The finish to the 1983 season is one that's been played over and over by ESPN Classic. Nebraska was the most powerful team in the country all year long--indeed, some said they were the best team ever. They ran over and around people and running back Mike Rozier won the Heisman Trophy in a walk. They went to the Orange Bowl ranked #1 in the nation. Texas was second, also unbeaten, with a smothering defense. Prior to the formation of the Big 12, these two teams were in separate leagues and going to the Orange and Cotton Bowls respectively. Auburn was ranked third in the nation, having played a brutal schedule of eight bowl teams and lost only to the Longhorns. Illinois was #4 and Rose Bowl-bound. And behind them all was #5 Miami, making its first appearance on the national stage under Howard Schnellenberger. The Hurricanes were 10-1, though they'd beaten only one bowl team along the way.
Because the top four teams were all committed to different bowls, Miami got its first break in that they were chosen to play Nebraska in the Orange. A chance to make history on one's homefield was a terrific opportunity for Schnellenberger's program, but no one was really thinking national championship. Even people who gave the 'Canes a chance figured that even they pulled the upset, Texas would beat #7 Georgia and move into the title. But January 1 started with a stunner. Despite a heroic defensive effort, the Longhorn offense was impotent and eventually they fumbled a punt deep in their own end that led to the winning touchdown in a 10-9 Georgia win. In mid-afternoon, Illinois was hammered by UCLA 45-9, a Bruin team led by their current coach Rick Neuheisel at quarterback.
It came down to prime-time. Auburn won a tough defensive fight over Michigan 9-7 in the Sugar Bowl. Most of the nation didn't see it, because everyone was gripped by what was happening in Miami. The Hurricanes led 17-0 and then 31-17, before Nebraska rallied for two touchdowns. The Cornhuskers opted to go for two points with 48 seconds left, this being well prior to the age of overtime. Turner Gill, now the Kansas coach, rolled right and threw a pass that would've hit his receiver on the numbers. Miami safety Ken Calhoun reached across and got a finger on the ball and it bounced away. The Hurricanes had pulled the stunner. And they were voted #1 in the nation.
To read more about the 1983 season and other great moments, check out The Last Year's, Dan Flaherty's book recounting the best moments of New Year's Day football.
Huh? It was a great win for Miami to be sure, but how does winning by one point on your homefield somehow trump Auburn's resume of nine bowl victories, including the Sugar? Auburn's loss to Texas was infinitely more respectable than Miami's 28-3 loss to Florida before the Gators were a national power. Auburn's bowl win came on a neutral site. Miami's bowl win could've been a tie if not for a courageous decision by Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, who could've secured the #1 ranking with an extra point, but believed champions play to win. Finally, we have to consider that Nebraska was overrated to begin with--they'd also struggled to put away a 7-4 Oklahoma team in the season finale. The Cornhuskers were outstanding to be sure, but while they're running game was historically great, the defense and special teams were not. This re-evaluation of 1983 Nebraska also requires re-evaluation of the team that beat them. And I am convinced that Auburn was robbed in 1983 in one of the most short-sighted votes of the modern era. Caught up in the romance of a Cinderella taking down the heavyweight, votes lost sight of Auburn's incredible resume. The '83 Tigers deserve to take their place among college football's championship teams. Like the Cold Case show, let's see people like head coach Pat Dye and running back Bo Jackson come walking through the precinct office with some music in the background, while the file marked "1983 Auburn" is now listed as solved.
Image from tedwatts.org
Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in college football ,game analysis in the NFL. and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.