New season to be built on New Year's bowls

August 28, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Nearly eight months ago, Nebraska and West Virginia hoped to play each other for the national championship in the Orange Bowl.

Their coaches politicked for it.

Their frustrated fans faxed every college football writer they could find.

It didn't happen. The undefeated Cornhuskers went to Miami and lost to top-ranked Florida State, 18-17, but earned a good deal of respect in the process. The unbeaten Mountaineers went to New Orleans, but a 41-7 beating by Florida in the Sugar Bowl sent them back to Morgantown humiliated.

Today, when they open the 1994 college football season with the 12th Kickoff Classic at Giants Stadium, fourth-ranked Nebraska will be looking to build on its performance against the Seminoles, and No. 24 West Virginia will be trying to bury the memories of its embarrassment against the Gators.

The Cornhuskers will be about as overwhelming a favorite to beat the Mountaineers -- 16 1/2 points -- as Florida State was to beat Nebraska. It is something that Tom Osborne is aware of, and something he already has tried to drill into his players during two-a-days.

"They can expect us all they want," Osborne said Friday, referring to predictions of a blowout. "People expected Florida State to annihilate Nebraska last January. I think the most difficult game to get a handle on is the first game."

Said West Virginia coach Don Nehlen: "If I didn't think we could win, then I wouldn't coach. You don't get in a car if you don't think you're going to be able to start it. Football is a funny game. That's why they didn't make the ball round. They made it so it bounces strange ways. Maybe it'll bounce right into our hands."

For that to happen, Mountaineers tailback Robert Walker will have to do plenty of bouncing off Nebraska's defense. And the strongest part of a West Virginia team that lost 27 seniors -- its defensive line -- will have to get an early read on Cornhuskers quarterback Tommie Frazier as well as Lawrence Phillips, the latest in a long line of great Nebraska running backs.

"This is going to give us a chance to redeem ourselves for what happened in New Orleans," said Walker, who rushed for a school-record 1,250 yards last season, but only 59 on 13 carries against Florida. "This is our one game that's going to get a lot of national exposure, so we'll see what we're made of."

Said Frazier: "As a team, we look at what happened last year and say we came oh so close to winning a national championship. But that was last year, and we've got 12 games to think about this year."

What happened to Nebraska last January has a lot of bearing on what could happen this season. The Cornhuskers, who lost their seventh straight New Year's Day game, are considered one of a handful of teams with a chance to win this year's national championship.

Osborne, never a fan of the polls or the media, said: "It's a little bizarre that one game would make that much of a difference, just as two or three other games would make that much of a difference the other way. We'll take whatever we can get."

So will the Mountaineers.

"For the personnel we lost last year, that's probably a very lofty rating," said Nehlen.

It could get even loftier, with a victory by West Virginia today. Stranger things have happened. And almost happened. Just ask Nebraska. Or Florida State, for that matter.

NOTES: Nebraska linebacker Donta Jones, a senior from La Plata, Md., is expecting more than 60 friends and relatives at the game. This is the closest to home Jones has played since starting his college career. . . . Nebraska has won its two previous trips to the Kickoff Classic, including a 44-6 upset of top-ranked Penn State in the inaugural game.

KICKOFF CLASSIC

Who: Nebraska (No. 4 in the AP preseason rankings) vs. West Virginia (No. 24).

When: Today, 2 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 7

Where: Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.

1993 records: Nebraska: 11-1, including an 18-17 loss to top-rated Florida State in the Orange Bowl. West Virginia: 11-1, including a 41-7 loss to Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

-! Series record: First meeting.

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