LINCOLN, Neb. — Jason Peter remembers playing with a chip on his shoulder in 1997. The former Nebraska defensive tackle — who played for the Huskers from 1993-97 — had already won two national titles in 1994 and 1995. Nebraska had a shot at a three-peat in 1996, but it never came to fruition.
Despite a non-conference loss to Arizona State early in the ’96 season, it was Nebraska’s upset loss to Texas in the inaugural Big 12 Championship game that kept the Huskers out of contention for a national title. The No. 6 Nebraska team still rolled No. 10 Virginia Tech 41-21 in the Orange Bowl.
Despite the win over the Hokies and an 11-2 record to finish the season, there were some Nebraska doubters by the the time 1997 rolled around. Peter felt it.
“It was something that we felt like in all three aspects of a football game – offense, defense and special teams – that we were a really strong club,” Peter told Land of 10. “We really were motivated that year, too. Maybe more so than any of the other championship teams that I was a part of at Nebraska, just because everybody was kind of writing us off after we lost in 1996. It was kind of like, ‘Oh, well, Nebraska’s time has ended and on to the next school.’
“We kind of had a chip on our shoulder for most of the year and we were just a solid football team all the way around.”
That chip paid off. In 1997, Nebraska went undefeated and more than made up for that 1996 Big 12 Championship loss. The Huskers took down Texas A&M 54-14 before heading to the Orange Bowl.
However, there was a restlessness in the college football world. Nebraska was No. 2 and set to face No. 3 Tennessee. Michigan was No. 1 and set to face No. 8 Washington State in the Rose Bowl. There was no way Nebraska and Michigan would meet because of the conference deal between the Big Ten and the (former) Pac-10 to the Rose Bowl.
The BCS, which was created to bring the best two teams together at the end of the season, was still a year away at this point. The perfect storm was brewing.
When Peter and his teammates arrived in Miami Gardens, Fla., they already knew the news. Rumors had started to circulate about coach Tom Osborne’s future with Nebraska, and he had just told his team that he would retire at the conclusion of the 1997 season.
If the chip on Nebraska’s shoulder had softened, it was quickly hardened with that news. The Huskers defeated Tennessee 42-17 in an Orange Bowl matchup that Peter never felt was all that close.
“I think we had really good leadership and then certainly knowing that Coach Osborne wasn’t returning for another year,” Peter said. “That was also extra motivation. We obviously found out right before the Tennessee game. I mean, he saw kind of what we did against Peyton Manning and an SEC team that was pretty well-respected.
“Even that game wasn’t as close as the score had indicated.”
After Nebraska beat Tennessee, the waiting game began. It was all but a foregone conclusion the Associated Press voters would pick Michigan after the Wolverines 21-16 win over Washington State. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. Of the 70 AP votes, 51 selected Michigan as the No. 1 team, while 18 selected Nebraska, and one split.
The Huskers’ hope at a national title relied on the coaches’ poll. When the call finally game, the news was exactly what Nebraska wanted to hear: Huskers by four points.
It wasn’t a perfect scenario splitting the national title with Michigan, but Nebraska could still call itself national champions. And 20 years later, the Huskers are set to celebrate that milestone once again.
Looking back, Peter laughs a little when asked who would have won between Nebraska and Michigan. The College Football Playoffs obviously didn’t exist yet, and the matchup would have never been possible because of conference ties to bowl games, but it’s still an interesting ‘what-if’ to consider.
“Certainly, I think that [Nebraska] would have won,” Peter said with a grin to his voice.
Peter doesn’t like to get into the statistics. Comparing yards per game, or who did what against the run, can only tell so much about a team. For Peter, the answer is in the film. He saw a Nebraska team that rarely had its starters — or even second team — in by the end of a game. He saw a Michigan team that did play its starters from start to end. That can shift statistics.
But much like Peter assumes Nebraska would have been the winner, he knows Michigan people would say the same about their team. That’s just how it goes.
Twenty years later, there isn’t much of a chip left on Peter’s shoulder when it comes to 1997. As far as he and his teammates are concerned, they are national champions. He’s happy enough with that.
However, Peter can’t resist one final point. After all, the chip may be gone but the competition never is.
“Vegas also usually gets it right and I think Vegas had us as a 10-point favorite or something like that.”
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