Despite their air of tinseled festivity, the postseason bowl games (see cover) often serve a purpose beyond gaudy entertainment, as on those occasions when they produce the only real confrontation of conference champions. In the absence of an actual playoff, they come closer to determining the nation's No. 1 team than does the prejudicial coronation-by-ballot of the wire-service polls. This New Year's, for example, four conference champions will be matched: Michigan State of the Big Ten vs. UCLA of the West Coast in the Rose Bowl and Alabama of the SEC vs. Nebraska of the Big Eight in the Orange Bowl. Coaches can tell you in certain terms that for that kind of opposition you do not have to put up posters to remind a team to keep its mind off the partying and on the game. Whether or not they help settle a national title, however, bowl games seldom lack in drama. A handful of memorable ones are recalled in photographs on these pages.
THE BEST OF THE BOWL CROP
Nebraska is the kind of football team one does not appreciate until the ball is snapped. Between plays the Cornhuskers look as if they would rather be somewhere else, and their normal posture in these interludes is one of lazy, slouching disorder. Even when backed up to their goal or on the verge of scoring a touchdown themselves—moments which leave most college teams fidgeting like flamenco dancers—the Cornhuskers appear to be about as emotional as a group of plumbers touring the Louvre.
Nor do the uniforms contribute much to the Nebraska image. Both sets of jerseys—one red, one white—feature the same kind of thin numerals that were fashionable in the '30s, and the numbers on the sides of the helmets, for some curiously unesthetic reason, are black. Quarterback Fred Duda even wears three-quarter-top shoes, which in this day and time is the equivalent of having pleats in your trousers.
If any of this really mattered, however, Nebraska would not have won 10 games during the regular 1965 season, it would not have won its third straight Big Eight Conference championship under Coach Bob Devaney and would not now be headed for its fourth consecutive bowl appearance. As impressive as their recent history is, though, one cannot help remembering that the Cornhuskers' nonchalant attitude almost cost them a perfect record—the school's first since 1915.
It was no disgrace when Nebraska was played tough by Missouri, a sound team that proved good enough to earn a spot in the Sugar Bowl. Missouri, although outmanned, was fired up on its home field, and rode an early 14-0 lead into a 14-13 advantage in the fourth quarter. Then Nebraska gathered itself for a last push and won 16-14, proving at least that it was capable of coming from behind. The distressing thing about big, deep, agile, talented Nebraska was the way it performed against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, two teams so weak by comparison that they hardly belonged on the same field. Both played the Cornhuskers almost to a standoff. The Cowpokes, in fact, did not collapse until just 38 seconds remained in the game. They lost 21-17, but the Cornhuskers lost some of their stature. The Sooners were equally unawed. They ripped to a surprising 9-0 lead, clung to a 9-7 edge at half time and eventually surrendered by only 21-9.
But Devaney claims he keeps Nebraska loose on purpose. "We are not a rah-rah team," he has said. "We know if we execute our assignments, we will win." That's fine when you have your opponents as outgunned as Nebraska has the Big Eight, but the Orange Bowl game will be different.
Alabama will be the best team Nebraska has seen since it met Arkansas last January in the Cotton Bowl—a game, incidentally, that the Cornhuskers lost. Alabama is reminiscent in many ways of Arkansas and is completely unlike Nebraska. Coach Bear Bryant's team is younger and smaller, but it is also quicker, more alert and notoriously aggressive. It is the kind of team that the Nebraskas of this world—big and lackadaisical—have always had a lot of trouble handling.
Yet if Alabama seems to have aggressiveness and spirit on its side, Nebraska has the better athletes. No Alabama back can run with Harry Wilson, the Cornhusker who best combines nimble feet, good moves and power. No Alabama back is as quick at squirting through a hole as Frank Solich, the 162-pound Nebraskan who can scoot from either fullback or halfback behind Devaney's mostly unbalanced line. No one in Alabama's defensive line is as big or mobile as Walt Barnes. And as good as the Tide's ends are—and Tommy Tolleson and Ray Perkins are very good—they are not Freeman White and Tony Jeter. Coupled with the leadership and passing abilities of Quarterbacks Duda and Bob Churchich, Nebraska's strong and deceptive ground game will provide a stern test for Alabama's famous swarming, stunting defenses. Either quarterback will fake and keep the ball to the weak side or will throw deep after splendid fakes into the middle. Both passers favor White, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound split end, but it is not unusual to find Wilson fleeing down a sideline as a receiver just when the defense thinks Nebraska is going for a short swing pass—another of its favorite weapons. Solich, quickest of the runners, is at his best on a trap play or counter. Nebraska is a most resourceful team, and perhaps the most important attribute of all is that it is accustomed to winning.