Why the 1997 Michigan Wolverines were the only deserving national champions that season

Instead of punching a hole through the nearest wall or strangling his Scott Frost voodoo doll for the 149th time, Jon Jansen prefers a more, shall we say, diplomatic approach to 1997.

“I didn’t [see it],” Jansen, the former all-Big Ten Michigan tackle, said of Frost, the former Nebraska quarterback whose infamous post-1998 Orange Bowl news conference politicking arguably cost Jansen and his Wolverines teammates sole possession of the 1997 national title. “And honestly, I really didn’t care at that point.

“There was absolutely nothing we could do. We had no more effect on voters. We did what we were going to do. We had the Heisman Trophy winner. We had played and won all our games. And at that point, whatever happened was out of our control. There was no sense in worrying about it.”

Fair enough. So if the College Football Playoff had been in place 20 years ago and the 12-0 Wolverines and 13-0 Cornhuskers got a chance to settle things on the field, how do you think things would’ve shaken out?

“It probably wouldn’t have been close,” Jansen laughs. “We would’ve beaten their pants off.”

Yeah, well, so much for diplomacy.

Michigan on Saturday will hold a reunion for the 1997 co-national champions during its tussle with Michigan State at Michigan Stadium, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the program’s last team to run the table — and the last to reach the finish line at No. 1.

Meanwhile, a few states and a Big Ten division over, Nebraska will be celebrating the same thing, at the same time, over in Lincoln. And ne’er the twain.


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 the ’97 Huskers and ’97 Wolverines are 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 in 1998, pairing No. 1 vs. 2, which eventually begat the four-team College Football Playoff bracket in 2014.

“At that time, back in 1997, I didn’t think that much about it, tying for the national championship. We won all the games that we could have,” says Jansen, who would go on to play for more than a decade in the NFL with Washington (1999-2009) and Detroit (2009-10). “But they won the last game that they had. We won all the games that we had. What are you going to do about it? There’s nothing more that could be done.

“It wasn’t like we were debating over a team with one loss. It was what it was.”

But it is the way it went down at the last that still gets under the skin of Wolverines fans, even two decades after the fact. You see, a long time ago, kids, back in the dark ages when dinosaurs, VHS tapes and newspapers ruled the earth, college football’s major national championship was decided by subjective ballots. Michigan had been ranked No. 1 in both the media and coaches polls before the bowls. The Wolverines held off Washington State in the Rose Bowl, 21-16, on New Year’s Day 1998. The next day, No. 2 Nebraska routed No. 3 Tennessee, 42-17, in the Orange Bowl.

Former All-Big Ten tackle Jon Jansen (77) says he doesn’t bear a grudge against ex-Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost over his post-bowl politicking that cost the Wolverines a consensus national title in 1997. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

And cue the chaos.

The AP voters stuck with the Wolverines. But several coaches, after an impassioned plea during the Orange Bowl’s postgame news conference by Frost, switched their No. 1 slot to Nebraska, whose coach, the legendary Tom Osborne, had announced his retirement.

The Huskers received 32 first-place votes to Michigan’s 30, and outpointed the Wolverines in the poll by a margin of 1,520 to 1,516, leaving Ann Arbor justifiably apoplectic.

“We thought [the split title] was absolutely crazy,” former Michigan linebacker and co-captain Eric Mayes says of the Big Red-Go Blue debate. “I said it [during the] championship celebration, I said then and I’ll say it now: I’ll let other folks do the math.”

And even after all these years, it still adds up to an awfully compelling case for the folks in Ann Arbor:

Point No. 1: One of the best defenses ever

Led by Heisman Trophy winner/cornerback/return man/wideout Charles Woodson, the 1997 Wolverines put up a statistical wall, finishing the year No. 1 in the nation in total defense, scoring defense and passing defense. Six of Michigan’s opponents — half — were held to seven points or fewer. The Wolverines allowed foes only 9.5 points per game on the season.

“I’ll start with No. 1 — defense wins championships,” says Mayes, who would go on to earn a doctorate from Howard, then a post-doctorate degree from Harvard, and now teaches at Johns Hopkins while serving as a player development adviser on the football staff at Central Michigan.

“First and foremost, defense wins championships, and we had one of the most aggressive, hard-hitting defenses in the country.”

With that, Mayes chuckles.

“I take that back — 20 years later, we’re not pulling punches. We had the most aggressive, hardest-hitting defense in the country.”

The tone was set from the season opener, when Michigan limited a decent Colorado squad to only a field goal and just 224 total yards in a 27-3 laugher. The Buffaloes — ranked No. 8 to the Wolverines’ No. 14 at the time — were held to their lowest point total in 101 contests.

