MIAMI -- Nearly every year for the past decade, the Nebraska football team has come to the Orange Bowl saying things will be different. And every time, the Cornhuskers go back home to Lincoln with their record blemished, their pride shattered.
The only thing left intact is Nebraska's -- and coach Tom Osborne's -- reputation.
It is a reputation for losing big games, national championship-type games, especially those played on New Year's Day. Starting in 1984, when a decision to go for a two-point conversion here failed and the Cornhuskers lost by a point to Miami, Nebraska has lost four straight here and seven straight bowls overall.
Top-ranked Nebraska (12-0) will again have to play Miami (10-1) and try to change its losing reputation, not to mention its luck, tonight against third-ranked Miami (10-1) in what will be the final Federal Express Orange Bowl with national championship implications played in this stadium and this city.
"I'd love to win a national championship, and I don't want anybody to believe anything else," Osborne said yesterday in what has become his own New Year's resolution. "So much depends on the ballots and the parameters that are beyond your control. Who you play, where you play them."
Said Miami coach Dennis Erickson, "I look at what Tom's done, all the games he's won and I put him up there with Bear Bryant. To me and other people in this profession, to be a great coach, you don't have to win a national championship."
It marks the fourth consecutive year the Cornhuskers have come here, the second time in three years that they'll face the Hurricanes, and the second straight time they have done so with an unbeaten record and a chance to give Osborne the most elusive achievement of his career.
But they come here possessing something that was lacking a year ago, when they lost to Florida State on a 27-yard field goal by the Seminoles with 1:16 remaining and their own missed 45-yarder with one second left. This time, the Cornhuskers have the confidence to win.
"That game left a bitter taste for the season, and it's been with us for a long time," said outside linebacker Donta Jones, a fifth-year senior from La Plata, Md. "But we now know what it takes because we came so close. We feel there are still a lot of non-believers. In the past, we might have come in hoping that we could win. But this time we know we're going to win."
Said All-America linebacker Ed Stewart: "We're not going to get respect until we win this game."
The biggest difference about this year's game is that the Cornhuskers won't be the only team looking for respect. Miami, which won its second national championship in three years under Dennis Erickson with a 22-0 victory over Nebraska here three years ago, is looking to revive its own reputation as a dominant program.
The Hurricanes have taken a beating their past two New Year's bowls, first by getting upset, 34-13, by Alabama for the national championship in the 1993 Sugar Bowl, then by getting shellacked, 29-0, by Arizona in last season's Fiesta Bowl. Then came the 38-20 loss to Washington here earlier this season, which cost Miami its 58-game home-field winning streak.
"What happened the last two years and against Washington is in the past," said junior fullback James Stewart. "We want to go out and win, even embarrass Nebraska, to put some pressure on Penn State."
A Miami victory tonight before a sellout crowd of more than 74,000 -- about 60,000 will be rooting for the Hurricanes -- will mean that the second-ranked Nittany Lions can claim sole possession of Joe Paterno's third national championship by beating No. 11 Oregon in tomorrow's Rose Bowl. Should Miami win and the Ducks pull off a monumental upset in Pasadena, the Hurricanes would wind up with the national title.
But the Cornhuskers are not counting on that. They have the nation's No. 1 rushing offense and proved against Big Eight rival Colorado that they can beat a team with Miami's type of defensive speed. They have a much improved, and much quicker defense, which can put pressure on Frank Costa, Miami's mistake-prone quarterback. But they also have one huge question mark: junior quarterback Tommie Frazier.
"If I was coaching and preparing to play against us, I'd probably go with [Brook] Berringer," said Miami cornerback C. J. Richardson. "A guy who hasn't played in three months, it could throw their rhythm off."
Frazier, who nearly led the Cornhuskers to victory here last year against the Seminoles, is coming back from missing the last eight games after developing blood clots in his calf. He wouldn't have even been playing this week had he not been turned down for a medical redshirt by the NCAA. Some believe Osborne is taking a huge gamble by starting Frazier ahead of Berringer, a better passer.
Osborne announced Thursday that Frazier would start, but still promises Berringer will play as well. It could turn out to be the biggest mistake of Osborne's 22-year career, or his boldest stroke of genius.