Nebraska Cornhuskers; Due for Another Run Among the Elite?

Bleacher ReportAnalyst IApril 6, 2011

Nebraska Cornhuskers; Due for Another Run Among the Elite?

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    Beginning in the the early days of Bob Devaney's tenure 50 years ago as head coach at the University of Nebraska, the Cornhuskers established themselves as one of the most preeminent, well-respected, feared and successful college football teams in that period.

     Since 1970 there hasn't been any other major conference football program with more victories than Nebraska to go along with the five National Championships earned in that same period. During each of the last five decades, except 2000-2009, (a dead period that most Cornhusker fans wish could be wiped from memory) Nebraska has put together a two-to-three year, maybe five-year run, as one of the best, if not the best football team in the country.

    At times in the '70s, '80s, and '90s, when Nebraska has been good, they have been scary good, so good in fact that it often appeared that every other team was just playing for second place.

    Sure, most know about the five National Championships (1970, 1971, 1994, 1995 and 1997) that Nebraska has earned, but not many know just how close the Cornhuskers have been to winning at least five or maybe more National Championships in that same period.

The 60s: Devaney Sets a Foundation

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    Everyone knows the story; Bob Devaney comes to Nebraska in 1962 by way of Wyoming where he served as head coach and as an assistant at Michigan State prior to that. By 1963, in only his second year, Devaney established a foundation strong enough that enabled the Cornhuskers to finish the 1963 season with only one loss and finish in the top six of both major polls.

    Two years later, in 1965, Nebraska finished the regular season undefeated for the first time since 1915 and earned a chance to play for the national championship. 

    Nebraska's nemesis in the 1966 Orange Bowl would be Bear Bryant and Alabama, a game won by Alabama 39-28. That Nebraska team was led by the quarterback tandem of Fred Duda and Bob Churchich and featured a small fullback by the name of Frank Solich, who nearly 40 years later would become the Nebraska head coach. Even after the 11-point loss to Alabama, Nebraska finished in the top five of both final polls to end the 1965 season.

     The bar had been set.

    The following season Nebraska once again ran off numerous victories to start the season until a late-season, one-point loss to Oklahoma ended any thoughts of another run at a title. Like the previous year, Nebraska met Bear Bryant's Tide in a bowl game, only this time it was the Sugar Bowl and it wasn't close. Nebraska took a beating from Bear's boys and lost 34-7.

1970s: Taste of Ultimate Success

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    The start of the 1970's saw the Cornhuskers rebound and probably save Devaney's job after a couple of rather average seasons in the late 1960's.

    In 1970, Nebraska earned the first of consecutive championships with an 11-0-1 record, the only blemish being the tie with USC in an early season non-conference matchup in Los Angeles.

    The Cornhuskers were the defending National Champions coming into the 1971 season and defend the title they did by going 13-0 and earning a second consecutive championship. The 1971 Cornhuskers were a veteran team led on offense by a seasoned senior quarterback in Jerry Tagge, halfback Jeff Kinney, Johnny Rodgers, a dynamic, speedy, playmaking split end/return specialist who earned the Heisman Trophy in 1971. 

    The Blackshirts of 1971 were just as seasoned and just as tough. They were led on defense by a very strong defensive line that included 1971 Outland Trophy winner defensive tackle Larry Jacobsen, middle guard Rich Glover and defensive end Willie Harper. 

    The 1971 season is most memorable for the first real "Game of the Century" against the Oklahoma Sooners. It was billed as the immovable object versus the irresistible force.  It was a game remembered for the Johnny Rodgers' punt return touchdown in the first quarter and Nebraska's late game-winning drive with Jeff Kinney pushing across the Sooner goal line  with torn jersey and shoulder pads flopping in the wind. 

    In the Orange Bowl Nebraska would meet an old nemesis, the Alabama Crimson Tide and Bear Bryant.  This time Nebraska got a measure of revenge for the losses to the Crimson Tide in 1965 and 1966, with a spectacular 38-6 rout.

1980s: Heartbreak for Tom Osborne and Nebraska

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    The 1980s began with Tom Osborne making a philosophic switch offensively from that of a power-based offense using a stationary pocket quarterback to coordinate the play-action pass game, to a "Power I" formation offense with some option using fleet-footed athletic quarterbacks. Osborne made the switch due to his early struggles in the 1970's in beating Nebraska's most heated, yet respected rival, Barry Switzer and the Oklahoma Sooners.

    Osborne's theory in making this switch was very simple and had its basis in the early days of the veer and other early offenses.

    The theory goes, that after the quarterback hands the ball off, they are now out of the play, the defense has an advantage in that it is using its eleven players to defend the offense's 10 players with the quarterback out of the play. By using a fleet-footed quarterback and running some option offense, the game becomes true 11 on 11 football because the defense has to defend the quarterback on every play whether or not they hand the ball off.

    Nebraska and Osborne started the 1980's by nearly becoming the first two-loss team to win the National Championship. The Cornhuskers started the 1981 season with losses to Iowa and Penn State in the first three games, but then ran off nine straight wins to get back into the top five by the end of the regular season.  Nebraska would go to the Orange Bowl and find themselves matched against Danny Ford's No. 1 ranked Clemson Tigers.

    By the end of the Orange Bowl, it was known that the No. 2 and No. 3 teams, Georgia and Texas, respectively, ranked between Clemson and Nebraska, did lose and the Orange Bowl game would decide the 1981 National Championship.  The Tigers, featuring quarterback Homer Jordan and a defensive tackle named William Perry out-fought the Cornhuskers in a fiercely contested ball game, winning by a 22-15 margin.