“Michigan was outstanding defensively against us, while Nebraska gave us fits with their offense,” notes CBS Sports analyst and then-Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel, whose ’97 Buffaloes later played and lost to the Cornhuskers at home, 27-24. “Too tough to say who would have won, but clearly would have been a great game.”

A physical one, too.

“I think it would’ve been a good game, but I would have to give the edge to Michigan,” notes former Colorado coach Jon Embree, who as an assistant on the 1997 Buffs staff. “They had the talent and ability on defense to handle the physical style of football that the Nebraska offense played with.”

Point No. 2: Charles Woodson

When there was a big game, a big moment, No. 2 was there, pulling the sled — and the Wolverines — out of the fire one minute, elevating them the next.

“Woodson was dominant in all phases,” Embree offers. “And I believe he would’ve been a big difference-maker [against Nebraska].”

The junior 3-way threat helped to seal a win on the road against Nick Saban and Michigan State with two interceptions on Oct. 25, including one that managed to defy logic and gravity in one fell swoop:


Against rival Ohio State on Nov. 22, the Ohio native returned a punt for a touchdown, intercepted a pass in the end zone, and caught a 37-yard pass in a 20-14 victory against the Buckeyes.

“The guy changed the game in every phase of the game — offense, defense and special teams,” says Mayes, a co-captain and the soul of the Michigan front seven, even after a knee injury ended his 1997 season prematurely. “They had no answer for Mr. Heisman, Charles Woodson.”

Point No. 3: The Big Red’s big Mizzou escape

The Wolverines found themselves in more scrapes, and more close games, through the course of the fall that did Nebraska: Michigan played in four games decided by seven points or fewer; the Huskers played in just two.

But the first for the Big Red, at Missouri on Nov. 8, was a doozy. You don’t go undefeated then — or now — without a few breaks, and that Huskers side cashed in on one of the biggest breaks in modern college football history. Trailing 38-31 with 7 seconds left at Faurot Field and the ball on the Tigers’ 12-yard line, Frost threw a pass into the end zone for wingback Shevin Wiggins. What followed could scarcely be repeated, let alone believed: The ball bounced as if on a pinball table off Wiggins’ chest and off at least one Missouri defender, but remained live. As Wiggins was pulled to the ground, he raised a leg up to deflect the ball, bicycle-kick style, and it stayed off the ground just long enough for the Huskers’ Matt Davison to get two arms underneath the rock and corral it for the miraculous touchdown.

Missouri students, thinking they’d won, had to be escorted off the field and back to their seats in the chaos. The Tigers never recovered, and the Huskers snatched a 45-38 overtime victory.

“That was a questionable call against Missouri in the end zone,” Jansen says. “But that’s the beauty of college football, the beauty of the game. We’re talking about this season and we’ll have that debate for the rest of my life. It gives me an opportunity to talk about my guys and my university and it keeps the conversation going. Whenever I get to talk about my guys, I’m all for it.”

Point No. 4: Straight up Michigan mojo

That “it” factor that special teams and special seasons have accompanied the Wolverines throughout the schedule that year. Michigan has never really been a football Cinderella, and yet ’97 had almost a fairy-tale quality, start to finish.

On Oct. 18, the Wolverines rallied from a 21-7 halftime deficit at home to a good Iowa squad that featured a young Tim Dwight in full flight.

“We had just given up a punt return [for a score] to Tim Dwight, and they had all the momentum,” Jansen recalls. “Our offense had to come out and get all the points. That was really the turning point. The biggest one would’ve been when we went to Penn State. That was No. 1 and No. 2.”

On the same day Huskers need a kick and a prayer to escape Mizzou, Michigan was working over Penn State in Happy Valley, rolling to a 34-8 win.

“To have the football gods shine on us the way they did — Penn State got the ball first and Glen Steele ripped through their offensive line and sacked the quarterback,” Jansen says of the Wolverines, who jumped from No. 4 to No. 1 in the AP poll that followed a few days later. “And that was the most dominant game, both offensively and defensively, that I’ve ever been a part of. And I’ve got, what, 15-16 years either in college or the pros, and that game was [special]. Penn State had absolutely no chance in that game. There was never any point in that game where you thought they were going to make a comeback or gain a little momentum.”

Fast forward to January, when Brian Griese joined his father Bob in the exclusive club of Rose Bowl-winning quarterbacks, when there wasn’t a dry eye in the ABC television broadcast booth as the sun set over the Arroyo Seco.

“I think what I remember most about, it honestly, was that Rose Bowl with his dad [Bob] calling the game, just how cool that was,” Big Ten Network analyst Howard Griffith recalls. “When you’re a part of greatness and you’re a part of something that no one else has done, you can just sit there and think about [the impact], just knowing Brian and seeing how he felt, and how his dad felt, just going through that range of emotions. [That’s] pretty good.”

And as the years go by, it only gets better.

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