Why 1997 Nebraska Cornhuskers were only deserving national champions that season

If anything, as the decades pass, the holes get wider. The hits get harder, Scott Frost and Ahman Green get faster, and the scoreboard looks prettier. He’s played the Nebraska-Michigan game in his head something like 10,000 times now, and the outcome never changes. Ever.

“It’s amazing,” Matt Hoskinson, the former Cornhuskers guard, says with a laugh. “The older we get, the better we are.”

Although they were pretty freaking good then, weren’t they?  Hoskinson was one of the blockers on the 1997 co-national championship team that’ll be honored Saturday at Memorial Stadium when the Huskers entertain the ninth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers under the lights. The Big Red that season went 13-0 and wound up splitting the title with 12-0 Michigan. Nebraska was the choice in the coaches’ poll; the Wolverines were given the crown by the Associated Press.

And ne’er the twain.

“It’s one of those fun things about old college football,” Hoskinson says. “It’s the never-ending argument, and there’s no winner at the end.”

Although he was damn sure then that if there were a playoff, or a plus-1, how Huskers-vs.-Wolverines would’ve landed 20 years ago. Bad 40-something knees and all, he and his teammates are absolutely certain of it today.

“We would’ve love to have played them, hell, yeah,” says Fred Pollack, the Big Red’s starting left tackle on that title-winning side.

The Huskers were so interested in settling the score with the Wolverines back then that the seniors who’d wrapped up their eligibility  in the winter of 1998 discussed approaching the Michigan seniors to gauge their interest in a barnstorming basketball tour.

“We wanted it to be competitive, so that there would be no doubt,” Pollack says. “But I wouldn’t say that it was less of a victory because we shared it with them. Hell, no. We got the better trophy and we got the more relevant vote. I’d rather take the coaches’ vote over the writers’ vote any day.”

Theirs wasn’t the last divided crown in the Football Bowl Subdivision — in 2003, LSU and USC split the title with one loss each — but they were the last great hypothetical, the last great what-if. The last two major undefeateds who never got the chance to settle it on the field.

The Bowl Championship Series began the very next fall, pairing No. 1 vs. 2, which eventually begat the four-team College Football Playoff bracket in 2014.

The Great 1997 Debate — Huskers or Wolverines? Big Red or Go Blue? — still holds a unique place in Hoskinson’s heart, 20 years later, and not just because he created space for some of the best backfields in school history.

For a decade as a professional — the life after football that catches up with all of us — Hoskinson worked for the Stryker Corporation, a medical equipment supplier and technology company based in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Nebraska Cornhuskers linebacker Jay Foreman finished the season with 61 tackles for the Cornhuskers’ 1997 co-national championship team. (Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

“A lot of Michigan fans [there],” Hoskinson sighed.  “A lot of alums. They made it clear to me that they felt they got robbed [in 1997].

“But I like to come back at them with facts as to how good our offense and defense was compared to them. I tended to win those arguments, because they were basing it on emotions, and I just threw facts at them.”

Fact: 13-0 tops 12-0.

Fact: 42-17 over No. 3 Tennessee in a bowl game tops 21-16 over No. 8 Washington State.

“It wasn’t malicious or anything like that,” says Hoskinson. “Occasionally, I’d get the ‘Go Blue’ e-mails. And I would occasionally get someone who wanted to get into a spirited debate.

“I made it clear to them, many times, they got a half a championship. Good job.”

The game in his head has been debated for years in bars, in parking lots, on message boards, and in social media: If there had been a playoff to wrap up the 1997 season, how would Huskers-Wolverines have turned out?

“Well, again, not basing it on emotion, I would prefer to use just some facts,” Hoskinson says. “If you have outsiders evaluate the game — which actually happened, I think Vegas installed us as 8-point favorites.

“Which is ridiculous, because it would’ve been a lot worse than that.”

And the case for the Huskers still holds up, even after all these years:

Point No. 1: The triple-option game

Michigan had the top scoring defense in the country that fall, and a Heisman Trophy winner in cornerback Charles Woodson leading the way in all three phases of the game. And yet …

“Their best defensive player was a poor-tackling cornerback,” says former Cornhuskers middle linebacker Jay Foreman, who would record 61 tackles in 1997 — five of them in the Orange Bowl rout of Tennessee. “Hell of a football player. He would’ve been irrelevant in the game against us, though.”

The 1997 national title trophy — one of three the Nebraska Cornhuskers won in the middle of that decade — is displayed proudly in Lincoln. (Brian Williams/University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library)

The Wolverines had the nation’s top pass efficiency defense, too, but in a head-to-head matchup, would it have mattered against a Big Red offense that rarely threw the ball? Michigan also never saw a triple-option attack in 1997 that approximated the Huskers’ quickness and sleight-of-hand.

Nebraska was unique, and developed decades of pride, in the fact that the opposition generally knew what was coming — and precious few could stop it.

“Nebraska, their linemen, they were really good in the offensive and defensive front,” former Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer notes. “Frost was a really good quarterback and we didn’t see that style of offense much at all. The option part of it, with the quarterback keeping, just wore us out. Just absolutely. It wasn’t like we played great. They kicked our butts.”

Point No. 2: Michigan’s offense vs. the Blackshirts

The Wolverines led with defense and special teams more often than not. Shutouts, not shootouts, were more their style.

“The deal-breaker in the game is [that] they had the No. 44 [total] offense — it was horrible — against the No. 5 defense in our guys,” Hoskinson says. “I don’t know how they would’ve scored.

“[Versus our defense], they’re not going to put a dent. Brian Griese’s the quarterback, for Pete’s sake. It wouldn’t have been a close game, just put it that way.”

Point No. 3: Team speed

Foreman, who played for NFL defenses in Buffalo, Houston, New York (Giants) and San Francisco from 1999 to 2006, remembers a few scrapes with former Wolverines tight end Jerame Tuman during their pro days. One of Foreman’s former high school teammates at Eden Prairie (Minn.) High, Jason Kaspner, became one of Griese’s backups in Ann Arbor.

“I was at an all-star game, I think [Michigan linebacker] Sam Sword was on the team,” Foreman recalls. “Just from looking at him and looking at the guys we had, we would’ve just destroyed [those] guys. I mean, just watch them. I’m like, ‘There’s no way you would’ve had a chance.’

“[Woodson] was obviously playing [well], but our special teams were the best in the nation. Our overall team speed was better than theirs.

“I don’t know who any of those guys are. I know who Charles Woodson is. Everyone else, I don’t give a [expletive], but whatever.”

Point No. 4: The Rose Bowl

Michigan opened the season by manhandling two Big 12 foes at home, Colorado and Baylor, by a combined score of 65-6. The Huskers would go on to thump the Bears in Waco, 49-21, and edge the Buffaloes in Boulder, 27-24.

Foreman and Hoskinson’s counter?

It ain’t how you start.

“You guys barely beat Washington State,” Foreman laughs.

“We beat Tennessee with Peyton Manning and all those first-round picks. They just thought — their big argument was that the Mizzou game [a 45-38 victory at Faurot Field that was helped by Matt Davison’s “Flea Kicker” catch to force overtime] was lucky. The bottom line is, we won.”

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