T I C K E R
Grasp on No. 1 rating tenuous
By Andrew Bagnato
Tribune College Football Writer
September 10, 2000
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SOUTH BEND, IND. -
After top-rated Nebraska fell three points behind No. 23 Notre Dame in overtime Saturday, Cornhuskers safety Dion Booker found defensive tackle Loran Kaiser sitting alone on the bench.
"He just came up and said, 'Man, I hate this,'" Kaiser said. "We have total confidence in our offense. But it's the waiting around. We hate waiting."
The Cornhuskers needed to get at least a field goal to prolong the game. A touchdown would mean victory; a turnover, defeat. But Kaiser and Booker couldn't bear to watch. Kaiser said they had begun chatting about their classes when a roar went up behind them. They looked into the Notre Dame Stadium crowd and saw thousands of red-clad Nebraskans celebrating.
That's when they knew the Cornhuskers had scored a touchdown to edge Notre Dame 27-24.
It was that kind of day for the nation's No. 1 team. By the end of a long, humid afternoon, it was squinting through its collective fingers like a teenager at a horror movie, dying to know how it was going to turn out but terrified to watch.
"A team never wants to be in overtime, but when you're in it, you have to give it your best shot," said Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch, who scored three touchdowns, including the game-winner on a 7-yard option keeper. "Thinking about a national championship is down the road."
Asked if he thought his team would benefit from this test, Nebraska coach Frank Solich smiled and said: "Personally, I'd like to go through the season without any tests. But that's not the way it works. This football game has to make us better."
Relief mixed with joy in the Nebraska dressing room. The Cornhuskers had survived their trip to the ghost-infested backyard of Knute Rockne, the Four Horsemen and Touchdown Jesus. The last two No. 1s to visit—Miami in 1988 and Florida State in 1993—went home with a loss.
"I wasn't worried about the mystique or legends," Cornhuskers tailback Dan Alexander said. "I was worried about their players."
As they headed back to Lincoln on Saturday night, the Cornhuskers had one other thing to worry about: their perch atop the two major polls.
If history is any indication, Nebraska might take a fall when the new polls are released Sunday afternoon. In November 1997, Nebraska tumbled from the top spot in both the media and coaches rankings after squeaking past Missouri in overtime. In a controversial final vote, the Cornhuskers leapfrogged fellow unbeaten Michigan to win the coaches' version of the national title, while the Wolverines hung on to No. 1 in the media vote.
The Michigan-or-Nebraska debate would have been moot under the present Bowl Championship Series system of sorting out the mythical national title. That's why the Cornhuskers probably won't be too disappointed if they fall behind defending national champion Florida State in the next poll. Even if it finishes second in the final regular-season polls, Nebraska would qualify for a slot in the Orange Bowl, site of the BCS title game.
The Cornhuskers came into the game clinging to a slim 11-point margin over the Seminoles in the AP (media) poll. For Florida State to leapfrog the Cornhuskers, only six panelists need to flip their votes. Nebraska owned a 34-point lead in the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll, meaning that as many as 18 coaches would have to change their votes to unseat Nebraska. Florida State played Saturday night at Georgia Tech.
Solich, who votes in the coaches poll, left little doubt where he would put his team on his ballot.
"I know where they are in my mind," he said. "They did a great job."
Still, the Cornhuskers looked anything like a national champion at times Saturday. They watched a 21-7 third-quarter lead evaporate when Notre Dame returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and then took a punt back 83 yards for the tying score.
"Standing on the sideline, it looked pretty much like a complete collapse [in coverage]," Solich said.
While Nebraska's special-teams players were standing around like statues, its offense went the final 23 minutes 47 seconds of regulation without even threatening to score.
That's hardly the stuff of a national titlist. But Solich gave his team credit for surviving. He hoped the pollsters would do the same.
"I don't think an average football team could have come back and done what our football team did to come back," he said. "They believe in themselves. There was never a moment that they doubted."
Copyright 2000 The Chicago Tribune