Heading into that 1987 Fiesta Bowl, Miami's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde had been nearly flawless, having thrown 116 passes without an interception over the course of two seasons. In the bowl, playing for the title, he was picked off five times, in no small part because second-ranked Penn State's undersized, underrated defense altered its schemes. "Such a disappointment," says Gary Stevens, the Hurricane offensive coordinator then who is now on the Miami Dolphin staff. "We were a better team, but they won the battle."
Top-ranked Miami was similarly exposed in that 1993 Sugar Bowl, when Alabama defensive ends Eric Curry and John Copeland terrorized another Heisman winner, Gino Torretta, in the Tide victory. "We had studied those guys to a tee," says Tommy Johnson, who was a sophomore defensive back for Alabama and who now is playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars. "We knew we could go in and beat them."
There's also such a thing as too much preparation. For the 1969 Rose Bowl, No. 2 Southern Cal set up its offense to avoid Ohio State monster defensive back Jack Tatum. Because Tatum usually played to the wide side of the field, this plan effectively limited the Trojans to less than a third of the gridiron. Mike Holmgren, USC's backup quarterback and now coach of the Green Bay Packers, says, "I thought to myself, Gee whiz, we have a pretty good team too. This one player is dictating a whole bunch of stuff to us."
Tatum was neutralized, but Ohio State won 27-16 to earn the national championship. "I thought it was a big mistake that they were willing to do that, but limiting their offense was just fine with me," says Tatum.
2) Beware of the hoopla.
There are two ways to treat the bowl-city carnival: Embrace it or run from it. Neither is guaranteed to bring success. When Bear Bryant brought No. 2 Alabama to the 1972 Orange Bowl against top-ranked Nebraska, he sequestered his team in a Miami Beach hotel. "Pretty much a letdown," says Johnny Musso, a Tide running back who went on to play three seasons in the NFL. "In terms of it being any fun at all, it was a major disappointment." The Cornhuskers, meanwhile, attended many social functions and stomped the Tide 38-6 on New Year's night.
Of course, freedom can have a price. In preparation for the 1993 Sugar Bowl, Miami coach Dennis Erickson turned his No. 1 team loose in the French Quarter. "He let us do what we wanted to do," says Coleman Bell, a Hurricane tight end who is now with the Washington Redskins. "He kind of left it up to us to get prepared, and we went through the motions."
Don't expect the stars to star.
Seven Heisman winners have played in No. 1-versus-No. 2 bowl games, and five were on the losing side. As for the two who were winners, Nebraska's Johnny Rodgers ran back a punt for a touchdown in the 1972 Orange Bowl, and Florida State's Charlie Ward played one of his poorest games in the '94 Orange Bowl.
Staubach was contained by the Texas defense and outplayed by Longhorn quarterback Duke Carlisle in 1964. O.J. Simpson was brilliant for USC in the '69 Rose Bowl, but he was overshadowed by Buckeye quarterback Rex Kern. Georgia's Herschel Walker was held to 3.7 yards per carry in the Bulldogs' 27-23 Sugar Bowl loss to Penn State in '83. And, of course, Testaverde was awful in '87, as was Torretta in '93.