Osborne won’t compare 1990s Huskers to 'Bama
Retired Nebraska coach Tom Osborne won’t get drawn into an argument over how his 1990s teams that won three national championships in four years would fare against the Alabama teams that just accomplished the same feat.
“It doesn’t come off very well when you try to compare a team that played 12, 14, 15 years ago with a team playing today and say this team would beat that team. Nobody knows,” Osborne said Wednesday. “The only way to do it is to play them. No question we had some very good teams. No question Alabama is very good, well-coached, very solid and certainly one to be admired.”
Osborne won all or part of national championships in three of his final four years with unbeaten teams. His 1994 and ‘95 teams were crowned by The Associated Press. In 1997, the Huskers won the coaches’ vote and Michigan was first in the AP poll of writers and broadcasters.
Nebraska also played for the title in 1993 but lost to Florida State in the Orange Bowl on a missed field goal as time ran out. The ‘96 team was poised to play for the national title but was upset by Texas in the inaugural Big 12 championship game.
The Huskers’ 60-3 record from 1993-97 remains the greatest five-year stretch in college football history. Alabama is 61-7 since 2008.
Grant Wistrom, who played defensive end on all three of Osborne’s title teams, said the 1990s Huskers would be hard-pressed to beat the 21st-century Tide.
“It’s only been 15 years, but it’s a faster game now,” Wistrom said. “We dominated back then, but I don’t know if our teams would have had the success (Alabama’s) had now. It’s tough to do what they’ve done in this day and age — not that it was easy for us back then.”
Those who tout the Southeastern Conference’s superiority — the league has won the last seven national championships — would argue the Tide has had to play a tougher schedule than the ‘90s Nebraska teams faced in the Big Eight/Big 12.
“You have to take your hat off to them because of the level of competition,” Osborne said. “I don’t know that the SEC top to bottom is filled with great teams, but you have at least three or four very good teams in recent years. To survive that schedule, you have to be very good, obviously.”
Colorado was the chief threat to the Huskers in the ‘90s. Rival Oklahoma was in a down cycle, and Kansas State didn’t fully emerge as a national power until 1998, the year after Osborne retired.
Wistrom, who retired in 2006 after a nine-year NFL career, wouldn’t venture to guess what would happen if any of Osborne’s and Nick Saban’s title teams met in a hypothetical game.
“I’m not going to say we’re the greatest thing since sliced bread, but we were darned good,” he said. “We had a lot of guys go to the pros, but so have they.
“If we could all get back together and be 18 years old and play them, we would decide it and there would be nothing more to talk about. No one would have anything to talk about on the radio. What’s the fun in that?”
Saban witnessed the Huskers’ mid-’90s power in person his first two years as head coach at Michigan State. Nebraska went into Spartan Stadium and won 50-10 in 1995, then put a 55-14 whipping to MSU in Lincoln the next year.
“The score did not indicate how bad they beat us,” Saban said of the first meeting. “I’m thinking we’re never going to win a game. I must have taken a bad job, wrong job, no players, something.
“I remember Coach Osborne when we shook hands after the game, he put his arm around me and whispered in my ear, ‘You’re not really as bad as you think.’ So I think he knew he had a pretty good team. And we actually ended up winning six games, so we weren’t really probably as bad as I thought.”
Wistrom said the most impressive thing about Alabama’s roll is that it’s occurred at a time when talent is spread out more than ever and more underclassmen are leaving school for the NFL.
The ‘90s Huskers and current Tide had similar personnel, and both played a bruising style of football.
Quarterback Tommie Frazier of Nebraska and A.J. McCarron of Alabama were undisputed team leaders. Nebraska had a beefy offensive line that cleared the way for Frazier, Lawrence Phillips and Ahman Green. The Tide’s powerful lines have opened holes for greats like Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy.
McCarron is a superior passer to Frazier, but Frazier left his mark as perhaps the greatest triple-option quarterback ever.
Wistrom and fellow All-American Jason Peter anchored Nebraska’s defensive lines.
The Tide has had at least one defensive lineman drafted each of the past three years, and Jesse Williams is a sure bet to make it four in a row.
“We tried to beat teams into submission,” Green said. “(Alabama) didn’t put up the scores we did, but they made it known when the game was over and the game was won.”
Osborne pointed out that the Huskers had to depend on the polls to win national titles more than the recent Tide teams, which have been able to settle things on the field through the Bowl Championship Series.
Had the BCS system been in place — and Osborne said he wishes it had been — Nebraska would have had to beat unbeaten Penn State in 1994 and unbeaten Michigan in 1997.
Of his three national championship teams, Osborne ranks the 1995 Huskers as the most talented team he coached.
That team outscored opponents by an average of 53-14, outgained them 562 yards to 298 and never trailed in a game after the second quarter.
Many observers have called the ‘95 Huskers the greatest college football team of all time.
Osborne declined to compare that team to any of Alabama’s title teams.
“How people want to rank them,” he said, “is up to them.”