SI Vault
 
Staking A Claim To Best Ever
Douglas S. Looney
October 10, 1983
Nebraska of '83, led by Mike Rozier (above), has the stuff to transcend Notre Dame of '24, Army of '44 and the rest
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 10, 1983

Staking A Claim To Best Ever

Nebraska of '83, led by Mike Rozier (above), has the stuff to transcend Notre Dame of '24, Army of '44 and the rest

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

When Nebraska beat Syracuse 63-7 last Saturday in Lincoln for its fifth victory of ridiculous proportions in five games this season—the Corn-huskers have outscored their opponents 289-56—the significance was not that the Huskers proved conclusively that they are a marvelous team, although they are. And not that they will finish 13-0, although they will. And not that they will be national champions, although that is so. And not, as LSU Coach Jerry Stovall says, that Nebraska's first team should be No. 1 in the polls and the second team No. 2 with everyone else fighting for third, although that's true, too. No, the significance was that the win provided more evidence that the Huskers are—pause, please, for drum roll—the greatest college football team in history.

Indeed, what has happened is that Nebraska has lapped the field. It appears that no team is worthy of even sharing the same artificial turf with the Huskers. Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne—soft-spoken, low-key, always cautious, forever understated—allows himself a small smile when asked if this might be the greatest team ever. "Could be," he says, in what amounts to a perfectly outrageous statement for him. Monster Back Kevin Biggers is less restrained. "We're way beyond good," he says. "We're great, the greatest ever."

Biggers has support from, among others, Nebraska Athletic Director Bob Devaney, who coached the 1971 Huskers, a team considered by many observers to be the best collegiate squad ever. That outfit went 13-0, thanks in no small part to the exploits of 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers and to a 35-31 defeat of second-ranked Oklahoma in what almost everyone agrees was the Game of the Century. "This team," says Devaney of the '83 Cornhuskers, "is the finest ever offensively, but so far it's a little hard to evaluate them defensively." To help evaluate: The Huskers, while leading the nation in scoring (57.8 points a game), total offense (585.8 yards a game) and rushing (420.4 yards), are giving up an average of only 11.2 points. On Friday night former Syracuse Coach Ben Schwartzwalder confided to Devaney, "I think this is the greatest team ever." And Rodgers, now publisher of a cable magazine in San Diego, says flatly, "They're a much better team than ours was."

While Devaney concedes that trying to determine the best team in history is "like comparing Jack Dempsey with Joe Louis," numbers offer some help. For example, Nebraska Strength Coach Boyd Epley says that Husker players a decade ago weighed an average of 198.9 pounds; today, 216.02. Ten years ago they bench-pressed an average of 219.42 pounds; today, 302.24.

Of course, there are many ways of measuring greatness, and thus many contenders for best-of-all-time. Clearly, the 1901 point-a-minute Michigan squad that shut out every opponent, including Stanford in the Rose Bowl, was a truly great team. The 1924 Notre Dame bunch featuring the Four Horsemen was another. In 1932 Southern Cal went 10-0 and allowed only 13 points. And how about Army in '44 with Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis? Tom Harmon, winner of the Heisman Trophy in 1940, thinks the best ever was the '47 Michigan team that had "the damndest group of talent I've ever seen." But these are old teams from old days, and however fondly we remember them, they don't compare in any way with Nebraska '83.

More recently, the 1956 Oklahoma gang coached by Bud Wilkinson and led by Tommy McDonald was terrific by any measure. So was Alabama's 1966 team, which had Ken Stabler at quarterback. And doesn't the '69 Texas team with that funny-looking but deadly wishbone offense belong in there somewhere? And don't forget Tony Dorsett's 1976 Pitt Panthers. Glorious teams all, but, again, not one of them should be mentioned in the same breath with the '83 Huskers.

For openers, Nebraska has three certified Heisman candidates, I-Back Mike Rozier. Quarterback Turner Gill and Wingback Irving Fryar. Guard Dean Steinkuhler would be a fourth candidate if Heisman voters could be educated to cast their ballots for someone besides a back. But because they can't, the 6'3", 270-pound Steinkuhler, whose 4.67 in the 40 makes him as fast as a lot of backs, will have to settle for winning the Out-land and Lombardi awards, which go to the nation's best linemen. Steinkuhler makes trap blocking an art form, and whether he's pulling or exploding straight ahead, his blocking looks—and feels—different.

The Nebraska players have determined among themselves that they'll talk up Rozier for the Heisman. Fine. He's as good a choice as any. Says Steinkuhler, "If there's a hole, he hits it. If there's not a hole, he makes it." Last year, as a junior, Rozier rushed for a school-record 1,689 yards, breaking the 32-year-old mark of 1,342 yards set by Bobby Reynolds. Rozier ranks second in the nation this season in rushing with an average of 151.8 yards, and he's playing only 50% to 60% of the time because of the routs. "Some people," says Rozier, "have talent and waste it. I have talent and I use it." Oh, yes, and amen.

He makes all the flashy runs big backs should and has all the moves. For example, in the Huskers' 42-10 defeat of UCLA a fortnight ago, Rozier raced around the left side, collided with a Bruin defender, turned, ran back across the field, was hit three more times and still wound up in the end zone. Rozier looked as if he had swallowed a mouse. Against Syracuse, Nebraska's first touchdown came when he bolted around left end for 37 yards. No defenders were anywhere close, but several later reported seeing a blur.

Rozier will win the Heisman because of the kind of effort and talent he displayed on three third-quarter runs against the Orangemen. With 13:19 left in the quarter, Syracuse stopped him at the line of scrimmage, whereupon he bulled, dove, fought, scratched and clawed for six yards—six Heisman yards. With 10:05 to go, Rozier took a pitch and battered his way for eight Heisman yards on a play that should have produced no gain. And with 7:29 remaining on a fourth-and-one situation, he again was hit immediately but lowered his head and picked up four more Heisman yards and a first down. It's on the short runs that great backs prove their worth.

Continue Story
1 2 3