Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne combined for five national championships. Lincoln Journal Star Photo
Photo by Lincoln Journal Star

Dandy Dozen: Nebraska's Best Teams over 125 Seasons

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York’s N-Sider

Nebraska football fans are proud to say that their beloved Huskers have:

1) sold out an NCAA-record 333 consecutive home games dating back to 1962
produced a nation-leading 314 CoSIDA Academic All-Americans across all sports
twice as many football academic All-Americans (107) as any other school
made 50 all-time bowl appearances, third in college football history
won 43 conference championships
won five national titles
won three Heisman Trophies
won 865 games, the fourth-highest total in college football history
won more than 70 percent of their all-time games, one of eight schools to do so
won a nation-leading nine Outland Trophies
had 350 NFL Draft picks, the fifth-highest total of all-time
appeared on television more than 320 times in the last 60 years

Did we mention that Nebraska has two of the only three first-time BCS head coaches with at least nine wins in their first six seasons? We should have included that fact among our designated dozen because Tom Osborne was the first, Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer the second, and Bo Pelini the third. Those dozen facts lay the groundwork to compress Nebraska’s rich football history into a “Dandy Dozen” teams which represent more than a dozen decades in this Nebraska’s 125th season of college football. We list the Dandy Dozen in reverse order and acknowledge four different ties based on our logic for context and deserved prominence.

N-Sider's Top 12 of 125 Nebraska Football Seasons

12) The 1940 Season: Nebraska’s 1940 team played Stanford in the 1941 Rose Bowl – the Huskers’ first-ever bowl appearance. Coach “Biff” Jones led Nebraska to an 8-1 regular season.  The only loss was at Minnesota (13-7) in the season opener. Nebraska fans’ mass migration to Pasadena by train is well chronicled. The Rose Bowl was considered the Huskers’ most significant achievement until Bob Devaney arrived two decades later. Devaney quipped that he’d heard so much about the ’41 Rose Bowl team, he didn’t find out until years later that Nebraska had lost (21-13).

t-10) The 1902 & 1915 Seasons: Nebraska’s 1902 and 1915 teams played before national rankings. How do you compare two Husker teams that played that long ago? You don’t. Just know that “Bummy” Booth’s 1902 team was unbeaten, untied and unscored upon team, going 9-0 and outscoring its opponents 159-0. Even though Nebraska did not belong to a conference in 1902, five wins came against Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Northwestern. The 1915 team, led by Coach “Jumbo” Stiehm and All-American Guy Chamberlin, recorded five shutouts, including three against Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State, plus a 52-7 Homecoming romp over Iowa. The closest call was a 20-19 win over Notre Dame. The 8-0 season in 1915 kept Nebraska’s 29-game unbeaten streak alive. That streak reached 34 games without a loss the next season – the longest unbeaten streak in school history. Chamberlin went on to become one of only two Huskers to be enshrined in both the College Football and Pro Football Halls of Fame. Bob Brown is the other. Stiehm’s five-year record as Nebraska’s head coach was 35-2-3. According to Nebraska football historian Mike Babcock, Chamberlin’s all-around performance launched Nebraska’s series against Notre Dame, and defied Irish assistant coach Knute Rockne's scouting report. Stiehm left Nebraska to become head coach at Indiana.  “People tried to keep Stiehm at Nebraska with a campaign to boost his pay, but the university intervened and prevented it,” Babcock told me.

9) The 1999 Season: Nebraska’s 1999 Team finished second in the coaches’ rankings and third in the Associated Press after a 12-1 season. Coach Frank Solich’s team lost a heartbreaker 24-20 at Texas after a 6-0 start but the Huskers redeemed themselves with a 22-6 mastery of the Longhorns in the Big 12 Conference Championship Game in San Antonio and then defeated Tennessee, 31-21, in the Fiesta Bowl. The Huskers’ 42-7 win at Iowa in the 1999 season opener started Nebraska’s streak of being ranked in the AP Top 10 for 42 consecutive weeks

