Nebraska and West Virginia should have been matched in the 1994 Orange Bowl, both undefeated, playing for a national championship. Coaches Tom Osborne and Don Nehlen agreed.
Voters in the Associated Press poll didn’t, of course. Picking once-beaten Florida State as the No. 1 team in its final regular-season rankings. The voters considered themselves smarter than relying on records, according to Osborne—who was being sarcastic.
Anyway, you could say the voters were right based on the bowl results. Florida State defeated Nebraska in the Orange Bowl 18-16 and No. 8 Florida embarrassed No. 3 West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl 41-7, while No. 4 Notre Dame, which had handed Florida State its lone loss, only to lose to No. 17 Boston College at home, defeated No. 7 Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl 24-21.
Numbed by numbers?
How about some more. Notre Dame moved to No. 2 in the final poll, with Nebraska dropping from No. 2 to No. 3—after a loss that came down to a missed field goal on the final play.
The poll system needed change, Osborne and Nehlen agreed.
Such was the context for the 1994 Kickoff Classic, which matched Nebraska and West Virginia, though as the coaches pointed out during a teleconference two-and-a-half weeks before the game at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the teams had changed.
The Huskers were No. 4 in the 1994 AP preseason rankings, with Florida No. 1 followed by Notre Dame and Florida State. West Virginia was a distant 24th.
Notre Dame would finish out of the Top 25. More about that in the next Tom’s Time.
Nebraska’s appearance in the 12th annual Kickoff Classic would be its third.
The Huskers were the first to play in three. They had defeated Penn State in the inaugural Kickoff Classic in 1983, 44-6, and then defeated Texas A&M in the 1988 game, 23-14.
Though Nebraska had been ranked higher in the two previous games—No. 1 and No. 2—Michael Graimes, the Director of College Athletics and Public Relations for Giants Stadium, indicated during a coaches’ news conference on the Friday before the game that Osborne had said “this may be the best team they’ve had in 25 years.”
Excuse me? Osborne denied saying that.
Did anyone from Nebraska remember?
No one did because Osborne hadn’t said it.
It could be, meaning it had potential, but not “may” be. Osborne was nothing if not precise in his use of words. Those around him for any amount of time knew that.
Not that the Huskers’ focus wasn’t on the national title. On the bus ride back to the Sheraton Bal Harbour after the 1994 Orange Bowl loss to Florida State, Osborne had consoled junior cornerback Barron Miles. The loss “didn’t mean we can’t come back,” Osborne had said.
Colorado was an example. The Buffaloes had lost the 1991 Orange Bowl, and a national title, to Notre Dame but had returned to Miami to defeat the Irish and earn a national title the next season.
And the Huskers had been focused throughout the off-season, placing 1:16 on the stadium clocks during summer workouts, a reminder of how close they had come in the 1994 Orange Bowl. They had taken a 16-15 lead on a Byron Bennett field goal with 1:16 remaining, only to see Florida State respond with a field goal to regain the lead 55 seconds later.
Nebraska was regarded as the best in the Big Eight, the only thing it could control. The Huskers were atop the conference media’s annual preseason poll, released the week of the earlier Kickoff Classic teleconference. They had been Big Eight champion three years in a row, the last two outright, and had won at least nine games and played in a bowl in each of Osborne’s 21 seasons. But some Husker fans had come to expect more than conference titles, at least nine wins and major bowl games. As a result, Osborne said his reputation as a coach seemed to improve the farther he was from the state.
The 1994 Kickoff Classic was the focus of the sports world. No other college games were played that day, the NFL season had yet to begin, and Major League Baseball had no games because of a players’ strike, which had begun August 12 and would wipe out the remainder of the season, including the World Series—played every season since 1905.
The Kickoff Classic was played on a sunny Sunday, with a 1 p.m. CST kickoff. Temperature at kickoff was 91 degrees. ABC televised the game.
Each school was guaranteed $650,000, reason enough to play. But you needed an experienced quarterback to play in such games, according to Osborne.
He had Turner Gill in 1983 and Steve Taylor in 1988, both seniors and third-year starters. He had Tommie Frazier in 1994, also a third-year starter though only a junior.
Frazier would illustrate the wisdom of Osborne’s requirement.
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.