Forgive No. 3 Nebraska and No. 6 Tennessee if they strut into the new century Sunday. Not only are they two of only four major college football programs to win 100 games in the 1990s, they also like it here.
Each won a national championship on its last trip to the Fiesta Bowl, Nebraska in 1996 and Tennessee last year.
Although the teams have won or shared four of the past five national championships, there will be no title Sunday night. That will be settled when unbeatens Florida State and Virginia Tech meet in the Sugar Bowl on Tuesday in New Orleans. But if Nebraska (11-1) wins here, it can lay legitimate claim to No. 2. Its only loss was by four points to Texas, a defeat it avenged in the Big 12 title game.
"Personally, I feel there are five or six teams right now that could play for the national championship," Nebraska Coach Frank Solich said. "Who knows who would win if you put any of those teams together? In Tennessee, we are playing one of those teams."
"Last year we were playing for all the marbles," said Tennessee senior linebacker Raynoch Thompson, a Butkus Award finalist who led the Volunteers in tackles for the second straight season.
"Now we're just trying to get some stability back to this program after we took a big downfall during the season."
Some big downfall. Tennessee (9-2) lost to Florida by two and Arkansas by four. But the loss the Volunteers remember is the one before those--in the 1998 Orange Bowl, when a more physical Nebraska team dominated them, 42-17, in the only other meeting between the schools. The Cornhuskers were ranked No. 2 entering the game, one spot ahead of Peyton Manning-led Tennessee.
"Hopefully we have learned some of the lessons taught to us in the second half of that game," Tennessee Coach Philip Fulmer said. "The [Orange Bowl] is not that far out of some of their minds. There is a lot of pride on this team."
"I was thrilled to find out we'd get another shot at them after what they did to us two years ago," Thompson said. "It's been ringing in the back of my head that feeling I had coming off the field that night. I wanted to make sure that would never happen again."
For its part, Nebraska is saying all the right things. "Every game to us is another game," Nebraska senior tight end T.J. DeBates said. "We don't take anybody lightly. Tennessee has a lot of athleticism, so it is sure to be a good matchup. We realize this is not for the national championship, but we want to show the country what type of team we are."
Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin, who replaced Manning and guided the Vols to their first national title last season, has been at full strength in practice the past several days and will start. He had a scare before Christmas, when he contracted a viral infection while visiting family in Mobile, Ala. His mother was hospitalized and an uncle and brother-in-law also were stricken.
Vols tailback Travis Henry, who suffered a mild concussion in the regular season finale against Vanderbilt, also will start, Fulmer said. Henry has rushed for 824 yards despite starting only the final two games of the season in place of Jamal Lewis, who had 851 yards rushing. The two had 15 rushing touchdowns, eight by Henry.
Tennessee is ranked seventh in rushing defense and No. 11 in total defense this season. It has given up only three rushing touchdowns, and did not allow the first until Notre Dame got one in the Vols' eighth game. Nebraska's "Blackshirt" defense is No. 4 in total defense allowing 252 yards a game, 45 fewer per game than Tennessee.
Each team averages about 400 yards offense a game. Tennessee uses a run-pass mix led by Martin (2,317 yards passing); the Huskers use a run-first option style behind sophomore quarterback Eric Crouch, the co-Big 12 offensive player of the year.
Crouch replaced Bobby Newcombe as the starter in Week 3 and rushed for a team-high 1,026 yards. Junior tailback Dan Alexander had 902 yards rushing and tailback Correll Buckhalter added 662. On the downside, the Huskers had 49 fumbles, losing 24.
"Nebraska is tough," Tennessee defensive end Shaun Ellis said. "They run the option and try to catch you off balance. You just have to be ready to play the run."
Nebraska's Tracey Wistrom, the all-Big 12 tight end, was ruled out of the game late this week. He partially tore a left knee ligament in practice Nov. 29.
Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
No. 3 Nebraska vs. No. 6 Tennessee
Time/TV/Radio: 8 p.m., WJLA-7, WMAR-2, WTEM-980.
Records: Nebraska 11-1 (7-1, Big 12 champion); Tennessee 9-2 (6-2, second in SEC East Division).
Coaches: Nebraska, Frank Solich; Tennessee, Philip Fulmer.
Payout: $11 million-$13 million per team.
The defense, nicknamed the "Blackshirts," was among the top seven in every major statistical category. DB Mike Brown is a threat wherever he plays on the field. His job as a rover is to be wherever he feels the ball is headed. The Cornhuskers will have to guard against being overzealous with their blitzing, as Tennessee presents a balanced offense. Nebraska's offense could be hurt by injuries to RB Correll Buckhalter (turf toe) and TE Tracey Wistrom (knee), but QB Eric Crouch has the ability to carry the team on his shoulders. Crouch led Nebraska in rushing and improved his passing after being named the starter before the third game of the season.
Rushing: QB Eric Crouch (1,026 yards on 180 attempts, 16 TDs); RB Dan Alexander (902 yards on 134 attempts, 8 TDs).
Passing: Eric Crouch (83 of 160 for 1,269 yards, 7 TDs, 4 INTs).
Receiving: Matt Davison (29 for 441 yards, 2 TDs).
Defense: DB Mike Brown (96 tackles, 5 INTs); LB Carlos Polk (83 tackles).
The Volunteers are presented with odd matchups on defense. Nebraska has lost 24 fumbles, but the Volunteers have recovered only seven. Nebraska had the fourth-best rushing attack in the country, averaging 265.9 yards per game and scoring 37 TDs, but Tennessee has given up just three rushing TDs and 89.6 rushing yards per game. QB Tee Martin is prepared to be sacked a few times by Nebraska's constant blitzing, but his scrambling could get the Volunteers out of trouble. RBs Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry share time in the backfield, and Henry is capable of breaking big runs. He averaged 41 yards on his last six TD runs of the season.
Rushing: Jamal Lewis (851 yards on 182 attempts, 7 TDs); Travis Henry (824 yards on 125 attempts, 8 TDs).
Passing: Tee Martin (165 of 305 for 2,317 yards, 12 TDs, 9 INTs).
Receiving: Cedrick Wilson (57 catches for 827 yards, 4 TDs).
Defense: DB Deon Grant (57 tackles, 9 INTs); LB Raynoch Thompson (85 tackles).
-- Matt Bonesteel