After Nebraska’s 37-0 victory against Oklahoma, everyone knew the Huskers would be playing for a national championship in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2, 1996.
Fans had shown that by tossing tortillas onto the Memorial Stadium field in celebration.
National championship? Nebraska was No. 1 in both major polls, so . . .
But the Fiesta Bowl—oops, though second reference, Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, officials were quick to point out—had the first and second picks in the Bowl Alliance, so regardless of Nebraska’s opponent’s ranking, the Huskers would control their own destiny by their performance in Tempe, Arizona.
The Bowl Alliance was in its first year, a spinoff of the Bowl Coalition and, according to Tom Osborne, without a playoff, “the best thing we could do for college football.”
The Bowl Alliance included champions from the Big Eight, SEC, ACC, Big East and Southwest Conferences as well as Notre Dame, with three bowls: Fiesta, Orange and Sugar. The bowls would rotate having the first and second picks. And the Fiesta Bowl was first up—Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
OK. Enough. It’s mentioned again because of what Osborne was told when he spoke during the news conference announcing the Fiesta Bowl participants.
Anyway, the Rose Bowl continued its own way, taking the champions of the Big Ten and Pac-10. If either of those conference champions finished the regular season ranked No. 1, the Bowl Alliance might not be able to feature a national championship game.
Though Nebraska was clearly headed to the Fiesta Bowl, an official announcement wasn’t made until Dec. 3 because of games the day before, including the SEC Championship Game between No. 2-ranked Florida and No. 23 Arkansas at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The Gators won 34-3.
Florida was No. 2 thanks to No. 18 Michigan, which had upset previous No. 2 Ohio State 31-23. The same day, Nov. 25, the No. 3 Gators defeated No. 6 Florida State 35-24.
One-loss Northwestern moved to No. 3.
So Dec. 3 it was official, Nebraska would play Florida in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
Six days later at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City the Heisman Trophy winner was announced, not Tommie Frazier, but Ohio State running back Eddie George.
George, who rushed for 1,826 yards and scored a nation-leading 24 touchdowns, received 268 first-place votes and 1,980 points, Frazier 218 first-place votes and 1,196 points. Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel, Northwestern running back Darnell Autry and Iowa State running back Troy Davis, the nation’s leading rusher and only the fifth to top 2,000 yards (2,010), rounded out the top five.
Frazier completed 92-of-163 passes for 1,362 yards and 17 touchdowns, with only four interceptions, and rushed for 604 yards and a team-high 14 touchdowns. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry. Plus, he directed an offense that led the nation in rushing (399.8 ypg) and scoring (52.4 ppg) and ranked second, to Nevada, in total offense (556.3 ypg), helping him win the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and consensus All-America recognition.
He would’ve been unanimous if not for Wuerffel’s being the Football News pick.
Wuerffel led the nation in passing, completing 210-of-325 for 3,266 yards and 35 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions. His passer rating was a lofty 178.4. The Gators ranked second, to Nevada, in passing offense (360.8 ypg), third in scoring (44.5 ppg) and fourth in total offense (534.4).
Statistically, the Blackshirts gave Nebraska an advantage, among other things ranking fourth in the nation in scoring defense (13.6 ppg). Florida wasn’t ranked in the top 10 in any defensive category.
So the stage was set, No. 1 versus No. 2. The Fiesta Bowl would be the closest to a college football playoff as possible, according to Gators Coach Steve Spurrier—the 1966 Heisman winner.
Make that the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl . . .
Next up: Clear-cut national champ
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.