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College Football

26 Years Later, Michigan Finally Bests Nebraska

The Michigan Wolverines celebrate after winning the 2024 CFP National Championship game against the Washington Huskies at NRG Stadium on January 08, 2024 in Houston, Texas. The Michigan Wolverines won the game 34-13.
Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Today is a perfect day for some Boomer Talk, so let’s hop in the wayback machine and go all the way back to the days of 1997. Princess Diana has just died, and your mother will never get over it. John Travolta and Nicolas Cage are trading faces. Meredith Brooks is a bitch, a lover, a child, a mother, a sinner, AND a saint. Bill Clinton is President and blissfully unaware that the world is about to find out what happened between him, Monica Lewinsky, and a wet cigar. And Michigan football is undefeated and on the verge of winning their first national championship in nearly 50 years.

But there’s a catch for the Wolverines. They have to defeat Ryan Leaf, the most dangerous passer in college football, and his Washington State Cougars in the Rose Bowl. At the same time, they have to fend off an undefeated Nebraska team in the polls. This is the year before the advent of Bowl Championship Series (or BCS), so national champions are still often decided by the polls alone. To make things even more annoying, there are two polls. The first one is the AP poll, which is decided by the press. The second one is the USA Today coaches’ poll, which is voted on by coaches who infamously let their underlings do the voting for them. Yes, this the time of shared national championships, and of coaches turning their postgame pressers into campaign rallies, and of bros everywhere crying out, “Let’s just find a field somewhere in the middle of Iowa and settle it there, once and for all!”

But Michigan need not worry about any of that. They’re No. 1 in both polls, and have resided at the top ever since Nebraska needed a miracle (and possibly illegal) touchdown off a deflection to beat lowly Mizzou in early November. So when Charles Woodson and the Wolverines hold off Wazzu in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day 1998, it’s a done deal. Head coach Lloyd Carr, who inspired his team by making all of them read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (??), tells his players, “You just won the national championship,” and there is much rejoicing.

[Corso voice] Not so fast, my friend. Because Nebraska has yet to play their bowl game: a Jan. 2 Orange Bowl matchup against Peyton Manning and Tennessee that was arranged by the Bowl Alliance, which is like the BCS but 10 percent less cool. The Huskers, with two recent and undisputed national titles already on their resume, annihilate the Volunteers. And that’s when the campaigning begins in earnest. From QB Scott Frost:

I have a question for all the coaches: if you can look yourself in the mirror and say if your job depended on playing either Michigan or Nebraska to keep your job, who would you rather play?

And defensive lineman Grant Wistrom:

If anybody in their heart can honestly find (a reason) not to vote us No. 1, that’s their problem. If you’re going to give it to Michigan because they haven’t won in a 45 years, then who cares? We don’t want it, anyway. If you want to vote for the best team in the country, vote for us.

The campaigning works. The coaches—or their executive assistants—bump Nebraska back up to No. 1. The AP keeps Michigan at No. 1, and we have ourselves a split national title. Everyone gets what they want and no one gets what they want. As far as Michigan fans are concerned, they’re the real champs. As far as Nebraska fans are concerned, they’re the real champs. This is college football in the 1990s: an eternal bar argument that leaves everyone involved drunk and angry.

Fast forward 26 years. This sport still leaves everyone drunk and angry but, thanks to a real-deal playoff system, there’s now little argument as to who’s the best when the season is over. This season, it’s Michigan. They ran the table and then suffocated Washington for their first undisputed national title since 1948, when they were in the Big Nine conference. Whether or not the Wolverines got a little help from an aspiring Spygate mastermind (they did) during their run is the kind of question that might have held sway back at the turn of the century, but no longer. Michigan, and Crooked Jim Harbaugh, are No. 1. No one else gets to lay claim to that title.

Especially Nebraska. Since that 1997 season, the Cornhuskers have won zero national titles. They’ve never made the College Football Playoff. They moved to the Big Ten in 2011 and have never won their division (by contrast, Northwestern has won it twice). They’ve cycled through six different head coaches, including Frost, who was fired after going 16-31 in a little over four years on the job. They haven’t had a winning season since 2016, and there’s little to indicate that they’ll return to their dynastic ways anytime soon. This season, they hosted Michigan in Lincoln and lost, 45-7. They are filler for a conference that barely requires their services. They are shit. A has-been that never will be again.

I was a diehard Michigan football fan back in 1997, and I chafed at Frost and company whining their way into a split title. So while I'm no longer a diehard Michigan fan, I’d just like to say to both Nebraska, and to their fans: It’s settled now. You lose. Eat a butt.

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