    Coming into the 1982 season the Cornhuskers were expected to be among the elite teams in college football and they didn't disappoint.  On September 25, 1982, Nebraska traveled to Happy Valley, PA to play Joe Paterno's Penn State Nittany Lions.  Nebraska led 24-21  after a Turner Gill one yard touchdown run with a little more than a minute left.  Penn State came back on the help of two extremely controversial plays to end the game; the first, a pass to tightend Mike McCloskey that appeared to be completed out of bounds (years later both McCloskey and Paterno would admit that fact) and two, a touchdown pass to tightend Kirk Bowman that may not have been caught before it hit the ground.

    Nebraska and Penn State would both finish the year with 12-1 records, Penn State lost to Alabama by 21 points, but voters still saw it appropriate to give Penn State and Joe Paterno their first National Championship.

    As the 1983 season began the Cornhuskers found themselves at the top of the polls and for good reason.  The 1983 Cornhusker team garnered the nickname the "Scoring Explosion" for putting up huge offensive statistics and averaging over 50 points a game.  The 1983 Cornhusker offense may have been the very first time, in college or the NFL, that a trio of play-makers at the quarterback, running back and wide receiver position were ever referred to as "The Triplets."  Sorry Dallas Cowboys fans of the 1990's.  The Cornhusker "Triplets" were quarterback Turner Gill, running back and 1983 Heisman Winner Mike Rozier and wide receiver Irving Fryar who would go on to become the first player taken in the 1984 NFL draft.

    Up first for the Cornhuskers would be a rematch with the Nittany Lions in the Inaugural Kickoff Classic at Meadowlands Stadium.  The rematch was not close, as the Cornhuskers trounced the Nittany Lions by a 44-6 score cementing themselves as the number 1 team in the country.

    Through the 1983 season it looked as though the Cornhuskers were a team that couldn't and wouldn't be denied Tom Osborne's first National Championship. But, an upstart team, a new force on the college football horizon had just begun to take shape in south Florida at the University of Miami.  A confluence of factors; playing on Miami's home field, and a purposely awful playing surface conspired against the Cornhuskers and Osborne to once again spoil a season that could have been one for the ages.  Although, in losing Tom Osborne may have gained more respect in going for two and the win at the end of game rather than kicking a tying extra point.

1990s: Nebraska Puts a Run Together That Is Unrivaled

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    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.

2000's; Tumultuous Time of Change and Transition

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    The first decade of the new millennium started off well enough for Nebraska but it was really just a house of cards waiting for a stiff breeze.  Tom Osborne had been gone for nearly a full four year cycle, recruiting had begun to lag seriously behind what it had been late in Osborne's tenure and teams in the Big 12 and around the rest of the country were catching up, quickly.


    Though 2001 started off with lots of excitement, there were cracks in the armor, especially on the defensive side of the ball.  Gone were the play-makers, the NFL size and speed that made the mid 1990's Nebraska teams so dominant.  Not until a game in Boulder, Colorado was this team exposed for the paper tiger that it so very clearly was.  Then again, Nebraska was exposed by the Miami Hurricanes, but only after a series of huge upsets or choke jobs by teams in front of them after the blowout loss to Colorado. By way of the BCS this was a team that should have been nowhere near the Rose Bowl.


    By 2003, Solich was out because Athletic Director Steve Pederson "wouldn't allow this team or program to slide to mediocrity."  


    Enter Bill Callahan and say hello to "Nowheresville"


    A record barely above .500 and numerous ugly, shameful, downright earth-shakingly embarrassing losses later and Tom Osborne gives Callahan and staff their well deserved pink slips.


    Tom Osborne prompted by the terrible play of the defense under Bill Callahan and Defensive Coordinator Kevin Cosgrove hires Bo Pelini as Head Coach who ironically was hired in 2003 by Frank Solich as Defensive Coordinator after the defensive failures of Craig Bohl's Blackshirts.


    The first decade of this new era certainly wasn't up to previous standards of success for Nebraska in the decades of the 70's, 80's or 90's, but a real honest look reveals that it wasn't as bad as it seems. Some of the really bad losses only make it seem as such because those games really remain in the minds of all fans.


    The bad run for Nebraska was really only from 2002-2007, a five-six year span, not an entire decade and even that includes a 10 win 3 loss season in 2003.  But, again, those three losses in 2003 were not pretty.  Bo Pelini's first three season's haven't been far off the mark of some of Tom Osborne's less accomplished teams as Osborne did lose 3 games a year on numerous occasions.  But Tom Osborne also coached Nebraska to numerous seasons in which they finished  the year with one or fewer losses and were a play or two from winning two or three more National Championships under Osborne's watch.


    Which brings us to..

2010s Nebraska Poised for Another Run..

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    ... the Big 10. What?  Nebraska changing conferences, to the Big 10??!  Bob Devaney may have rolled over in his grave! Maybe not, since he cut his coaching teeth at Michigan State.

     Well, anyway..  Nebraska seems to have really taken to the coaching of Bo Pelini and his staff.  The defense is now solid and down right dominant a good portion of the time.  The offense, although a bit helter skelter and schizophrenic might just need a little shake up, not an entirely new recipe, but just a reworking of what they are already doing to become more consistent.  Tim Beck and staff appear to be doing just that and the new witches brew for the Nebraska offense appears to be a very closely guarded secret by all accounts.

     All of this leads to this; Will Nebraska go on a two, three, maybe five year run among the elite of college football and play for and possibly win one, possibly more National Championships before the end of this decade much like they did during the 1970's, 1980's and 1990's?

     Time will tell.