Lincoln - Forgive Nebraska's players for sneaking a peek at what lies beyond their Jan. 2 meeting with Tennessee in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
The Huskers say a solid performance against the fifth- and sixth-ranked Volunteers could be important in setting themselves up for a run at the national championship in the 2000 season.
"If we could win that game convincingly, it would put us in great position for next year," wingback Bobby Newcombe said. "We have a great opportunity next year to set some things off. We have a great team coming back, and to win this game would put us in the driver's seat."
Even Nebraska Coach Frank Solich, whose focus rarely strays from the next game on the schedule, can see the benefits a victory could bring. It would allow Nebraska to finish the season 12-1 and possibly wind up second in the national polls, pending the outcome of the Jan. 4 Nokia Sugar Bowl meeting between No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Virginia Tech.
"Everyone wants to end the season on a high note," Solich said. "Everyone wants it to be a step forward to next year and for winter conditioning, which starts almost immediately. Everyone looks at it almost the same way, and that's not really looking down the road.
"We only have one game left, and we're focused on that, with the understanding that you'd like to have it propel you forward."
Looking ahead a bit does not mean the third-ranked Huskers are looking past the 9-2 Volunteers. At Nebraska's Fiesta Bowl press conference Tuesday, Solich and his players took turns praising Tennessee as possibly the best team the Huskers will face this season.
Tennessee's offense, led by quarterback Tee Martin, will give Nebraska's defense its toughest challenge of the season. Tennessee's defense, with All-Americans in free safety Deon Grant and linebacker Raynoch Thompson, is as good as anyone Nebraska has faced, quarterback Eric Crouch said.
"It's going to be a challenge to try to move the ball on those guys," Crouch said.
But Crouch and the offense have overcome a series of challenges during a stretch run that produced a Big 12 Conference championship. The Huskers posted November victories over Texas A&M and Kansas State, both of which are nationally ranked, and Colorado. Nebraska then avenged its only loss of the season with a 22-6 victory over then-No. 12 Texas in the Big 12 title game.
A victory over Tennessee would give Nebraska wins over five ranked teams and would cap a season that has seen the Huskers erase many of the doubts raised when they went 9-4 in 1998. That marked the first time in three decades that Nebraska had lost four games in a season.
"We struggled early in the season, so I think people aren't quite convinced how good a team we really are," Husker I-back Dan Alexander said. "I think if we can have a good game against Tennessee that it would propel us into next season as far as people looking for big things from us and as far as us looking for big things. Plus, we'd know that we could get the job done."
As the only Jan. 2 game, the Fiesta Bowl puts Nebraska on a national stage.
"A good performance would really let people know what Nebraska is all about," Nebraska split end Matt Davison said. "We're playing a great opponent, and to come out and have a great performance would really impress the whole nation. We're really preparing with that in mind.
"We know with a win here, we could get some respect going into next season. We have practically everyone back on offense, so we should be better offensively next year. We lose a few guys on defense, but we're always good on defense and there are guys ready to fill in. This can be a good steppingstone to try to set us up for next year."
The Huskers will return nine starters next season on offensive, including All-Big 12 performers in Crouch, center Dominic Raiola, guard Russ Hochstein and tight end Tracey Wistrom. The Huskers will have some holes to fill defensively as they lose All-America defensive backs Ralph Brown and Mike Brown, All-Big 12 tackle Steve Warren, four of their top six linebackers and starting rush end Aaron Wills.
"If we can play well against Tennessee, hopefully that will motivate our team to work harder during the offseason," Alexander said. "Then we can come back next season and play at the top of our game from the very first game instead of waiting until halfway through the year."
Nebraska struggled offensively at times early in the season but still managed to win its first six games. After the Oct. 23 loss to Texas, Nebraska's offense blossomed, posting 300-yard-plus rushing days against Texas A&M, Kansas State and Colorado. The Huskers pounded a Texas defense that had been yielding just 95 yards per game in the Big 12 championship game, rushing for 234 yards.
It's important for Nebraska to keep building on those performances, Newcombe said.
"We have a lot of motivation to go to the Fiesta Bowl and shine - offensively, defensively and on special teams," he said. "It would inspire us to work harder for next season, knowing that we would have an opportunity to win it all."
Three Seniors Honored
Nebraska offensive tackle Adam Julch, rover back Mike Brown and linebacker Brian Shaw have been selected as the winners of three awards presented annually to seniors on the Husker football team.
Julch was named the winner of the Tom Novak Award, named for a former Husker All-American and presented to the senior who "best exemplifies courage and determination despite all odds." The 6-foot-5, 320-pound Julch has started 23 games the past two seasons in spite of injuries that have required several operations.
Brown, the Huskers' leading tackler and first-team All-America selection, was named the winner of the Guy Chamberlin Trophy. It is presented to the senior who has shown by his play and contributions that he has the qualities and dedication of Chamberlin, a former Nebraska All-American who went on to earn spots in the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.
Shaw was selected as the winner of the Cletus Fischer Native Son award, presented to the Nebraska native who best exemplifies the following qualities: good work ethic, competitiveness, leadership, forthrightness, sense of humor, pride, loyalty and love of Nebraska. Shaw, a three-year starter, twice earned second-team Academic All-America honors as well as being named the Burger King 1999 Division I Scholar-Athlete of the year.
Julch, Shaw and Brown will be honored at the Outland Trophy banquet on Jan. 12 in Omaha.