How Nebraska and LSU Met in the 1985 Sugar Bowl The Jolly Roger was the pennant chased by the 10 Southeastern Conference schools during the 1984 season.
After an opening defeat to Miami and a memorable 21-21 tie with LSU, Florida put on a powerful display of purpose and sheer ability on route to a 9-1-1 season, its first at the top of the SEC standings. One of the keys to the success was a strong “us against them” mentality as the Gators were under the glare of a highly publicized NCAA investigation. Charley Pell, the coach under whose command the violations were committed was dismissed after Florida’s third game and offensive coordinator Galen Hall took over.
From the standpoint of sheer interest, the Sugar Bowl was panting for the opportunity to get Florida in its New Year’s Day classic. If they had reached the Sugar Bowl, the Gators would not have been an underdog to anyone in the country on a neutral field. The question was what the SEC would choose to do in response to the Florida violations.
Sugar Bowl President Elliott Laudeman said with proper decorum that his bowl would be happy with whatever decision the conference reached on the sticky situation. “We’ll take the SEC champion with no question asked,” he said.
While the SEC was pondering how to deal with Florida, which put up no front of innocence, the Gators were thoroughly chewing up the league on the field. When Florida won its sixth consecutive game against preseason favorite Auburn, the Gators were in position to win their very first conference title with another victory the following week against Georgia.
Florida did, in fact, win the next week, but the SEC’s decision was to ban the Gators from any postseason representation, re-opening the Sugar Bowl slot.
LSU had a strong shot to tie Florida for a co-championship, but a late-season upset at the hands of Mississippi State seemed to put Auburn in position to represent the SEC in the Sugar Bowl. But when Auburn missed a long field goal attempt in the fading seconds of a loss to Alabama, LSU was alone in second place of the SEC – and in the Sugar Bowl for the first time since 1968.
First-year LSU Coach Bill Arnsparger was on a recruiting trip while Auburn was playing the Crimson Tide. “I was going to the airport in Monroe (Louisiana) and couldn’t hear the Auburn game until we were up in the air,” Arnsparger said. “Then we got the game on the radio when Auburn had the ball and was trying that field goal. When I heard they missed it, I hugged the pilot. But he kept that little plane on course anyway.”
Unquestionably the best team in the conference was not in the SEC corner of the Sugar Bowl. But, despite the predictable jeers at LSU getting in on a pass, given the circumstances the Sugar Bowl got the most deserving SEC team. As it was, the most important games on the respective schedules of Auburn and LSU were Florida and Alabama. Auburn didn’t beat either, and LSU didn’t lose to either one.
In the other corner of the Sugar Bowl was Big Eight co-champion Nebraska, an upset victim of Oklahoma but the only team the Vegas odds-makers felt was close to being the equal of Florida.
That was enough to make some Sugar Bowlers ill at the thought of what might have been – Florida-Nebraska, the two strongest teams in the country in terms of sheer talent. Instead, the 11th-ranked Tigers from just down the road, had the opportunity to take on the fifth-ranked Huskers, coached by Tom Osborne, who had never coached a team that won fewer than nine games in his nine-year career at Nebraska.
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.