They were told they would never have a chance against Nebraska, the fiercest, most powerful team in America.
Looking across the line, safety Kenny Calhoun and his Miami teammates saw big boys all right. But Miami had speed, and it had confidence, and it had its own toughness, too. Calhoun showed as much when he batted down Turner Gill’s two-point conversion pass attempt in the 1984 Orange Bowl, delivering the defining moment in one of the most memorable national championship games ever played.
Their rivalry only grew from there, Tom Osborne on the Nebraska sideline with his plodding, ball-control offense, trying to figure out a way to neutralize the warp-speed Hurricanes. Their national championship battles became referendums on strength and toughness versus speed and athleticism. Speed won twice. Then Tommie Frazier came along, trash talkin’ Warren Sapp and putting on the moves to back it up, delivering Osborne his first national championship in the 1995 Orange Bowl.
But the advantages they once used to build their dynasties seemingly have disappeared as the college football landscape has changed. The last time they met, Miami routed Nebraska for a fifth national title in the 2002 Rose Bowl.
Since then, neither school has replicated the success they had when their paths met during the 1980s and 1990s. When they play Saturday in Lincoln, their matchup will serve as another reminder that college football has moved on without them.
"Those two teams, those two decades are moments in time and I seriously doubt that they can ever be duplicated," Calhoun said. "Just basically because of recruiting, the bowl structure now, the playoff system and the NCAA regulations and rules on how they govern the game."
So much has changed in the 30 years since the two teams met in the Orange Bowl. At the time, Nebraska had built a strength and conditioning program that was the envy of everybody across the country. The Huskers had perfected the option offense and had a strong coaching lineage, big draws for players growing up in the Plains.
Miami, meanwhile, began to focus on recruiting the South Florida area. Coach Howard Schnellenberger coined the term "State of Miami," hoping to lock down the best athletes from the three counties surrounding the school. He also brought a pro-style offense with him from his days as an NFL assistant. After Miami began having success, other programs started to follow the Hurricanes’ blueprint.
Their advantages were no longer a secret. Schools from across the country now recruit in South Florida, and are looking for speed. That includes Nebraska. Plus, there are more FBS programs in state looking for a piece of the recruiting pie. South Florida, Central Florida, Florida International and Florida Atlantic were not part of the equation during the dynasty years.
As for Nebraska, the Huskers no longer own an edge in strength and conditioning. The option offense is virtually obsolete, negating another edge it used to have. They no longer have rivalries with Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma to sell. Their closest conference "rivals" are Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
And recruiting has changed for the Huskers, too.
"One thing that we did have in common is, if you looked at our recruiting classes, we were usually -- Miami and Nebraska -- ranked around 20th or 30th, 35th," Osborne said. "They seemed to get a lot of players out of South Florida that lots of people didn’t know about. And we got a lot of kids out of Nebraska and other places that people didn’t know much about. We developed talent. We didn’t have as many blue-chip players, but we certainly had guys who could play."
Former Miami defensive end Kevin Fagan echoes that sentiment, believing Miami can win again with the right group of players -- a group that shows the same characteristics that his 1983 championship team showed.
"Throw away the five-star stuff and go out there and look at kids," Fagan said. "Put on the film against really good opponents. When they’re getting beat, do they have character? Look beyond the speed and vertical jump and bench press. ... Schnellenberger, that was something he was really, really good at. He looked for those tough kids that other people didn’t want. Who finds a Jim Burt, or Jim Kelly? No one thinks he’s a quarterback, but Schnellenberger did."
Since the 2001 season, only Miami has played for another national championship, in 2002. Since 2004, neither team has won a conference championship. The highest final ranking for Miami was No. 11 in 2004; for Nebraska, it was No. 14 in 2009.
"Football is still a developmental game," Osborne said. "People go about it in different ways. Every place has an offseason plan and a sophisticated strength program. I agree that we might have had an edge for a period of time, but by the '90s, I think that was pretty well gone. ... But you always look for things -- whether it’s nutrition, whether it’s academic support, whether it’s schemes -- things to give you an edge."
Miami and Nebraska are still looking.
Big Ten reporter Mitch Sherman contributed to this report.