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The Narrative Of The 1997 College Football Season

For those that came of age as sports fans in the late 1970s and 1980s, Michigan and Nebraska football were known for three things—consistent national contention and frequent appearances in major bowls. And, coming up short in those bowl games, and of a national title. Nebraska had answered their critics resoundingly in both 1994 and 1995. Michigan still had work to do. In the 1997 college football season, the result was a split national title—the Wolverines got over the hump, and the Cornhuskers put the finishing touches on a dynasty.

Expectations were high for a Big Ten team, but it wasn’t Michigan. Penn State was the preseason #1 team, and Ohio State was ranked 9th in the opening polls. But the Wolverines showed their mettle early on, with a blowout win over eighth-ranked Colorado in September.

Michigan had what would turn out to be the best defense in the country. And they had the player, defensive back Charles Woodson, who became the most recent defender to win the Heisman Trophy, with help from his considerable skills as a kick returner.

Ohio State was built with a similar profile—the nation’s third-best defense was anchored by Butkus Award winning linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer. Penn State’s signature star was at running back, with Curtis Enos.

None of the three Big Ten powers got elite play at quarterback. Although, it must be noted that veteran Wolverine signal-caller Brian Griese did make it to the NFL. And there was a sophomore backup in Ann Arbor by the name of Tom Brady who turned out okay.

In early October, Penn State won an exciting 31-27 decision over Ohio State, but the big head-to-head battles involving Michigan were ahead in November.

Nebraska brought the muscle up front, and Outland Trophy winner Aaron Taylor keyed a powerful offensive line. Ahman Green rushed for nearly 1,900 yards. Scott Frost, a future head coach in Lincoln, was the quarterback, and he ran for 1,000 yards himself. By the sheer strength of their running game, the Cornhuskers scored more points than anyone in the country.

The defensive line was no less stacked. Grant Wistrom won the Lombardi Trophy and Jason Peter was an All-American. Nebraska was ranked #6 to start the season and made their own September statement with a 27-14 win over second-ranked Washington. In early October, Nebraska blew out Kansas State 56-26, a game that was the Wildcats’ only loss of the season. As the calendar flipped to November, the Cornhuskers were pointing towards another national title.

Florida State, who had won the national title in 1993 and played for it in 1996, was primed for another run in 1997. The Seminoles were ranked third in the country. They had All-Americans on defense, with Andre Wadsworth on the defensive front and Sam Cowart at linebacker. Wide receiver E.G. Green gave the offense some big-play explosion. On both offense and defense, FSU ranked in the top seven nationally.

The Seminoles were getting a challenge in the ACC from North Carolina, a program that had been building towards national prominence under Mack Brown for several years. Florida State and North Carolina would meet in November. And after the season’s first two months, they were each ranked in the top 5.

Florida was the defending national champion and ranked #2 to start the season. The Gators’ rivalry with Tennessee was at its high point. The Gators-Vols game was then, as it is now, always in September. Unlike now though, it’s result always shaped the rest of the season in the SEC.

Florida continued to have explosive talent at the skill positions, with Fred Taylor rushing for nearly 1,300 yards and Jaquez Green an All-American at wideout. Tennessee had elite talent of their own, with Jamal Lewis rushing for over 1,300 yards, and Marcus Nash racking up over 1,100 yards receiving.

And the Vols also had a senior quarterback, one that would be named 1st-team All-American and become the first overall pick in the NFL draft. That quarterback was Peyton Manning.

But Peyton had problems with Florida. With both teams ranked in the top four, the Gators again won the head-to-head battle. Normally, this would have effectively spelled the end of Tennessee’s hopes. This season though, Florida stumbled. They lost to LSU on October 11 and gave away their margin for error in the SEC East. And on November 1, the Gators were surprisingly thumped by Georgia. The Vols were back in the driver’s seat for the SEC and still had hopes of getting into the national championship picture.

That national picture would gain considerable clarity on November 8. On a day as hyped as any in recent memory, there were two Top 5 matchups going down. Michigan, ranked #4, was going to Penn State, who was now #2. Florida State, at #3, was playing at fifth-ranked North Carolina. Only now-#1 Nebraska had an easy week. So it seemed.

Michigan and Florida State both made major statements on the road. The Wolverines silenced the State College crowd with a 34-8 blowout. The Seminole defense was impenetrable in a 20-3 dismantling of the Tar Heels.

In a surprise turn of events, it was the Cornhuskers who ended up in a thriller at Missouri. Nebraska trailed 38-31 with time for just one more pass into the end zone. Frost’s pass was kicked into the air and grabbed for a tying touchdown. The play became known in Nebraska lore as “The Flea Kicker” and it paved the way for an overtime win.

The Cornhuskers were still unbeaten, but the events of November 8 led to Michigan moving to #1 in the polls. This was no small thing. 1997 was the last year of a system where the Rose Bowl’s hold on the Big Ten and Pac-10 champs could not be broken, even if either of those teams were ranked #1 or #2. The Orange Bowl would pit the best two teams outside of the Rose, and was hoping for a battle of unbeatens between Florida State and Nebraska. But the Rose now had access to the #1 team.

Ohio State had moved up to #4 in advance of their trip to Ann Arbor. Michigan won a hard-fought 20-14 game to hold the #1 ranking and wrap up the Rose Bowl bid. That same day, Florida redeemed their season with a thrilling 32-29 win over Florida State.

Now, the door was open for Tennessee to move up to #3 in the polls and get a shot at the Orange Bowl. The Vols won a 30-29 thriller over Auburn to win the SEC and punch their ticket to Miami. Nebraska rolled Texas A&M 54-15 to claim the Big 12.

Thus, the landscape was set. Michigan would play in the Rose’s traditional time slot on New Year’s Day. If they won, they would claim the national championship. If they lost, the title would be settled by Nebraska and Tennessee the following night in Miami.

But there was still sentiment for a split national title in the event both Michigan and Nebraska won. Cornhusker head coach Tom Osborne shrewdly announced his impending retirement in the December run-up to the bowls.

The Wolverines played Washington State. The name Ryan Leaf has become infamous in NFL history, as a synonym for a busted high draft pick. In 1997, Leaf was still one of the country’s top quarterbacks, finishing third in the Heisman voting. The Cougars had productive players with Michael Black in the backfield, and Chris Jackson at receiver. They were fresh off a 41-35 shootout win over Washington to get this opportunity in Pasadena.

A Michigan blowout might have ended the national title discussion right there, but Washington State hung in. The Wolverines won 21-16, and it was generally accepted that they were virtually certain to win the AP writers’ poll. But the coaches’ ballot was known to a be a little more unpredictable.

Furthermore, observers had watched the other powers of the Big Ten be less than impressive. Penn State lost to Florida in the Citrus Bowl. Ohio State was decisively handled by Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. Meanwhile, Nebraska’s rival, Kansas State, had decisively tuned up Donovan McNabb’s Syracuse team in the Fiesta Bowl.

There was momentum for Nebraska in terms of public opinion and the Cornhuskers validated that on January 2. A 42-17 beatdown of Tennessee was their closing argument. It was an argument the coaches’ poll found persuasive. Nebraska and Michigan each won one poll and went into the history books as co-national champions.