One second remains in the 1994 Orange Bowl, and No. 1 Florida State leads No. 2 Nebraska 18-16. Seminole sophomore linebacker Todd Rebol stands on the field, spent, waiting. The ball is on the Florida State 28-yard line, and the Cornhuskers' Byron Bennett is getting ready to attempt a 45-yard field goal that could give Nebraska, a 17-point underdog, a remarkable victory and its coach of 21 years, Tom Osborne, his first national championship.
There is an odd calm, a blessed pause. "Twenty-two guys, and nobody was saying anything at all," Rebol recalled recently. "All I could think was the whole game had been a blur, so fast, and all of sudden there's a break and you have this time to think. You think. This is it, right here. Wow! This is really it." Bennett's kick hooks left, into the mist. The Seminoles celebrate their first national title.
Simplicity is the rarest of qualities in college football, in which the NCAA recruiting manual is as arcane as tax law and the national champion is usually decided by two unscientific polls. The rankings have all the integrity of ward politics, and if this process sometimes creates interest, it also can be maddening. On the day following Florida State's victory over Nebraska, Notre Dame lobbied for the national title because it had beaten the Seminoles during the regular season. The Irish had no shot: In college football, when the No. 1-ranked team plays the No. 2-ranked team in a bowl game, the winner becomes the national champion.
The Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2 between top-ranked Nebraska and second-ranked Florida will be the 11th 1-versus-2 bowl game since the Associated Press writers poll was initiated in 1936 (the United Press International coaches poll, which was the forebear of the current USA Today/CNN coaches poll, started in '58). The first such game was the 1963 Rose Bowl, in which USC beat Wisconsin; the most recent was that '94 Orange Bowl. And the importance of a matchup between the two top-ranked teams has changed dramatically. When the Trojans played the Badgers on New Year's Day 33 years ago, victory in the Rose Bowl was far more significant than winning the mythical national title. "It just happened to be Number 1 and Number 2," says Pat Richter, who caught 11-passes for Wisconsin in the Badgers' epic 42-37 loss that day and is now the school's athletic director. "There was no talk at all about the national championship."
The demand for a national championship game has grown steadily since then, with the bowl alliance, which was instituted this year, designed to significantly increase the possibility of such a test. Michigan's upset of second-ranked Ohio State on Nov. 25 cleared the way for unbeaten Nebraska and Florida to meet, with the winner guaranteed the final No. 1 rating. But other than that postgame reward, there is little else that these two teams can be sure of as they prepare for their showdown. There are no common themes when No. 1 plays No. 2, no promises—only slices of history to be sampled.
Everybody remembers these games.
Joe Paterno has coached 352 games at Penn State—so many that they should have blended into a blue-and-white stew of victories and defeats by now. Not so. In the 1979 Sugar Bowl the Nittany Lions were beaten by Alabama 14-7 when Tide linebacker Barry Krauss stopped Penn State's Mike Guman on fourth-and-goal at the 'Bama one-yard line in the fourth quarter. Before the play Alabama defensive tackle Marty Lyons shouted to Penn State quarterback Chuck Fusina, "Chuck, you've got 12 inches to go—you better pass."
Paterno squirms at the memory, not just because he wanted to pass—"Our staff and our players thought if we can't rush 12 inches down there, we don't deserve it," Paterno says—but also because on the second-and-goal play from the six, split end Scott Fitzkee had caught a Fusina pass and been stopped short of the end zone by Tide cornerback Don McNeal. What's more, even after that fourth-and-one stop, Penn State stuffed Alabama deep in its own territory and forced a shanked punt, only to be flagged for having 12 men on I he field. Penn State eventually got the ball back, but in a less advantageous position.
"I remember that game as much as any I've ever played in or coached," says Paterno. "There was so much we could have done differently. Twelve men on the field, Fitzkee not running his pattern into the end zone before the catch. An awful lot goes into a season like that, and then it comes down to a couple of plays. Sometimes it's hard to get it out of your craw."
Well, almost everybody.