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When people get to talking about the best college football team
ever to trot onto a field, you can be sure that one of the squads
they'll mention is the Nebraska team of 1983. And, on paper anyway,
they might be right. Or at least half right. Consider the offense: In
6 ft. 3 in., 270-pound guard Dean Steinkuhler, Nebraska had the best
lineman in the land in '83, the winner of both the Outland Trophy and
the Lombardi Award. Turner Gill, a second-team All-America
quarterback, was the Cornhuskers' resourceful leader. Wingback Irving
Fryar would be taken as the No. 1 pick in the 1984 NFL draft by the
New England Patriots. And Mike Rozier, the senior I-back, ran away
with the Heisman Trophy, becoming only the second rusher in Division
I history (after Marcus Allen) to gain more than 2,000 yards.
On offensive potency alone, the '83 Huskers have to be considered
the school's best team ever and among the finest of all time. They
set a Nebraska record by averaging 546.7 yards per game, and their
624 points over 12 games still stands as an NCAA mark. Seven of the
eight offensive starters who were eligible for the pros at season's
end wound up with contracts. After the Big Red machine laid waste to
Syracuse 63-7 for its 15th win in a row during a 22- game streak, Bob
Devaney, coach of the 1970 and '71 national champions at Lincoln,
gave the '83 edition its due. ''This team is the finest ever
offensively,'' Devaney said, ''but so far it's a little hard to
evaluate them defensively.''
Devaney was being diplomatic. In truth the Husker D of '83 was
only O.K., with just two consensus all-Big Eight selections,
linebacker Mike Knox and safety Bret Clark. If you're trying to come
up with the best team in history, there are several that have
displayed better balance, such as Notre Dame's 1924 bunch, which
featured the Four Horsemen, and Michigan's point-a-minute men of
1901, who shut out every opponent. There were also teams that made
their mark on defense, like Southern Cal in 1932, which yielded only
13 points. But for marquee offensive talent and sheer ability to
steamroll, only the Army unit of Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis in
1944, which outscored foes by an average of 52.1 points a game,
should share the billing with the '83 Huskers.
The team had three serious Heisman contenders. Before the season
it was decided that the Triplets -- as Gill, Fryar and Rozier were
known around Lincoln -- would split the vote unless they united
behind one candidate. So they cast their ballot for Rozier, calling
him Michael Heisman. Rozier won and Gill finished fourth, while Fryar
was not among the top-10 vote getters. ''If I win it, I think we
should split it three ways,'' Rozier said before the announcement.
''I should get the legs, Turner should get the head, and Irving
should get the arms.''
Alas, it was a fingertip -- that of Miami strong safety Ken
Calhoun with 48 seconds left in the Orange Bowl -- that kept the '83
Huskers from being unbeaten as well as unstoppable, as Miami upset
Nebraska 31-30. There's nothing like a loss to deflate any argument
for being the greatest.