MIAMI -- Nebraska is their opponent, but the Miami Hurricanes will be playing more than one game tomorrow night. They will be playing poll politics, the numbers game and the Washington Huskies.
When the No. 1 Hurricanes (11-0) meet 11th-ranked Nebraska (9-1-1) in the Orange Bowl, they will know that a win may not be enough. If second-ranked Washington overcomes No. 4 Michigan in the Rose Bowl, Miami may have to pour it on the Huskers to ensure at least a share of their fourth national championship in nine years.
"We know we'll have to win by a certain margin, and it's a shame it has to be that way," said Miami offensive guard Claude Jones. "It's a lot of pressure because you just want to relax and win the game."
Miami has a slight lead over Washington in the Associated Press poll of media representatives, and the teams are tied for first in the coaches' poll. That means the Hurricanes will be watching TV in the afternoon, waiting to see the type of damage they'll have to inflict at night.
"If Washington wins, we have to win impressively," said Miami linebacker Darrin Smith. "We'd have to at least match Washington's margin over Nebraska to make it look good, which isn't fair."
Washington beat Nebraska, 36-21, in Lincoln on Sept. 21, and the conventional wisdom is that the Hurricanes need to beat the Huskers by two touchdowns to play it safe.
All this talk about margin of victory has Nebraska peeved. The Cornhuskers are clearly uninvited guests, but they said a Miami team with its mind on Pasadena and a national title will be a Miami team vulnerable to losing its 44-game Orange Bowl winning streak.
"They want to beat us by a certain score," said Nebraska tight end Johnny Mitchell. "When you try to do that, sooner or later it backfires. And when the bomb hits, it's going to be something ugly."
"Any time they talk about Washington or how much they have to beat us by, that's fine," Nebraska receiver Jon Bostick said. "Anything that takes their mind off us is to our advantage."
Miami coach Dennis Erickson insists his team won't base its strategy on the outcome of the Rose Bowl, and several of his players maintained that they'll be satisfied with a one-point win. Even Rusty Medearis, the bold-talking defensive end, allowed that the Hurricanes "aren't looking to thump Nebraska."
But a decisive Washington win will be too difficult to ignore. The Miami program is all about winning national championships, so the Hurricanes may be put in the position of running up the score on Nebraska.
"The Rose Bowl is a prime-time game for Washington and if they win big, it will put pressure on us to do the same," Miami linebacker Michael Barrow said.
Of course, if the Hurricanes humiliate Nebraska, it could have the opposite effect on pollsters. Miami, with all its swagger, may play the game better than any program in the country. But the Hurricanes are much less comfortable in the political arena.
"People are always looking for a reason to vote us out," said Miami return man Kevin Williams. "We get treated unfairly because of people's perception of us."