Close But No Cigar — Nebraska Football During The 1980s
Nebraska football has had two eras of glory during its storied history. Between 1969–72, the Huskers won two national titles, four conference championships and four bowl games. In one stretch between 1969 to 1972, Nebraska went 32 games without a defeat. The 1971 team is widely regarded as one of the greatest college football teams of all time.
The greatest era for Nebraska football was the 60–3 run between 1993–97. The Huskers played in four national title games and won three of them. Nebraska won national titles in 1994, 1995 and 1997. The powerhouse 1995 squad is the consensus pick as the greatest college football team of all time. If the ball had bounced the right way, the Huskers could have won five national titles in a row!
Those two eras of glory have overshadowed the great success that the Huskers experienced during the 1980s. Nebraska had the best record during that decade and was in the hunt for the national title during seven out of ten seasons. Nebraska could’ve easily won multiple national titles during the 1980s if they had received a few breaks.
Nebraska got off to a rough start in 1981 and faced a murder’s row of Iowa, Florida, Penn State and Auburn in the non-conference portion of the schedule. After getting off to a 1–2 start, the Huskers reeled off eight straight victories led by Turner Gill, Mike Rozier, Roger Craig, Dave Rimington and Irving Fryar. Nebraska clinched the Big 8 title and an Orange Bowl berth against Clemson by routing Oklahoma 37–14 in Norman.
The fourth ranked Huskers weren’t expected to play for the national title against number one Clemson on January 1, 1982 but the teams ranked numbers two and three lost on New Years Day. Unfortunately, Nebraska couldn’t close the deal and they lost the national title game to Clemson 22–15. A few short months later, Clemson was put on probation for paying players. The Huskers finished 9–3 and number 9 in the final polls.
The offensive stars who led Nebraska to the 1981 Big 8 title all returned in 1982 and the Huskers improved to a 12–1 record and a final ranking of number three in the polls. The only defeat was a controversial 27–24 loss to eventual national champion Penn State on the road. The turning point in the game was a late “catch” by Mike McCloskey on the Nebraska two yard line with four seconds left to keep a Nittany Lion drive alive. McCloskey was clearly out of bounds and the referees just missed it. This kind of call would’ve never stood in the replay era. This defeat cost Nebraska a chance to play for the national title in the Orange Bowl.
The 1983 Nebraska team may have been the best team to not win a national title. The Triplets of Gill, Rozier and Fryar paced one of the best offenses in college football history, which averaged an amazing 52 points per game. As early as October, Sports Illustrated labeled the team the greatest of all time. (That designation is usually the kiss of death before the end of the season.)
The 1983 Huskers took on the Miami Hurricanes in the Orange Bowl in one of the greatest college football games ever played. The Hurricanes prevailed by a narrow 31–30 margin as Nebraska’s two point conversion pass was batted down. Tom Osborne’s decision to go for two has been debated on countless occasions.
The 1984 Orange Bowl had several other dramatic moments that could’ve changed the outcome of the game. Heisman trophy winner Mike Rozier went out with an ankle injury in the third quarter and was ably replaced by Jeff Smith. However, Smith lost a fumble at the end of a long run inside the five yard line late in the third quarter. At the time, Nebraska was trailing 31–17. What if Smith hadn’t fumbled?
Miami missed a 40 yard field goal attempt on its last offensive possession in the fourth quarter. Let’s say Nebraska had successfully converted the two point conversion and took a 32–31 lead. Miami still had 47 seconds left to drive down the field and kick the winning field goal.
The 1983 Huskers finished number 2 in the final polls. It was truly a season to remember for Nebraska fans.
The 1984 Huskers fielded the best defense of the Osborne era before the 1990s. The 1984 Blackshirts gave up a stingy 9.5 points and 203 yards per game. However, the Nebraska offense only averaged 32 points per game.
Nebraska was 9–1 and number two in the country going into the Oklahoma game. A win would’ve clinched a chance at the national title in the Orange Bowl. However, the Sooners beat the Huskers 17–7 in Lincoln. Nebraska’s usually reliable kicker missed three field goals and the Sooners stopped a Nebraska drive at the 1 yard line late in the fourth quarter.
Nebraska went on to defeat LSU 28–10 in the Sugar Bowl and finished number three in the final polls.
The 1985 edition of the Big Red started 9–1 and was ranked number two going into a showdown with the Oklahoma Sooners in Norman. Nebraska could’ve earned an Orange Bowl berth and a shot at the national title with a win. However, the Sooners were just too much and blew out the Huskers 27–7. Oklahoma went on to win the 1985 national title with one of Barry Switzer’s strongest teams.
Nebraska played in the Fiesta Bowl and lost to one of Bo Schembechler’s best Michigan teams 27–23. Nebraska fell all the way to number ten in the final polls.
The Husker’s next chance for a national title was in 1987 when they won their first 9 games to set up a number one versus number two matchup with Oklahoma. The game was labeled the “Game of the Century, Part II” but it failed to live up the hype. Oklahoma dominated and won 17–7 in a game that wasn’t really that close.
Nebraska lost to Florida State 31–28 and finished number 6 in the final rankings.
Nebraska made their next run for the national title in 1989, when they opened the season with an 8–0 record. Nebraska played Colorado in a de facto Big 8 title game, with the winner advancing to the Orange Bowl to play Notre Dame for the national championship. Unfortunately, the Buffs prevailed 27–21 and Nebraska went to the Fiesta Bowl. Nebraska was routed by Florida State and finished number eleven.
During the 1980s, Nebraska was 103–20 with an 83.7% winning percentage. It was the second best decade in Nebraska football history. The only better decade was the 1990s when the Huskers went 108–16–1 and finished with an 86.4% winning percentage.
The great Nebraska teams of the 1980s don’t get as much attention as they deserve since they were sandwiched between national championship teams in the 1970s and 1990s. It was truly a glorious decade to remember. Go Big Red!