TEMPE, Ariz. -- If Nebraska had to come to a Fiesta Bowl, it picked the right one for the University of Tennessee.
All the Vols lost Sunday night was ranking and pride. They're still the defending national champions.
So UT fans don't have to worry about what might have happened if Nebraska had showed up for last year's Fiesta Bowl. In 1998, the Cornhuskers suffered through a 9-4 season that ended in the Holiday Bowl, a few hundred miles away and several days before the Vols beat Florida State for the national title.
Nebraska was too close for comfort Sunday night.
The Cornhuskers weren't as dominant or spectacular as in the Miami Massacre of 1998 when they won a national championship of their own by drubbing the Vols 42-17 in the Orange Bowl. But they started fast and finished strong in a 31-21 victory that could place them as high as second in the final top 25 poll, which will be released Wednesday morning.
Florida State and Virginia Tech won't decide the national championship until Tuesday night's Sugar Bowl, but I've already got my preseason No. 1 pick for 2000. Guess who?
Nebraska will return eight starters from the offense that dismantled the Vols on Monday night. That's good enough for me.
Never mind that the Cornhuskers lose most of their starters from what defensive coordinator Charlie McBride calls his best defense ever. Center Adam Julch says the backups are just as good. I'll take his word for it.
This game arguably was decided in the first 10 minutes when Nebraska scored a pair of touchdowns -- on a four-play, 43-yard touchdown drive and a 60-yard punt return for a touchdown by Bobby Newcombe.
UT fans can be proud of what didn't happen next. There was no avalanche.
One touchdown led to another in the Orange Bowl. Two touchdowns led to a UT comeback.
The Vols scored once at the end of the first half and again early in the third quarter after Nebraska's 26th lost fumble. They looked more like last year's national champions than the bunch that came undone in the second half against Nebraska two years ago.
The look didn't last. The Vols could withstand one Nebraska surge, not two.
The Vols credited the Beating by the Beach for inspiring them to improve their strength and conditioning. The improvement showed in a 13-0 national championship season. It didn't show in the second half Sunday night.
With 8:52 left in the third quarter, Nebraska seemingly stood on shaky ground. It was only 4 yards from its own goal line, leading by just three points.
That was as good as it got for the Vols.
Nebraska proceeded to drive 96 yards in brutally efficient fashion against a defense that clearly had lost its legs. The Nebraska-dominated crowd sensed the kill and turned up the volume.
The Cornhuskers responded with a 99-yard touchdown drive that put the game out of reach, 31-14.
"I'm sure somebody has driven 99 yards on us, but not like that," UT coach Phillip Fulmer said afterwards. His tone reflected his respect for Nebraska's power.
UT struck back on a 44-yard pass from Cedric Wilson to Donté Stallworth, but Nebraska's offense wasn't fazed. It went back to hammering.
The Cornhuskers ran 13 consecutive times in moving from their 30 to the UT 13. By then, UT's defense had been reduced to an afterthought. Mercifully for UT, time ran out before Nebraska completed a third consecutive touchdown drive.
"I'm proud of our football team: I don't think they quit," Fulmer said. "(Nebraska is) a very, very fine football team. It's hard to spot a fine football team 14 points."
It's even harder to spot them 14 more points.