Tempe, Ariz. - Nebraska and Tennessee notched two of their finest football moments of the 20th century in Sun Devil Stadium.
For the Huskers, it came in on Jan. 2, 1996, when they blasted Florida 62-24 to win their second straight national championship. Tennessee's moment of glory came last Jan. 4, when the Volunteers upset top-ranked Florida State 23-16 to win their second national title.
The stakes won't be as high Sunday night when Nebraska and Tennessee return to a sold-out Sun Devil Stadium to play their first game of the new millennium in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. The national championship will be decided in two days when Florida State plays Virginia Tech in the Nokia Sugar Bowl.
If the participants are bitter at being denied a chance to play for college football's top prize, it hasn't shown in the days leading up to tonight's 7:05 p.m. (CST) game.
"The Fiesta Bowl won't be for the national championship, but it's a national championship-caliber game," Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin
said. "It's a game in which both teams have something to prove. It's a game about respect."
Said Nebraska cornerback Ralph Brown: "We both know that we made a couple of mistakes this year, but we also understand that we can come out here and show the nation that we could have been No. 1 this year. I think both teams want to display that."
The slip-ups have been few for both teams, but they were enough to cost Nebraska and Tennessee a shot at the title. Nebraska's came Oct. 23, when the Huskers dropped a 24-20 decision at Texas. They rebounded by running the table, capping a string of five straight wins with a 22-6 win over the Longhorns in the Big 12 Conference championship game.
That win left the Huskers 11-1 and ranked No. 3 in the national polls. Tennessee's rankings of fifth and sixth are a result of a season that saw the Volunteers lose just twice in 11 games - by two points at Florida (23-21) and by four points at Arkansas (28-24).
"Both teams are only a few plays or a few points away from being undefeated," Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer said. "We both had our opportunities and we both didn't quite get to the national championship game. But I think we both were about as close as you can get."
Fulmer has long been a proponent of a playoff system that would give a Nebraska or a Tennessee a second chance.
"The system we have now is working," Fulmer said. "Beyond that, I think there should be a way to play it off on the field. Whether it's 16 teams or two teams, there should be some way or another to get it where it's decided on the field."
Being denied a shot at the title hardly leaves the teams lacking for motivation. For Tennessee, a victory would cap the most successful decade - the NCAA considers January bowl games as part of the previous season - in school history. The Volunteers are 99-21-2 in the '90s, including 54-7 the past five seasons.
Tennessee also could assure itself of a top-five finish in the polls by collecting the school's 700th victory tonight. The last time the Volunteers finished in the top five in back-to-back seasons was 1950-1951.
Adding to Tennessee's motivation is a desire to show that it no longer can be pushed around by a team such as Nebraska. The Huskers' 42-17 manhandling of the Volunteers in the 1998 FedEx Orange Bowl left the Tennessee players convinced they needed to get bigger and stronger to play with the big boys of college football.
"Our coaches and the players don't like to use revenge as motivation, but you definitely remember the loss in the Orange Bowl," Tennessee defensive back Dwayne Goodrich said. "That's the worst score I've ever lost by in a football game, and I've been playing since I was 5. You remember the worst loss you've had. We don't like to use the word revenge, but you remember."
Nebraska came into the 1999 season hoping to cleanse itself of the memories of 1998, when the Huskers lost four games for the first time in three decades. The Nebraska players' response to their 9-4 season is the primary reason the Huskers were able to get back on track in Frank Solich's second season as head coach.
"We've been fortunate to have players on this team who drove themselves and who pushed the other players into doing the right things," Solich said. "They made sure the focus was kept on what this team wanted to accomplish. If you don't have the proper leadership on your team, it's going to get fragmented.
"We were able to prevent that because of the leaders we have on this team."
A victory tonight would allow the Huskers to become the seventh Nebraska team to win at least 12 games in a season. It probably would leave Nebraska ranked second in the final polls, depending on the outcome of the Sugar Bowl game. And it would wrap up one of the most dominating decades in college football history.
The Huskers have won 107 games since 1990 heading into tonight's game. Nebraska won outright national championships in 1994 and 1995, and shared the title in 1997. The 27 seniors playing their final game tonight have posted a 56-7 record in their five years in the program.
Four of those losses came last season, including a season-ending 23-20 loss to Arizona in the Culligan Holiday Bowl.
"After that, we all had a sour taste in our mouths," Husker senior tight end T.J. DeBates said. "I can't even describe how it felt being at Nebraska and going 9-4. It was not good. This year we wanted to come out and make a statement."
The Huskers could add the exclamation point tonight, but they must solve a Tennessee team that possesses an attack similar to Nebraska's. Both teams feature aggressive defenses that rely on relentless pressure. Since the Orange Bowl loss to the Huskers, Tennessee's offense has gravitated to a more balanced attack that emphasizes the run as much as the pass.
Volunteers quarterback Tee Martin has passed for 2,317 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, but it's his 317 rushing yards that particularly concern Nebraska's defense. At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, Martin is big enough and quick enough to scramble an opponent's defensive strategy by running with the football.
"Anytime you start spreading people out and giving him an opportunity to run, you know he can make big plays," said Charlie McBride, Nebraska's defensive coordinator. "He's got speed and a very strong arm. He gave us a dose of that in the Orange Bowl in the last quarter, taking his team right down the field and scoring. He's improved ever since."
Martin is 22-2 as Tennessee's starting quarterback. He gets plenty of support from the Volunteers' big-back combination of 225-pound Jamal Lewis, who rushed for a team-leading 816 yards in 1999, and 220-pound Travis Henry, who produced 790 yards and will start tonight behind Martin.
They'll be facing their stiffest challenge in a Nebraska defense that ranks no lower than sixth nationally in the four major defensive statistical categories - rushing (sixth, 77.1 yards per game), passing efficiency (second, 87.9 points), total defense (fourth, 252.3 yards per game) and scoring (third, 12.5 points per game).
"They are fast, strong, very physical and play very hard," Tennessee wide receiver Cedrick Wilson said. "They probably have the best secondary we've faced all year, but we will be prepared."
Tennessee's preparations defensively have focused on slowing Nebraska's option-based offense that produced an average of 266 yards rushing and 34 points per game. The Huskers ranked fourth nationally in rushing offense and 12th in scoring offense.
The most dangerous Husker has been quarterback Eric Crouch, the Big 12's co-offensive player of the year. The sophomore became the first quarterback to lead Nebraska in rushing since 1955, gaining a team-high 889 yards. He also threw for 1,269 yards and accounted for 24 touchdowns.
The Volunteers respect Crouch's talents, Tennessee linebacker Raynoch Thompson said, but they don't fear him.
"He's just one player," Thompson said. "They have a lot of talented players. We plan on getting after him on Sunday."
Crouch's ability to run the option is a concern, but the Volunteers remember Nebraska's ability to pound the ball between the tackles as being the deciding factor in the teams' meeting two years ago.
"The option tends to get you running laterally, but we played it well in the first half in the Orange Bowl," Fulmer said. "Then the tailback got us in the second half. But trying to manage Eric Crouch and their offense will not be easy. Right now, Nebraska is playing as well as anyone in the country."
Solich says the same about Tennessee.
"They were a few plays away from playing for a national championship," Solich said. "This is a very big game for our football team, and I know Tennessee sees it that way as well. It should be a game that both squads are excited about playing."
Even with the top prize out of reach.