[Ed-Seth: This being the 20th anniversary of the 1997 National Championship, Michigan historian Dr. Sap is taking us game-by-game through it. Previously: Those Who Stayed (Colorado); The Hit (Baylor); The Stop (Notre Dame); The Captain’s Down(Indiana); Vengeance (Northwestern), Gut Check (Iowa), Six Picks (Michigan State), The Trap (Minnesota), Judgment (Penn State), The Crucible (Wisconsin) No Flags (Ohio State), The GOAT (Heisman)]
[Sara Stillman Archives/UM Bentley Historical Library]
On December 10, 1997, three days before the Heisman ceremony, an event occurred that mattered more to many football coaches than any outcome of any game that season: Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne announced his retirement. His #2 Huskers had finished the season undefeated, thanks notably to the “kick six” that saved an embarrassing loss to Missouri, whom they’d beat in overtime.
This was the last year of the bowl system that predated the BCS. Under that system four of the big conferences—the ACC, the SEC, the Big XII, and the Big East—had tried to organize a quasi-championship game by agreeing to put their best two teams in a rotation of the Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta Bowls. Noticeably absent from this agreement was the Big Ten and the Pac Ten, who were happy enough to send their champions to the “The Granddaddy of Them All,” thank you very much. This caused a lot of resentment: Not only had national championships been split too many times over the years because of the bowl alignments that didn’t match the best teams, but the Rose Bowl had cachet, history, and viewership that the rest of the games did not, and it didn’t seem right that two conferences could hog them all.
By Osborne’s retirement, this had finally been hashed out, and the BCS system would go into effect the following season. And once #2 Florida State was knocked off by Florida, a lot people wished Michigan could play Nebraska instead of Washington State.
Michigan was going to the Rose Bowl to face Ryan Leaf and the 10-1 Pac Ten champions of Washington State, who were just #8. While it was WSU’s first appearance in the Rose Bowl in almost 70 years, they weren’t exactly backing into this game. Even though some writers were saying that UCLA was the best team out west, WAZZU silenced their critics with upset victories over the Bruins as well as USC. The Cougars had the #2 offense in the country, and liked to spread the field by going five-wide, a matchup nightmare in an era when teams rarely had to play more than two cornerbacks in a game.
All things considered Michigan probably would have preferred to play the Huskers. Because Woodson didn’t need safety help the Wolverines would have been free to send a safety aggressively after the pitchman, and the Michigan interior defensive line would have been a steep upgrade over any competition Nebraska had yet faced. If you had to design the absolute worst possible matchup for the 1997 Huskers, the 1997 Wolverines wouldn’t be far off from the result.
Number 3 Tennessee, whom Nebraska would face because of the Bowl Alliance, was on the other hand a highly favorable matchup. Favorable and ominous in two respects: (1) The Cornhuskers would play a Top 5 opponent and (2) the Volunteers were overrated in ’97 thanks in part to their darling, senior QB who couldn’t win the big game (or the Heisman—tell your friends!). A Big Red victory seemed to be a sure thing. The question was just how big would the margin of victory be?
Towards the end of December, talk had started circulating that if Michigan barely beat Washington State and Nebraska throttled Tennessee there just might be a split in the voting for the National Championship. But folks back here in the Midwest wondered just how that could be possible? UM had a 69-1 margin (presumably Graham Couch) of 1st place votes over Nebraska in the AP (writers) Poll heading into the Rose Bowl and a 58-4 margin in the Coaches’. Even if the Wolverines struggled to defeat the Cougars, historically no #1 team that won its bowl game had ever dropped in one of the two major polls.
If you weren’t a coach with a grudge about the Heisman vote or the Husker quarterback’s mom or something there was no plausible reason to give Nebraska’s collection of favorable bounces versus mediocre competition the same respect as Michigan, who sat 11-0 versus one of the toughest schedules in the history of the game, and a hypothetical victory over YET ANOTHER top 10 team shouldn’t change that. And yet.
[After THE JUMP: A Leaf on the wind]