SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. — GOOD MORNING. HAPPY NEW YEAR. YOU CAN GET OFF THE POOL TABLE NOW. AND TAKE THAT LITTLE POINTY HAT OFF OF YOUR HEAD. WHERE ARE YOUR CLOTHES? WHAT IS YOUR FAMILY NAME? THESE ARE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS THAT YOU SHOULD ANSWER CORRECTLY BEFORE ATTEMPTING ANYTHING REALLY SERIOUS, LIKE WALKING. YOU MIGHT ALSO WANT TO WIPE THE BEAN DIP OFF OF YOUR FOREHEAD.
AS YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED, I’M WRITING NICE AND LARGE BECAUSE SOME OF YOU MAY HAVE TROUBLE FOCUSING THIS MORNING. PARTICULARLY THOSE WHO REMEMBER DANCING WITH A COFFEE POT, AND NOW FEEL LIKE THEY HAVE A TREE GROWING INSIDE THEIR HEADS. DON’T WORRY. IT WILL PASS. MAYBE BY FRIDAY.
TODAY IS NEW YEAR’S DAY, WHICH FOLLOWS NEW YEAR’S EVE, WHICH IS THE REASON YOU FEEL SO CRUMMY IN THE FIRST PLACE. ON NEW YEAR’S EVE PEOPLE ARE MERRY AND BRIGHT AND EAT ALL SORTS OF NEAT THINGS, LIKE BOURBON. AND ON NEW YEAR’S DAY THEY MOAN FOR HOURS. AND WATCH FOOTBALL.
WHICH BRINGS US TO THE DESERT, WHICH is where I am now, several hours shy of the Fiesta Bowl (did you notice how the lettering changed? Good. You’re feeling better already).
The Fiesta Bowl pits Michigan against Nebraska, for the first time since 1962, and Bo Schembechler against Tom Osborne for the first time ever. The Better Than Nothing Bowl
On one level, this is quite a matchup, Big Ten vs. Big Eight (which makes the Big Eighteen, I guess). The nation’s top scoring defense vs. the nation’s top rushing offense. No. 5 in the country vs. No 7.
But on another level, it is the consolation prize, the Better Than Nothing Bowl. For just as you might wish at this very moment that you were somewhere else — like maybe a sensory deprivation tank — so too do Schembechler and Osborne. They can’t help it.
Schembechler dreams of roses at New Year’s and Osborne dreams of oranges. What both are getting here is a fiesta, which is OK, but not their first choice. Tempe isn’t Pasadena and it isn’t Miami. Being here means each team finished, at best, second in its conference.
“We’d rather be in the Rose Bowl,” said Schembechler. “We make no bones about it. But since we can’t, this is the next best place we’d like to be.”
Nebraska, meanwhile, was one game away from meeting Penn State in the Orange Bowl for all the No. 1 marbles. Then the Huskers lost to Oklahoma in their season finale — something that happens too often to Osborne’s teams, as far as folks in Nebraska are concerned.
So the Cornhuskers are here too, among the cacti, and their game today will be finished early enough for them to catch Oklahoma and the entire Orange Bowl/National Championship on TV.
In a strange way, this makes Osborne and Schembechler remarkably alike. Their coaching records are beyond reproach — they are the third and fourth winningest active college coaches, respectively — yet neither has won a national championship in 36 combined years of head coaching.
And bowl games have not exactly been their shining hours. Osborne’s team lost the game and the No. 1 ranking to Miami by a point in the 1984 Orange Bowl. And Schembechler’s 2-10 bowl record speaks for itself. Softly. Numbers first, then pride
None of which should keep this game from being interesting, however. Nebraska averages 374.3 yards rushing per game, or about three times as much as Michigan gives up. Nebraska has scored 40 rushing touchdowns this year. Michigan has permitted two. T-W-O.
“Something,” said Osborne, “has got to give.”
True. But don’t be surprised if it’s the Nebraska defense. For Michigan’s offense is, as usual, being underplayed. Quarterback Jim Harbaugh has had a terrific year, as have a few of his receivers. And if Schembechler doesn’t tighten the offensive reigns, they could decide this ball game.
What will it prove? Not much. A win will likely nudge either team a bit higher in the final polls. Not high enough. But when you can’t play for numbers, you play for pride, and here we have the pride of Nebraska — its rushing game — against the pride of Michigan — its defense — and that’s enough to raise a few blood pressures on each sideline.
So no, it’s not where they want to be. No sense starting the New Year on a lie. But they’ll play it tight and hard and seriously. And that alone should be well worth watching.
Which, if you’re a Michigan fan, is the least you can do, once you take off that elephant costume and find the TV set. It’s got to be around somewhere. Try looking in the corner, under the balloons and the curtain rods. With any luck, your clothes may be there too.