 Heisman Trophy candidate Tommie Frazier, Nebraska was expected to be a serious contender for the 1994 National Championship.
The season started in the Kickoff Classic as it had 11 years earlier for Nebraska, and the opponent this time was Don Nehlen's West Virgina Mountainers, who had finished the 1993 regular season undefeated. Frazier and Nebraska won in impressive fashion, 31-0, and they were on their way.
Not much was thought to be able to derail this Nebraska team and its' "Unfinished Business" except for injuries to key players.
By the fifth game of the season, Nebraska's Heisman candidate quarterback would be sidelined with a blood disorder that caused blood clots. Mike Minter, the starting free safety, was also lost for the year in Week 2 after a serious knee injury. Many at this time assumed that Nebraska and Osborne were once again bitten by unfortunate circumstance and would not challenge for the National Championship. Who in their right mind would think otherwise?
The Cornhuskers, with Brook Berringer (RIP) replacing Frazier for seven games were not going to be denied. Berringer would also miss a key road game against Kansas State, a game that saw third-team quarterback Matt Turman help the Cornhuskers to a 17-6 victory over an up and coming top 20 Wildcat team.
Nebraska rode the running of Lawrence Phillips, the passing of Berringer (when healthy) and a dominant defense to an undefeated season and an Orange Bowl game with old nemesis, the University of Miami Hurricanes and Warren Sapp and Ray Lewis. Frazier made an appearance, although clearly not himself and much like Willis Reed of the 1970 New York Knick's, helped carry the Cornhuskers to a win and Tom Osborne's first National Championship.
The 1994 National Championship proved to be a precursor, a prelude, just a warmup for Nebraska, which began the 1995 season ranked No. 2 coming off of the title.
No team would come within 14 points of this Nebraska team. Even the 35-21 Washington State defeat was deceptively close as the score was 35-7 with six or so minutes left in the fourth quarter, while the Cornhuskers also beat three top 10 teams in the regular season by an average of 28 points with none closer than 23 points.
The 1996 Fiesta Bowl between Osborne's Cornhuskers and Spurrier's Gators was expected to be a real barn burner and it was, except that it turned into an old fashioned, out behind the woodshed, one-sided barn burner. Spurrier was qouted as saying after the 1996 Fiesta Bowl that, "Nebraska is just way better than we were." and "That team is by far the best team that I have ever seen in my 30 years as a player and coach in the SEC."
Spurrier gained nothing but respect for taking that bad medicine like a man.
The subject of preseason talk for much of the lead up to the 1996 college football season was could Nebraska be the first team to win three consecutive National Championships. It would be a tall mountain to climb considering that Nebraska was starting the season with a first-time quarterback and one not named Tommie Frazier for the first time since early 1992. The challenge of replacing one of the greatest college players of all time fell to junior and Nebraska native Scott Frost. Talk of another championship would end early with a 19-0 loss to a very talented Arizona State team in Phoenix led by Jake Plummer, Keith Poole and Pat Tillman (RIP).
By the end of the year Nebraska had worked its way back into the debate, that is until a loss to Texas in the first Big 12 Title game.
Following the two-loss season in 1996, optimism was bright for another run at another championship with a team full of veteran players. Scott Frost, Joel Mackovicka, Ahman Green, and a veteran offensive line provided the offensive leadership while the fire and brimstone of Grant Wistrom and Jason Peter did the same for the Blackshirt's along with Mike Rucker, and Ralph and Mike Brown, no relation.
Frost and Nebraska passed the first real test of the 1997 season on the third Saturday of the season with a victory in Seattle over the highly ranked Washington Huskies. On a night in Columbia, MO. Korby Jones and his Missouri Tigers pushed Nebraska to the brink before falling in overtime after a Frost touchdown run and Wistrom/Rucker sack of Jones on fourth down. But not before Nebraska, to the chagrin of Michigan fans everywhere finally had a little luck or controversy fall the way of Tom Osborne and the Cornhuskers.
Frost, Green, Wistrom, Peter and company went on to face Peyton Manning's Tennessee Volunteers in the Orange Bowl and before the dust settled the Cornhuskers were up 42-9 with two minutes left in the game. A third National Championship in four years for Tom Osborne and Nebraska and Osborne retiring on a record run of 60-3 over the previous 5 seasons.
Two years later in 1999, Frank Solich, Osborne's replacement in 1998, with the help of future Heisman Winner Eric Crouch leading the offense, Nebraska would go 12-1 and finish the season as the second and third ranked team in the country. After the Fiesta Bowl victory over Tennessee many were talking about the 1999 Cornhuskers as a team that no one may have wanted to face had a playoff been in place.