- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 29, 2000

The fight for the right to be called college football's team of the '90s has gone into overtime.

Nebraska and Florida State, the schools that combined to claim national titles in five of the last seven seasons, begin the new decade in Orange Bowl poll position.

"I think a lot of fans would love to see us matched up against FSU in the title game," Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch said last week. "That would be a real barn-burner the two best programs for a while now going toe-to-toe for all the marbles. We certainly intend to hold up our end of the bargain, but that's a long way off."

Though four months stand between a potential Cornhuskers-Seminoles showdown in the Jan. 3 Orange Bowl (this year's Bowl Championship Series behemoth), only four true tests stand between college football's current dynasties and a dream duel.

No. 1 Nebraska, which returns 15 starters from last season's 12-1 team, will face only two teams ranked in the nation's top 10. Thanks to a schedule that does not include Big 12 powers Texas and Texas A&M;, the 'Huskers should be 9-0 when they travel to Manhattan on Nov. 11 to play No. 8 Kansas State (1-0), a team they decimated 41-15 last year in Lincoln.

Nebraska's only other serious challenge should come in the conference championship game, most likely against No. 7 Texas, a squad it dispatched 22-6 in the same game last season.

"The only team that can beat Nebraska is Nebraska," said Crouch, the latest cog in the 'Huskers option combine. "If we didn't fumble so much, we would have played for the national championship last year. Nobody really stopped us."

True enough. Last season, Nebraska dropped the ball five times in a midseason loss to Texas (24-20) but then steamrolled through the rest of its schedule. By the time the Cornhuskers completed their season with a 31-21 manhandling of Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl, rolling up 342 rushing yards against a Volunteers defense that sent five starters to the NFL, some people thought the Big Red Machine was the most unstoppable force in college football.

Crouch and Co. should be even more brutishly efficient this season with 10 offensive starters returning, including game-breaking wingback Bobby Newcombe and All-American linemen Dominic Raiola and Russ Hochstein, a pair of run-paving pancake masters.

Linebacker Carlos Polk, the preseason favorite to win the Butkus Award, will captain the Blackshirts on defense, where the 'Huskers' only critics find a target in an inexperienced secondary.

"Nobody has to worry about my guys," Polk told the Omaha World-Herald earlier this month. "Nebraska has never had a questionable defense, and that's not changing on my watch."

On the other side of the country, expect the Seminoles to maintain the status quo as well. No. 2 Florida State (1-0) is a comical 62-2 against ACC opponents since joining the conference in 1992.

"Three or four of our players would be on the depth chart at FSU, but none of them could start," first-year N.C. State coach and longtime FSU assistant Chuck Amato said when asked to compare his new charges to the caliber of players at Florida State. "I think you'd find most teams in the ACC would say the same thing."

Though Clemson should be improved under second-year coach Tommy Bowden, the Tigers must travel to Tallahassee this season, and Papa Bowden has never lost a league game in Doak Campbell Stadium.

With that thought in mind, the Seminoles face only two formidable foes in 2000 Sunshine State rivals Miami and Florida. Like Clemson, Florida must travel to Tallahassee, where the Gators have not won since 1986. But FSU's Oct. 7 trip to Miami qualifies as the regular-season game-of-the-year.

The fifth-ranked Hurricanes finally have the talent to start a new chatty, swaggering, camo-clad reign of terror in Coral Gables. No team has dominated Florida State like Miami did during its golden age, posting a 10-3 record against the Seminoles from 1980 to 1992 en route to four national titles.

"I hate to see them get good again," legendary FSU coach Bobby Bowden said last month. "For a little while there, we really only had to worry about Miami. Then it was just Florida for the last few years. Now we've got both of them breathing on us."

It's tough to feel too sorry for the "aw shucks" sideline swami, who returns the better part of last season's 12-0 team. The defending national champions feature Chris "Methuselah" Weinke behind center, senior tailback Travis Minor, the best offensive line in school history and eight returning starters on defense. Felonious playmaker Peter Warrick won't be missed, not with the likes of Anquan Boldin, Marvin Minnis, Javon Walker and Atrews Bell shagging flies from Weinke.

The Seminoles' only weaknesses look to be up the middle on defense, where spiritual leaders Corey Simon and Jerry Johnson departed for the NFL, and in the kicking game, where Polish sledgehammer Sebastian Janikowski also has taken his wares to the Sunday screen. Expected flaws in the kicking game were apparent in FSU's 29-3 victory over BYU on Saturday, when redshirt freshman Matt Munyon pushed his first extra-point attempt wide right and missed field-goal attempts of 34 and 27 yards.

"The kicking game was what I was afraid it would be," Bowden said after the BYU game. "We've got work to do all over the field, but hopefully we'll be there at the end of the season."

And barring an upset, the Big Red will be waiting.

"I think we've all heard enough dynasty talk out of Tallahassee," said Newcombe, Nebraska's nimble big-play threat. "It's time to get down to business and set the record straight."

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