How Nebraska and LSU Met in the 1987 Sugar Bowl

The furor was almost deafening.

The LSU Tigers, home-state heroes of hundreds of thousands of Louisianans, surprised Southern football observers with an eye-catching season, achieved against the nation’s most demanding schedule, according to the NCAA computer.

It was a season that impressed many national football observers.  But seemingly not, for the longest time, to the Sugar Bowl, located in the same state as the Tiger fan base.

Bill Arnsparger’s Tigers stepped smartly into the late-season Top 10, despite an early 21-12 embarrassment to Miami of Ohio (the biggest upset in LSU history).  By the time LSU defeated Alabama 14-10 in its eighth game, though, fans of the Bayou Bengals were making plans for their second Sugar Bowl appearance in the last three years.

A victory over Mississippi State would ensure no worse than a tie for the SEC championship.  There were complications with the Sugar extending an early invitation, however.  The Tigers, losers in the conference to Ole Miss, 21-19, could still be tied by the Crimson Tide if it won its season finale against Auburn.

Tiger fans reasoned that since their teams had already secured no worse than a tie for the title, and it had beaten Alabama head-to-head, it was time to pick who’d be in the Sugar and to heck with the outcome of any future games that might play a role whether there was a tie or not.  The Sugar, though, could not make that early commitment, angering many LSU fans.

The Sugar Bowl had to look at a broader picture:  after Mississippi State, the Tigers still had to play Notre Dame and Tulane.  There was the possibility that LSU and ‘Bama could share the championship, but the Tide, if it won its remaining games, would finish 10-2 while LSU, if it lost one of its reaming games, would finish 8-3.

That’s a huge differential in putting together the most attractive pairing possible.  Still, Tiger fans thundered that their team had already earned its way in.

An Alabama victory over Auburn on Nov. 29 – the same night LSU was scheduled to play Tulane – would have forced the bowl’s selection committee into the uncomfortable position of having to choose its SEC representative.

A last meeting of the selection committee was not necessary – Auburn beat Alabama and LSU was the undisputed SEC champion.

Nebraska, the team that defeated LSU 28-10 in the Sugar bowl two years year, had already accepted an invitation six days earlier.  The Cornhuskers took the offer right after playing, and losing in the last seconds, a magnificent 20-17 games against Oklahoma that determined the Big Eight championship.  It was a pairing that gave LSU a chance to sooth its personal pride.  The Cornhuskers had not only defeated the Tigers two years before, but held a 4-0-1 record against LSU, dating back to the 1971 Orange Bowl.  In its storied history, of all the teams LSU had played at least three times, Nebraska Is the only one it had never beaten.

The league tie-ups exacted a toll on postseason play in 1986, a year in which independents ruled the roost. 

Miami was No. 1 for most of the season, with fellow independent Penn State No. 2 and aching for a chance to play the Hurricanes.  After weeks of dealing with the Orange, Citrus, Gator and Fiesta bowls, the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the land agreed to meet in the Fiesta, which, with no conference ties, could accommodate two independents.  The Fiesta then moved its game back to Jan. 2 for maximum television effect.

LSU, meanwhile, was in the midst of an internal disruption.  After the Mississippi State victory, Arnsparger tendered his resignation – it was later announced he’d become director of athletics at Florida – effective after the Sugar Bowl.

In the meantime, a deflated Nebraska team had to regroup for LSU.

Then LSU was hit with more adversity, when lineman Roland Barbay was barred from postseason football because of a positive drug test.

It was not a calm pre-Sugar Bowl interlude.  

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.

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