t-7) The 1982 & 1983 Seasons: Nebraska’s 1982 and 1983 Teams each came within a whisker of winning a national championship. In a 2011 interview with Tom Osborne, who coached both teams, Nebraska’s legendary head coach told me why he thought both teams suffered losses with national championship implications. One in 1982 involved a third-down pass that a Penn State tight end caught two yards out-of-bounds in Nebraska’s 27-24 regular season loss in State College – the Huskers’ only loss of the season. A year later, the 1983 team also lost only one game, a 31-30 decision to Miami in the national championship game at the Orange Bowl.  Ironically, Osborne’s national reputation only grew from that game after he refused to kick an extra point that would have allowed Nebraska to remain the nation’s only unbeaten team.  Osborne knows everyone talks about that 1983 team because it was the highest scoring team in college football history. But Osborne thought the ’82 team was more balanced than the ’83 team. Mike Rozier, Turner Gill and Irving Fryar were juniors in 1982 and had Dave Rimington and Dean Steinkuhler blocking in front of them. “The ’82 team was great on offense, too, and we were much better on defense in ’82,” Osborne told me.

6) The 1993 Season: Nebraska’s 1993 Team missed a last-second field goal that would have given the Huskers the national championship. Instead, Florida State defeated Nebraska, 18-16, in an Orange Bowl that could have given the Huskers four national titles in a five-year span. Nebraska had taken a 16-15 lead on Byron Bennett’s 27-yard field goal with 1:16 to play.  Florida State kicked a 22-yard field goal with 21 seconds to play, and the stadium and a national television audience held its collective breath when Bennett’s 45-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left, ending the game.

t-4) The 1970 and 1997 National Championship Seasons: Nebraska’s 1970 and 1997 Teams are twins in certain ways because Bob Devaney’s ’70 team split a national championship with Texas and Tom Osborne’s ’97 team split a national title with Michigan. Truth be known, especially from a Nebraskan’s point of view, both titles should have been earned outright. The ’70 Texas team lost the Cotton Bowl, paving the way for Nebraska to claim No. 1 from the Associated Press, which, unlike UPI, conducted another poll after the bowl games. Buoyed by Devaney’s comment that even the Pope wouldn’t vote Notre Dame No. 1, the Huskers were a clear-cut choice as the nation’s only unbeaten team. A 21-21 tie at USC in the second weekend of the season was Nebraska’s only blemish in 1970. Osborne’s ’97 team went 13-0 to rank No. 1 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll and end up No. 2 in the AP. The Huskers would have been a three-touchdown postseason favorite on a neutral site against Michigan, which was pushed by Washington State in the Rose Bowl while Nebraska was steamrolling Peyton Manning-led Tennessee, 42-17 in the Orange Bowl.

3) The 1994 National Championship Season: Nebraska’s 1994 Team made a miracle run to enable Tom Osborne to win his first national championship as a head coach after missing the holy grail in his first 21 seasons. The feat required three quarterback starters during the season – Touchdown Tommie Frazier, the legendary Brook Berringer and Matt Turman, a third-team walk-on who started and helped Nebraska beat Kansas State in Manhattan. With the Huskers trailing Miami, 17-9 in the fourth quarter of the national championship Orange Bowl, Osborne re-inserted Frazier, who engineered a 24-17 comeback win that featured Cory Schlesinger’s two romps for touchdowns.

t-1) The 1971 and 1995 National Championship Seasons: Nebraska’s 1971 and 1995 teams are both considered the greatest college football team of all-time, depending on which group is presenting evidence and who happens to be the judge. Three years ago, The Sporting News voted Nebraska’s 1971 squad “the best team in 125 years of collegiate football”. The magazine featured Johnny Rodgers in his fabled No. 20 jersey on the cover. “Johnny The Jet” made the difference in Nebraska’s 35-31 Game of The Century win at Oklahoma a year before he won the Heisman Trophy. Twenty-five members of that 1971 championship team found spots in pro football. The ’71 team finished 13-0, beating No. 2 OU and No. 3 Colorado before blasting Alabama, 38-6, in the Orange Bowl. Interestingly, on the same day Florida played 1995 Nebraska for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl, USA Today published a cover story asking if the Gators were the best college football team of all time. That night, Nebraska flattened Florida, 62-24, and removed all doubt. The Huskers averaged more than 50 points per game and defeated four teams ranked in the Top 10 by an average score of 53-14. That’s why so many experts still call the ‘95 Cornhuskers the most dominant team in the history of college football.  A total of 27 future pros played for Nebraska in 1995, so the talent levels between the ’71 and ’95 teams were similar. We can debate their respective differences all night long, but you’ll have to ask someone else who’s the best Nebraska football team over 125 seasons. In my mind, they’re equally deserving.

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