Nebraska won its first national title of the Tom Osborne Era on Jan. 1. It meant everything. It means nothing. "We think about it every day," says Husker senior defensive tackle Christian Peter. "There's a sign that reads 1994 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS in the locker room, and after practice we all look at it. But that was last year. We're nobody this year."
He's right. He's wrong. Yes, it's a what-have-you-done-lately world and a new season: Last year's euphoria is history. Yet something carried over. By pounding Miami in the Orange Bowl, the Huskers discarded every old slam on the program's bullyboy ways. No longer can Nebraska be accused of waltzing through a lame schedule and then folding when it counts most. In the quest for No. 1, the Huskers are forevermore somebody.
"There is a totally different attitude," Peter says. "People are more confident now. There used to be that thing, but we played in Miami and we won it. We know what it takes."
Even with that knowledge in hand, this promises to be an equally compelling autumn in Lincoln. The questions may never rival those asked during last season's parade of quarterback maladies, but the answers may be more elusive. Can the Huskers repeat? With seven starters gone, can the nation's most underrated defense maintain its superiority? And yes, the big question: With Tommie Frazier's blood clot in his right leg and Brook Berringer's collapsed lung now healed, who's the better quarterback? Frazier is a Heisman Trophy candidate who was the hero of the Orange Bowl, but Berringer was 7-0 as a starter last year and has been pressing him throughout the spring and summer. The instant the offense sputters under Frazier, the entire state splits in two.
However, as last season proved, neither man may be as important as junior I-back Lawrence Phillips. Never has a player rushed for 1,722 yards so quietly. Last fall Phillips excelled in the sport's glamour position but still somehow was overshadowed not only by the quarterback who didn't play each week but also by the offensive line. Phillips won't be able to hide anymore. Four fifths of Nebraska's best-ever line is gone, and defenses will key on him as never before.
"I'm going to miss them a lot," Phillips says of his linemen. "They were always talking, telling me where they were going, asking me, 'What can we do? Is everything all right?' "
Not that he had it so cushy. Phillips rushed for at least 100 yards in 11 straight games in '94 despite a pulled groin, turf toe, sore ankles—and despite the fact that with Frazier and Berringer ailing, he basically became the Husker offense for three games. Against Oklahoma State he ran 33 times for 221 yards. Against Kansas State he handled the ball on 19 of Nebraska's first 24 possessions before jamming his left thumb just before halftime. "It swelled up and was just huge," Phillips says. "I thought it was broken."
It wasn't, but Phillips couldn't hold the ball in his left hand. "So I just carried it in my right." He finished with 117 yards, and then the next week—still one-handed—he gained 110 yards against Missouri. He never considered resting.
Phillips figures to get even more carries this fall, which can only raise the final question: Phillips or Frazier? Who wins the Heisman? In Lincoln the debate is already starting. "I'd be thrilled to win it," Phillips says with a laugh. "But we don't discuss it that much. We know there's talk, but we just take it in stride."