It's the time of year when the Nebraska plains turn gray-brown, which matches the ice patches and Tom Osborne's melancholy voice. The Cornhuskers seem somber, a result of the weather and their earlier loss to No. 1 Oklahoma. But this is also the time for a bowl game, when Nebraskans prepare to regain their football respectability.
Once again a runner-up bowl is Nebraska's destination, and on this occasion it is the Fiesta, where the fifth-ranked Cornhuskers (10-1) will meet third-ranked Florida State (10-1) on New Year's Day.
In a region where college football is frequently equated with self-esteem, and where Cornhuskers have endured a faltering agricultural economy and four straight losses to the Sooners, a top-three season could restore much worth to a team that in some quarters is perceived as a disappointment.
At most schools, a 10-1 season would be considered unmitigated success. But a 17-7 defeat by arch-nemesis Oklahoma cost the Cornhuskers a much anticipated national championship and No. 1 ranking, and the perception that Nebraska is becoming a perennial runner-up has caused a barrage of letters and criticism aimed at the football program. The Sooners are hoping for their second national championship in four years when they meet No. 2 Miami in the Orange Bowl; Osborne has yet to win one in 15 years.
"I guess our fans are never satisfied unless they get a national championship," defensive back Charles Fryar said. "And even then they'd probably say, 'You should have done it this way.' "
Other peripheral issues have also made this a less than enjoyable time at Nebraska. A faculty review board report on Dec. 9 took the Cornhuskers' academic performance to task and stated that "22 of the top 50" football players were either on probation or temporarily dismissed from their majors last spring. Osborne has said the report did not provide a fair picture.
Osborne's mood has been such that he listened briefly to a pair of offers from two other schools he would not name, reportedly Ohio State and North Carolina. The coach, who also lost a national championship in the 1983 Orange Bowl to Miami, admits there is some estrangement in Lincoln, but said he isn't going anywhere.
"I don't take a poll, but I've gotten some feedback and it hasn't been good," Osborne said. "I guess there's a feeling on the part of a fair portion of our fans that we've had a bad year. That's hard to live with, because we're 10-1 and we beat some good teams."
Clearly, Nebraska could use a victory, and Tempe, Ariz., where the team arrived yesterday, would be a good place to get one. Fans have still flocked to buy tickets for the game against a talented Florida State team that some feel may be the best in the nation.
The caliber of opponent has helped cheer the team, as has the expected good turnout. Roughly 9,000 alumni live on the West Coast, and many are in the Arizona area, which has become popular for migrating businessmen from Nebraska. Tempe even has a bar, Max's Place, whose decor consists of Cornhuskers memorabilia. Ticket sales among Nebraska followers are in the 12,000 range.
Nebraska and Florida State are title-caliber teams that would like to take back just one game. In Florida State's case, the Seminoles lost to Miami, 26-25, after leading by 19-3 and failing on a last-second two-point conversion attempt. In Nebraska's case, overconfidence caused when Oklahoma lost quarterback Jamelle Holieway and fullback Lydell Carr to injuries contributed to the defeat.
Obviously, the one thing Nebraska can't do is win the national championship, and finishing ranked in the top three may be difficult. Even if Nebraska beats Florida State, and if Miami and Oklahoma played a poor tie, there remains unbeaten Syracuse playing Auburn in the Sugar Bowl.
Osborne called Oklahoma the most disappointing loss he's been associated with, and also hints that he may have made a costly miscalculation. Before that game, he allowed more discussion of a national championship than he usually does, which meant that the shock of losing was all the greater.
"A lot of things happened that led to optimism, and that may have been misplaced," he said. "They wanted very much to win the national championship, and I didn't discourage them too much. A national championship is a dangerous goal because you leave yourself in a vulnerable position, and then what do you fall back on? After the big goal is taken away from you, you have to fall back on yourself and what kind of character you've got."
Osborne also took the time to defend his team's academic record recently. He said the faculty review of the top 50 players on his team was "not on balance" because it focused on a spring semester that he said was the worst in his 15 years, and was not necessarily a fair sample in terms of the players selected.
While Osborne said that 10 percent of the squad went to summer school to regain eligibility, he said that currently only five members of the team have less than a 2.0 grade-point average. The overall team GPA is 2.6, and 85 percent of the seniors are on time to graduate.
As for fan disgruntlement with Nebraska, and Osborne in particular, that probably will prove temporary also. After all, the coach is tied with Oklahoma's Barry Switzer for most games won in Big Eight history.
"A lot of schools would love to be 10-1," Fryar said. "I guess it shows how serious Nebraska people are about their football, it gets them down. The Fiesta won't necessarily help for some people, but for the team to do no worse than the top three, that's a big statement we could make."