12-0 Michigan versus 13-0 Nebraska, who was the better team in 1997? The Coaches Poll favored Nebraska and the Associated Press voted for Michigan.
Nebraska won national championships more recently, as in 1970, 1971, 1994 and 1995. Michigan had not won a national title since 1948, so they may have been the sentimental favorites.
But, sentiment does not win national titles.
If the current playoff system had been in place back in 1997, the topic of which team was better would never come up in a water cooler conversation. Maybe only between Michigan and Nebraska fans would this subject ever come up, anyway. But, it might also come up with college football freaks
such as myself.
Recently, I met one of the coaches of one of these teams and I debated the topic in my own head. Which team really was better?
What would have happened that season if college football had today’s playoff’s back then?
Unbeaten Nebraska and Michigan would have been two of the teams. Tennessee and Florida State would have probably been the other two teams, but one never knows what will happen when the selection committee gets together. Tennessee was the SEC Champion and 11-1.
Florida State was 10-1 and the champions of the ACC, but the Atlantic Coast Conference seldom gets the respect it deserves nationally.
Florida, North Carolina, UCLA and Kansas State were other possibilities, but Tennessee and Florida State made the most sense.
But, all we can do now about 1997 is speculate and wonder what might have been.
In 1992, the Michigan Wolverines under then head coach Gary Moeller finished 9-0-3 and ranked 5th. That was before the NCAA installed Overtime as a way to decide who won games instead of settling for ties.
But, after that season Moeller’s Wolverines finished with 4 losses for 2 seasons in a row before he resigned after the 1994 season. Moeller’s Defensive Coordinator, Lloyd Carr, took over as the next
Michigan head coach.
Lloyd Carr’s teams finished with 4 losses in each of his first 2 seasons and Michigan fans were getting really tired of losing 4 games a year. The proud Michigan program did not become the football school with the most wins of all time by losing 4 games a year and it was a time
1997 was going to be different for Michigan.
The Wolverines started the season ranked 14th in the Associated Press poll and 13th in the Coaches poll and they had a major test in their opening game. The Colorado Buffaloes were ranked 8th in the AP poll and they came to Ann Arbor and were crushed by the Wolverines 27-3. The Buffaloes didn’t have a good season after that and they were the only school that the two teams had in common when Nebraska beat the Buffs later in the season.
Michigan followed up by destroying Baylor and then getting by Notre Dame, 21-14.
Their first road game of the season was at Indiana and the Wolverines rolled, 38-0, and Northwestern proved to be little challenge in their following game.
15th ranked Iowa was tough, but Michigan came out on top, 28-24. 15th ranked rival, Michigan State coached by Nick Saban, was next and the Wolverines came up big again with a 23-7 win.
The Wolverines were ranked 4th in both polls after the Michigan State game.
After beating up on Minnesota, it was a trip to State College, Pennsylvania to take on the 2nd ranked Penn State Nittany Lions. The Wolverines crushed them 34-8.
The Associated Press poll moved Michigan to their number 1 position.
However, a trip to Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin was next to take on the 23rd ranked Wisconsin Badgers. Camp Randall is one of the harder stadiums to come out with a win and the
Wolverines survived the Badgers 26-16.
Next up for Michigan was their chief rival, the Ohio State Buckeyes who were ranked 4th. It was a home game for the Wolverines and Michigan came out on top, 20-14.
It was a different story down in Lincoln, Nebraska. The Cornhuskers won national championships in 1994 and 1995 and many consider that 1995 team maybe the best college football team of all time. They posted a record of 36-2 over the previous three seasons.
But, this team was on a mission after losing two games in the previous season and they came out with a vengeance. Led by quarterback Scott Frost, running back Ahman Green, an incredible offensive line and also one of the best defenses in the nation, this team was driven to succeed. They were ranked 6th by the Associated Press before the season started.
The Huskers had an easier schedule than the Wolverines, but that mattered little to Nebraska when they slapped the poor hapless Akron Zips 59-14 in their opener. New school Central Florida gave the Huskers surprising problems before Nebraska prevailed 38-24.
The AP punished the Huskers by placing them at 7th in their following poll.
But, the now 7th ranked Cornhuskers traveled to Seattle and beat up the 2nd ranked Washington Huskies 27-14, and now the Huskers were down to the 3rd spot in the newest polls.
The 17th ranked Kansas State Wildcats were up next and the Cornhuskers just crushed Bill Snyder’s team, 56-26.
The 3rd ranked Huskers traveled to Waco, Texas and beat Baylor badly, 49-21. The defense got going and they beat Texas Tech, 29-0, and Kansas, 35-0.
The Oklahoma Sooners were down and the Huskers just destroyed them with a 69-7 embarrassment.
It wasn’t all easy and the Cornhuskers barely survived a trip to Columbia, Missouri and won an
overtime game against the Missouri Tigers, 45-38.
But, a win is a win and in most national championship seasons there are close games, or a single loss.
Poor Iowa State didn’t know what hit them when the Huskers just blitzed them 77-14. But, the regular season was coming to close and the Huskers had to take on another one of their big rivals, Colorado and the game was in the altitude in Boulder. The Buffaloes had been beaten badly in Ann Arbor, but now the Huskers struggled with them before walking away with a 27-24 hard fought victory.
Michigan earned a Rose Bowl berth against 8th ranked Washington State and Nebraska got the Orange Bowl versus 3rd ranked Tennessee.
Michigan barely got past Washington State and quarterback Ryan Leaf, 21-16 and were crowned national champions by the Associated Press.
Nebraska obliterated Tennessee and quarterback Peyton Manning, 42-17, and it wasn’t as close as the score. The coaches poll voted the Cornhuskers national champions.
We are left with a split championship with the rest of our lives to debate who would have won between them.
Michigan had the best player in the country according to the Heisman Trophy in cornerback Charles Woodson. They also had All American offensive linemen Steve Hutchison and Jon Jansen, plus defensive linemen Rob Renes and Glen Steele.
Nebraska countered with star quarterback Scott Frost, running back Ahmon Green and fullback Joel Makovicka, plus offensive lineman Aaron Taylor. On defense, linemen Jason Peter and Grant Wistrom were beasts. Aaron Taylor won the Outland Trophy while Grant Wistrom won the Lombardi Award.
Who do you think was the true champion in 1997?
Personally, I don’t have a clue. Nebraska seemed like the more over powering team that season, but the games aren’t played on ‘seemed like’ or on paper. It would be fun to have known for sure, but then we’d have little to speculate about the 1997 college football season.