How Nebraska and Florida Met in the 1974 Sugar Bowl
Notre Dame – Alabama was a spectacular success and immediately ranked among the finest collegiate games ever played.
A very respectable 25.3 television rating, the highest the Sugar had received since records began being kept in 1964, was gratifying. It was also third behind comparatively weak attractions in the Rose and Cotton Bowls. The inescapable conclusion was if a game like this didn’t rank higher than third on New Year’s Eve, no game ever would. Returning the Sugar Bowl to its natural spot – New Year’s Day – seemed inevitable after Notre Dame-Alabama.
Everyone, of course, wanted a duplicate of the Irish-Tide match the following season, setting off an early scramble for those teams. New NCAA rules allowed the bowls to set up matches as early as possible, though there was a gentleman’s agreement among the various committees not to firm up anything until November 16. Word seeped out of Miami two weeks before that Alabama, then ranked 3rd, and the Irish, ranked 8th, would have a rematch in the Orange Bowl.
Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s Crimson Tide had played in Dallas and New Orleans the previous two years. As the story went, Bryant allowed Notre Dame Coach Ara Parseghian to select the site of their showdown since Bear chose the Sugar Bowl the previous year. The Orange Bowl was paying approximately $100,000 more than the Sugar.
Oklahoma, the No. 1 team, was again ineligible for postseason football because of NCAA probation, but the Sugar had several options. ABC-TV wanted to put on a Penn State – Nebraska telecast because of the eastern audience the Nittany Lions would draw. Also, the Cornhuskers (ranked No. 6) appeared to have a legitimate chance of beating Oklahoma.
Florida (7-1), Auburn (7-1), Texas A&M (7-1), and Texas (6-2) were also in the picture with the Cornhuskers (6-2) and Penn State (7-1). Nebraska-Auburn figured to be the best draw in terms of bringing fans to the game. When the Cornhuskers played Alabama in the 1967 Sugar Bowl, 16,000 fans followed Nebraska. When Auburn played Oklahoma, 18,000 fans followed the War Eagles. When Penn State played Oklahoma, it brought only 8,500 fans. And just 6,000 Gator fans followed Florida to New Orleans in 1966.
In terms of rankings, the best bet the Sugar seemed to have was Penn State-Florida, and both teams seemed capable of winning the remaineder of their games. Penn State, although the Sugar didn’t know it at the time, was already spoken for – by the Cotton Bowl. The Sugar took the best it could from this assorted grab bag: Florida and Nebraska.
Later, Florida missed on a two-point conversion in the final 12 seconds and lost to Georgia, 17-16. A week later the Gators lost to Kentucky, 41-24. By the end of the season Florida was barely in the Top Twenty. Both the Gators and the Cornhuskers, 8th-ranked after a 28-14 defeat to Oklahoma, were 8-3 entering the Sugar Bowl.
As a footnote, the Alabama-Notre Dame rematch soured somewhat, too, though those teams were 2nd and 9th entering the Orange Bowl. Southern California waxed the Irish 55-24, removing the luster.
An offensive game was anticipated in the Sugar Bowl. Nebraska averaged 32 points and 412 yards a game. Florida averaged 22 points and 371 yards. A closer glance at the opponents, though, was intriguing. In one corner was bowl-tested and tradition-steeped Nebraska. Alabama defeated the ‘Huskers in the 1967 Sugar, but that was the last time Nebraska had lost a bowl game. A victory in the Sugar Bowl would be Nebraska’s sixth straight and would tie it with Georgia Tech for the national record.
The Cornhuskers hadn’t lost often in recent history. In the decade from 1965 to 1974, Nebraska finished in the Top Ten seven times. On the other hand, Florida, though it had a program on the upswing, astoundingly had never finished in the Top Ten. The 18th-ranked Gators felt they had an outside chance at breaking that barrier with a victory over Nebraska.
Florida brought some tradition in the form of Ray Graves, a distinguished Sugar Bowl alumnus. Graves was the starting center on the Tennessee team that was upset by Boston College in 1941. He later returned as a Georgia Tech assistant in 1953, 1954, and 1956, then as the head coach of the Gators in 1966. His return as athletic director made Graves the first person to compete on all levels in the Sugar Bowl. Unfortunately, his school had little of that kind of background.
The odds-makers felt strongly that this Gator team would not be the one to crack the Top Ten. Nebraska was a 12 ½-point favorite, a line that obviously reflected a lack of respect for the angered Gators. “You hear so much about Nebraska and how we’re a 12-point underdog,” fumed linebacker Glenn Cameron, “but I don’t think Nebraska is a super team. I ask this question: Who had Nebraska played this year? They played Oklahoma, one of the greatest teams this year, and lost. But, who else have they played this year? When people start talking about Nebraska they are talking about the Nebraska team of three years ago that won that national championship.”
Lee McGriff wasn’t as belligerent. He wore his heart on his sleeve as he summed up the game. “Being a senior,” said the wingback, “the Sugar Bowl means everything to me. It’s my last game in a Gator uniform. We have a chance to finish in the Top Ten, and a chance for the seniors to go out with the feeling we gave something to this university. It’s everything we ever dreamed of boiled down to one night.”
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.