Thirty five years ago today, the University of Miami were proclaimed the consensus football D1 National Champions – the first of eleven undisputed national titles won by Florida schools. All those titles were won between 1983 and 2013- in that period of the 31 national champions crowned, not only were 11 from Florida but Miami, Florida and Florida State played for 20 national titles in that period, meaning more often than not in the game that decided the national title, a Florida school was present.
The 50th Annual Orange Bowl held on January 2, 1984 pitted the Nebraska Cornhuskers, considered one of the great college teams of all time against the University of Miami Hurricanes.
The previous night on January 2nd 1984 the University of Miami won the first national championship in the schools history. It was the first title for a school from the state of Florida and also the first by a school running a pro style offense. It was a game that changed the college football landscape nationally and college sports in Florida forever.
The college game changed forever that day. When Florida State played Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl following both the 1979 and 1980 seasons the Seminoles had not been able to stop OU’s option and Oklahoma did do enough (just enough in the second meeting) to slow down FSU’s innovative offense to win.
The Nebraska-Miami game following the 1983 season was seen in the same light. An upstart school from Florida that ran an unconventional offense for college and stressed athleticism in recruiting against Big 8 option powerhouse. When Miami won the game, and a year later BYU went undefeated, schools throughout out the nation began to think about moving away from the option and towards a more passing oriented offense.
The game itself was supposed to be a mismatch. The Huskers of 1983 were one of the most intimidating teams in recent college football history. Led by QB Turner Gill, Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier, and All-American WR Irving Fryar, the Nebraska offense was an unstoppable force. Nebraska had been in few close games all season and rolled over opponents often playing backups from the third quarter onward.
Miami had overachieved in 1983 behind an awkward redshirt freshman QB Bernie Kosar. The Canes offense featured a freshman FB Alonzo Highsmith, and two great TEs in Willie Smith and Glen Dennison. The player however who made Miami on offense was WR Eddie Brown, who time after time made big plays with games on the line. The Hurricanes had squeaked into this National Championship showdown after just getting by East Carolina and Florida State in the last two regular season games and needing Georgia to beat Texas earlier on January 2nd in the Cotton Bowl to make this a straight title decider.
The Canes entered the game as a 10 1/2 point underdog but raced out to a shocking 17-0 lead in the first quarter. Kosar and Brown were connecting with regularity and Miami’s pro-style running game was working well against a Nebraska defense that appeared shell-shocked and slow.
Then the tables turned because of one unforgettable moment in the annals of College Football. Facing a 3rd and long down 17 in the second quarter Nebraska Head Coach Tom Osborne unveiled the Fumblerooski. Dean Steinkuhler, the top offensive lineman in the country at the time picked up the loose football and ran for a TD. This controversial play which has since been banned in college football brought Nebraska new life and changed the game.
Leading 31-17 in the 4th quarter Miami’s Jeff Davis missed a FG attempt that would have made it a three score game. Jeff Smith replaced an injured Rozier and led two Nebraska TD drives. With the score 31-30, Nebraska went for two and the win even though tie would have likely given the undefeated and untied Huskers the national title. Miami Safety Kenny Calhoun knocked down Turner Gill’s pass and the Canes had won the first national championship ever by a school from the state of Florida and by a pro style offense.
Florida State had their chances in the late 1970s and early 1980s to win a title before Miami did. Each time FSU played Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, ultimately the option beat the Noles, and FSU’s passing game was thwarted. By contrast, in the 1984 Orange Bowl, Miami did just enough to slow down the Nebraska option, and unlike FSU was able to exploit the lack of speed the Big 8 champions had defensively to win.
Howard Schenellenberger had led Miami to a title in just five years on the job. In 1978, Schnenellenberger had inherited a team that lost its all everything RB Ottis Anderson and had finished 6-5 the previous year. Within two seasons, Miami won a bowl game (in the days when it meant something to be invited to a bowl) and within five were national champions, thanks to the innovative, passing-oriented pro style offense that perplexed defensive coordinators around the country.
BYU, who similarly ran a pass happy offense won the 1984 National Title and between 1985 and 1992, Miami finished in the top 3 nationally every season running a pro style offense until 1988 and a one back spread from 1989 onwards. Florida State took their passing oriented offense and finished with 10 wins or more for an absolutely remarkable fourteen consecutive seasons beginning in 1987. By the time that streak ended the whole college football world was imitating Miami and FSU. The game thirty five years ago today is what made today’s passing based spread offenses possible.