Miami, Fla., Jan. 2, 1998 — Entering the 1998 FedEx Orange Bowl, the Nebraska Cornhuskers had one focus, to send retiring Head Coach Tom Osborne out as the winningest coach in college football. When Osborne decided to step down after 25 seasons on Dec. 10, 1997, one of the most successful eras in college football was coming to an end. Osborne had won 254 games in just 25 seasons at the helm of the Nebraska program, and he became the quickest coach to win 250 games with a 69-7 win over Oklahoma on Nov. 1.
The second-ranked Huskers entered the contest with one of the most potent offenses in college football. With quarterback Scott Frost, fullback Joel Makovicka and All-America I-back Ahman Green operating behind a veteran offensive line led by Outland Award winner Aaron Taylor and three other senior starters, Nebraska led the nation in total offense (513.7 yards per game), rushing offense (392.6 ypg) and scoring offense (47.1 points per game). Nebraska had scored 27 or more points in every game, including 54 in the Big 12 Championship win over Texas A&M en route to posting a 12-0 record. Defensively, All-Americans Grant Wistrom and Jason Peter led a stingy Blackshirt defense that ranked among the top 10 in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense.
Tennessee entered the showdown with an 11-1 record and a No. 3 national ranking after winning the Southeastern Conference title. The Vols had suffered an early-season loss to then top-ranked Florida, but had won their last nine contests, including a 30-29 come-from-behind victory over Auburn in the SEC title game. Behind the arm of Heisman Trophy runner-up Peyton Manning, Tennessee was among the nations leaders in total offense (482.1 ypg) and passing offense (331.8 ypg). Defensively, the Volunteers were tough against the run, allowing fewer than 95 yards per game on the ground.
Entering the bowl season, the Volunteers had a shot at the national title, but Michigans 21-16 victory over No. 7 Washington State eliminated the third-ranked Vols from title contention ,leaving just Nebraska and Michigan, the only undefeated teams in the nation, vying for a national title.
Although many people had conceded Michigan the national championship after its Rose Bowl win, Osborne told his team that the door was still open. Even though Michigan had won, they had struggled and did not look impressive. If Nebraska could dominate, Osborne said the Huskers would take at least a share of the title.
After a pair of punts by each team, Nebraska took advantage of a Tennessee turnover for its first touchdown. The Volunteers were driving for a score before cornerback Ralph Browns jarring hit forced a fumble by UT running back Jamal Lewis and Mike Rucker recovered at the Husker 22-yard line.
Nebraska would capitalize, marching 78 yards in eight plays, capped by an Ahman Green one-yard run. Frost, more noted for his rushing than his throwing, was 3-3 for 63 yards on the drive, including a key third-down pass to Sheldon Jackson for 25 yards.
The Huskers took advantage of another Volunteer mistake for their second touchdown. Lance Brown recovered a fumbled punt at the 15-yard line, setting up a Shevin Wiggins 10-yard run to give Nebraska a 14-0 lead. Tennessees Jeff Hall connected on a 44-yard field goal to cut the Husker margin to 14-3 midway in the second quarter.
Frost beat the Volunteers early with Ms passing, completing seven of 10 passes for 109 yards in the first half and outperforming his more heralded counterpart through the air.
Before halftime, Nebraska was looking for the knockout punch, but the Huskers were stopped when Frost fumbled and Tennessee recovered at the Volunteer 17-yard line. The turnover only delayed the inevitable. The Huskers took the second-half kickoff and went 80 yards in 12 plays to go ahead 21-3. After being held to just 69 yards on the ground in the first half, Nebraska relied exclusively on the ran, rushing for 74 yards on the drive, including a one-yard run by Frost.
The Nebraska defense stepped up on Tennessees next series. After putting the Vols in a third and eight situation, rush end Mike Rucker sacked Manning for a nine-yard loss, forcing a punt. Despite heavy pressure all evening, Ruckers sack of Manning was NUs only one of the contest.
After the Tennessee punt, Nebraskas offense continued to pound away, marching 73 yards. Ahman Green did most of the damage, rushing for 57 yards, including a 43-yard run on third and one at the Nebraska 36. Frost, who finished the game with 60 yards rushing, scored his second touchdown of the night on an 11-yard blast to give NU a 28-3 lead with 5:07 remaining in the third quarter.
Tennessee responded, driving 72 yards on nine plays, capped by a nine-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Peerless Price.
After the UT touchdown, Green single-handedly put the game out of reach, rushing 72 yards on NUs next possession. Green rushed for 47 yards to the Volunteer 33 on the first play of the drive and capped five-play drive with a 22-yard run, giving the Huskers a 35-9 lead at the end of the third quarter.
Green earned MVP honors, rushing for an Orange Bowl and Nebraska bowl record 206 yards and two touchdowns. The junior from Omaha had 13 carries for 159 yards in the third quarter alone in posting his fourth career 200-yard game, breaking the NU bowl record of 199 yards set by Tommie Frazier in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl.
Frost capped the Husker scoring with a nine-yard run,, his third of the day, to give Nebraska a 42-9 lead. Tennessee tacked on a final touchdown in the final minute, but by that time, the game was secondary, as the red-clad Husker fans loudly sang the praises of the legendary Husker coach who had led NU to 255 wins over the past quarter century.
The victory was similar to many of the wins during the Osborne era. Nebraska rushed for 409 yards and amassed 534 yards in total offense against the Volunteers. Nebraska tied an Orange Bowl record with 30 first downs and controlled the clock for more than 36 minutes.
On the night, Frost completed nine of 12 passes for 125 yards, while rushing for 60 more and three scores. Sheldon Jackson had a career-high four catches for 56 yards, while Green caught three passes for 31
Defensively, Nebraska held Tennessee to a season-low 315 yards, 150 yards less then their average. The Blackshirt defense held Manning in check, allowing just 134 yards passing by the Ail-American, hi lowest total of the season. All-America defensive tackle Jason Peter led the Huskers with seven tackles, while freshman cornerback Erwin Swiney and rover Mike Brown had five tackles apiece. Entering the contest, many experts thought that the youthful Nebraska secondary, which : freshman and two sophomores, would be picked on by Manning for several big plays, but the defensive backfield did not allow a play of more than 20 yards until late in the fourth quarter, after the starters were out.
After the game, when the Associated Press poll came out, Nebraska had closed the margin, but Michigan was first in the AP poll. At 2:30 a.m. Eastern time, the Sheraton Bal Harbor, home of the Huskers for 10 days, erupted when ESPN announced the coaches poll, which named Nebraska as national champions. Nebraska had edged the Wolverines by four points. It was the third national title in the past four years for Nebraska and the fifth in school history.
The victory and subsequent announcement capped one of the greatest runs in college football history. The Huskers became only the second team to win three titles in a four-year span (Notre Dame, 1946, 47, 49) and their five-year mark of 60-3 is an NCAA best. With the win, Osborne also passed Tennessee Coach Phil Fulmer as the nations winningest active coach.