Published Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 11:58 pm
Shatel: Tide greatest dynasty ever? Old NU memories come pouring back

What I'd like to do is put some truth serum in one of Nick Saban's Little Debbie cupcakes. Let him knock one down and then pop the question.

Alabama (2009-'12) or Nebraska (1993-'97), who do you got?

Saban coaches the current dynasty of college football. He was on the business end of a pair of 50-10 and 55-14 beatdowns by the 1995-96 Huskers while he was honing his résumé at Michigan State.

An honest-to-goodness opinion from Saban would be as close to a definitive tiebreaker to the battle of the dynasties.

We'll never get that from Saban. And that's fine. The side he didn't choose wouldn't believe him, anyway.

Even the most ardent Husker loyalist has to admit: The Bama team that shook down the Irish the other night looked awfully familiar. Anyone recognize the understated swagger, brute strength and relentless efficiency?

What a game it would be, to pit Christian Peter against Barrett Jones, the Bama defense versus Tommie Frazier and Scott Frost. I'll see your Eddie Lacy and raise you a Lawrence Phillips. And, Saban versus Tom Osborne, the coach who once told Saban, “It's not as bad as you think” after one of those NU-MSU spankings. I wonder if Saban said the same thing to Brian Kelly the other night.

The similarities between these two and how they did their business on championship fields is striking. The differences are all about the opponents, the circumstances. Let's dive in.

Alabama has won three national titles in four years. Nebraska won three in four, but also played in four title games out of five years and could have been five for five if not for Texas' gutsy fourth-down play in St. Louis.

The SEC is a pretty good trump card. So, too, is the extra SEC title game. The Big Eight (1993-'95) wasn't up to that standard. NU's top threats were a very good Colorado team, a good, solid K-State squad and a Kansas team that somehow got into the top 10 in 1995. Those years included sorry Oklahoma teams that Sooner fans disowned long ago.

That said, the SEC rotation allowed Bama to miss South Carolina, Florida and Georgia on this year's regular-season schedule.

Nebraska had three undefeated seasons in four years and four undefeated regular seasons (including 1993). Alabama has only one in its current run. The Tide twice needed help to climb back into the game — after a loss on their home field.

Here's an intriguing angle that Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel dished up: Alabama won the national title game three times. Nebraska played in only one such “national title game,” the 1996 Fiesta Bowl. Thus, Nebraska was “undisputed” national champ only once.

That's the difference in eras. The BCS started in 1998, thanks in large part to the split crown between NU and Michigan in 1997. Can't hold that against Nebraska, which wanted to play Penn State (1994) and Michigan (1997). You wonder: Under the old-world order, would Alabama have faced Texas in a Sugar Bowl in 2009 or would the Horns have been sent to a Big 12 obligation in the Fiesta Bowl?

What about the Tommie Frazier Factor? NU finished undefeated in 1994 without its star quarterback, who missed the final eight games of the regular season with blood clots. Could Bama have done the same this year without AJ McCarron?

I don't know. You don't know. But what we do know is that Nebraska passions were stirred on Monday night, with the world anointing Alabama's historical place, Kirk Herbstreit saying he'd never seen a dynasty like this and some wondering if Alabama's offensive line was the greatest group in the history of pancakes.

I'm sure it caught the attention of the 1993-'97 bunch, spread out all over the country, who seemed to be getting supplanted in history before their eyes.

“Believe me, I thought about that, and I was rooting against Alabama for that very reason,” said Matt Hoskinson, the former NU lineman from 1995-'97 who watched the game in Phoenix while on a business trip.

“I didn't want them to break our record. Well, they didn't really break anything. They equaled our titles. I could see some parallels to the two. There's not a right or wrong answer. It depends on who you're talking to. Obviously, I'm going to lean toward the '90s.

“They play in the SEC, and they're the kings now. They've had an amazing run. But I would say the tiebreaker would be the number of losses. They have more than we did.”

We could debate this all year and into next fall, when the Tide will go for a three-peat. But the debate really isn't the point.

NU or Alabama? Join the conversation on the Big Red Today Facebook page.

The thing here, for Hoskinson and his teammates, for all those who pledge allegiance to Nebraska history, is that the Huskers are still in this conversation.

Dynasties are for those who lived it, for those who had the front row seat. The memories live on in scrapbooks in our heads. The pages may yellow, exact memories can become fuzzy, but you hold onto those images. Touchdown Tommie was the best who ever was, and Bama's ferocious maulers would have clawed at Tommie's dust the same way those goofy Gators did back in the day.

Then again, someone older might take exception to that. Nobody could do it like Jerry Tagge and Jeff Kinney and Johnny R. Superstar, and let's see anyone from 1995 go to Owen Field and play the greatest game ever with all of the chips on the turf.

What would Tide fans say about the 1971 Big Red Machine, the one that won a league with the top three teams (NU, OU and Colorado) at the end of the season? The Husker team that beat the No. 2-ranked team twice, including Alabama in the Orange Bowl? The Nebraska team that mauled Bama 38-6 and caused the great Bear Bryant to say it was the greatest team he'd ever seen.

Those guys, Jerry Murtaugh and the old war horses, had a reunion a couple of years ago. They played golf and then sat around and smoked stogies and told stories and laughed into the night. They understood and appreciated their own greatness. In the cycle of history, that's what matters most, what you really hold onto.

Not long ago, ESPN polled fans for the “greatest ever” team and the 1971 Huskers fared well. But the classic channels don't show their games much anymore, and their legend is slowly fading. It's natural.

One day the 1995 Huskers will be sitting around a table, swapping tales, and wondering where the time went. Where their legend went. It will happen, the next time a would-be dynasty comes along, and then the ESPN talking head of the day will compare the latest and greatest to these Alabama teams. They'll be the standard. Until the next one.

That won't happen here in Nebraska, of course. There will always be a seat in the Nebraska Legends Cigar Room for 1993-'97, right next to Murtaugh and Tagge and the boys. They'll never be forgotten in Nebraska.

But in the national consciousness, one day the '90s Huskers will assume the same fate as the 1971 Huskers, the Bud Wilkinson Sooners, the Frank Leahy Irish and so on. As fewer people remember their greatness, in an era when history is a Twitter timeline, they'll get pushed further down the debate.

“Unfortunately, you're right,” Hoskinson said. “But the only caveat is that I think the great teams will always be remembered. The 1995 team will always be up there.”

There's truth in that. But every dynasty, every era of greatness, has their turn, when they ruled the earth and then got bragging rights for years, decades. Until they get replaced by the next big thing.

You think Hoss and his mates rooted against the Tide the other night? If Alabama wins a third straight crystal football next year — a fourth in five years — there will officially be a new standard in town.

Until then, the 1990s Huskers are exactly where they want to be. Remembered.

“I was watching the game with other former players the other night, from Alabama, Texas and other schools,” Hoskinson said. “On the TV screen they started flashing the 1990s Nebraska teams and the other guys said, 'Hey, Matt, they're talking about your team up there.'

“I have to admit: It does make you feel pretty good.”

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Contact the writer: Tom Shatel    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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