The year was 1997 and tension was building between two of the biggest power houses in NCAA football history. The Cornhuskers of Nebraska and the Michigan Wolverines; each team had claim to what they believed was rightfully theirs….the national championship. This made for a great story and man predictions of who would win a duel between these great programs. Where would they play? How would the Nebraska Offense play against the Michigan Defense? Would the running game of Nebraska Nullify the great Charles Woodson? A war of words raged across the United States. Husker players telling the media that they would have the game anywhere and anytime. Michigan players were saying how ridiculous it was to share a title with Nebraska. In this article I will break down each team and give me opinion on who would have won….in the greatest game not played.
The 1997 Cornhuskers came in to the season with great expectations. The seniors on the team have already won 2 national championships and were greatly bitter at the 1996 season. Rumors started to leak out that Tom Osborne may end his great career as soon as the season was done. It would appear that Nebraska would have all the motivation in the world to win a championship.
The juggernaut which was the Nebraska Offense was ran nicely by Scott Frost, a Stanford transfer. In the back field was possibly the greatest Cornhuskers running back of all time. Ahman Green. During his junior year he carried the ball 278 times for 1,877 yards (6.8 avg.) and 22 touchdowns (a school record for juniors). He posted 12 consecutive 100-yard games, including three contests with over 200 yards.
It seemed nothing would be out of reach for this monster of a tailback. Leading the way for Green was the bulldozer named Joel Makovicka. He wouldn’t just block defenders he would destroy them. These three players were the spearhead of the nation’s number one offense.
Before the age of Callahan the Husker defense was something that every team aspired to become. They were simply monsters on the field. The aggressive nature and great tackling ability made the a constant threat any time they were near or around the ball. What made this defense great were the big boys up front: Mike Rucker, Jason Wiltz, Jason Peter and Grant Wistrom. Peter and Wistrom opted to stay for their senior year knowing the magnitude of what they could do and accomplish. With they bitter taste of the 96’ season still boiling in there blood these two were almost unstoppable. The defense never gave up more than 26 points in a game.
Tom Osborne is one of the revered and accomplished coaches in the history of College football. He holds a record of 255–49–3. His stature on and off the field allowed him to produce some of the greatest teams ever to play football. He went 12-13 in bowl games winning the final four he played in. He would stay loyal to the great power running at Nebraska and produce some of the best walk-ons in school history.
The Cornhuskers played 4 teams which were ranked in the top 25 two of those teams which were ranked in the top 3(Washington and Tennessee). Nebraska had a few close calls the most famous would be against Missouri when a miracle catch allowed them to claim the victory. This is what caused Michigan to jump Nebraska in the Polls. Even though Nebraska won they actually fell behind in the national rankings. Ironically the complete opposite happened at the end of the season when they destroyed #3 Tennessee while Michigan escaped with a close victory over Washington State.
The 1997 Wolverines came into the season stacked as any team in the nation. They had talent and depth almost everywhere you looked. With Lloyd Carr at the helm this aggressive and talented team had been predicted to run the table and win the college football championship.
The Michigan offense was lead by Brian Griese he would throw for over 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns. He was smart and solid quarterback for a team that made few mistakes. He fit perfect. Behind him at running back were Anthony Thomas and Chris Howard. Both of these backs were tremendous runners and great in the open field. They gave Brian Griese another passing option if his receivers were covered. The receivers did not produce great numbers but they did the job moving the ball down the field. Complimented by the enigmatic Charles Woodson they would be both dangerous and steady.
Perhaps one of the greatest Big Ten defenses of all time these guys swarmed the ball like locust. The front line penetrated almost every play and teams were down right scared to pass any where near (Heisman winner) Charles Woodson. His presence alone changed the outcome of every game. At linebacker Sam Sword and Dhani Jones controlled the tempo of each game suffocating any running backs that got past the front four. With all these great weapons it is no wonder why they were the Nations number 1 defense.
Lloyd Carr took over the Michigan program in 1995 posting a record of 9-2 his first season. Many Michigan faithful knew that this man would lead them to the so called “promise land”…they were right. Carr’s tough defenses always came through in each game they played seemingly taking his personality and translating it to the field, making him the third Michigan coach to defeat Ohio State in each of his first three games.
The Wolverines Schedule was difficult to say the least. They would play 7 teams ranked in the top 25. Fours of those teams would be ranked in the Top Ten. Beginning with an early test against Colorado to a difficult road game against #3 Penn St. Michigan found a way to win. During the final weeks of the season they would be catapulted to #1 after Nebraska squeaked by Missouri. The only thing preventing Michigan from an outright national championship was…Michigan. They performed weekly against Washington State at the Rose Bowl allowing for Nebraska to creep back.
After years of a debate and intense hatred each school will never acknowledge that the other is a “co-champion.” I look at each team strengths and weakness and they seem to counter each other perfectly. The Nebraska running game was take Charles Woodson out of the game and the Michigan Defense would nullify the power running game of Nebraska. It is hard to find the intangibles that would allow one team to win. The game would start off like any other bowl game, each team stopping the other making for a rather boring first quarter. The head coaches would begin to implement new game plans and strategies in order to gain the upper hand and this is where I see and advantage for Nebraska. Tom Osborne’s history and experience would give him the upper hand. By half time I see the game being extremely close and a low score due to each team’s tremendous defense. Nebraska -13; Michigan-10.
Now the second half…nothing is more important than the 20-30 minutes a coach gets to correct any mistakes he sees during the game. I see Lloyd Carr using Charles Woodson as wide receiver more often realizing his best player needs to be more involved. The wolverines gain the upper hand by using there deep threats and keeping Nebraska on their toes. The Husker Offense Stalls inside the red-zone against that great defense of Michigan. Third Quarter Results Michigan 20; Nebraska-19.
The fourth quarter would be one of those most anticipated quarters in the history of college football, two great titans battling it out, two of the greatest programs waging war against one another for the grandest prize of them all. Could Michigan get the monkey off its back and win a national championship in the 90’s? Could Nebraska send the legendary Tom Osborne out with a win? I see this quarter becoming a battle in the trenches. I see Nebraska’s Novocain like offense consistently running right in to the teeth of the Michigan defense. With the game on the line the Huskers give the ball to there best player…Ahman Green. The Huskers wear down the Wolverines prompting them to an outright title in one of the greatest games in college history. Final Score Nebraska 29; Michigan 27.
I write this article as a fan of what could have been, I have always wondered would win between these teams and I wanted to pay homage to these amazing players coaches and seasons. In the end we will never really know but I think both teams got what they deserved and that was a share for the national championship.