National Title Games That Never Were: 1994 — Nebraska vs. Penn State

Photo courtesy of Penn State athletics

In a series called “National Title Games That Never Were”, we look back on hypothetical national championship games of the past that never took place for one reason or another.

Up until 1998, there was such thing as a BCS. For winners of the Pac-10 and Big Ten at the time, the automatic destination was the Rose Bowl.

That’s where Penn State ended up during a perfect 1994 season. The Nittany Lions went 12-0 and spent three weeks at No. 1 in the AP Poll. At season’s end however, it was Nebraska that claimed college football’s ultimate prize.

The Cornhuskers went 13-0 and beat Miami in the Orange Bowl to claim the national championship. When the season was done however, Penn State would claim that it was college football’s best. We’ll unfortunately never know for sure.

In this piece, we’ll try to determine what would have happened had the Nittany Lions and Cornhuskers met on the field.


Nebraska had finished undefeated in the regular season the year prior, but lost a heartbreaker to Florida State in the Orange Bowl for the national championship. During the 1994 season, Nebraska ranked in the top 10 in both scoring offense and scoring defense.

Offensively, head coach Tom Osborne’s triple-option attack was nearly unstoppable. Nebraska had seven different players rush for at least 200 yards on the season. Leading the way was sophomore running back Lawrence Phillips, who went for 1,722 yards and 16 touchdowns. The offensive line was anchored by a pair of Consensus All-Americans in Zach Wiegert and Brenden Stai.

Nebraska’s 1994 national championship began a stretch of three national titles in four years. (Nebraska athletics)

Nebraska finished the season eighth in scoring offense and third in scoring defense. Led by Consensus All-American linebacker Ed Stewart, Nebraska held six opponents to fewer than 10 points. After Oct. 1, no one scored more than 17 points in any game against the Cornhusers.

Throughout the course of the regular season, Nebraska defeated four AP-ranked teams and all by at least 11 points. The most notable win came over No. 2 Colorado by a 24-7 score. Nebraska rallied to beat No. 3 Miami in the Orange Bowl, 24-17.

Penn State

During the 1994 season, no team averaged more points per game than Penn State. With an offensive arsenal that included a Consensus All-American backfield of Kerry Collins and Ki-Jana Carter, the Nittany Lions put up 47 points per game. Wide receiver Bobby Engram and tight end Kyle Brady were among the best players in the country at their positions.

The Penn State defense ranked just 30th in points per game allowed, but had no shortage of talent. Defensive end Chris Snyder, linebacker Phil Yeboah-Kodie and safety Kim Herring were among the notables on defense for Joe Paterno’s team.

During the course of the regular season, Penn State defeated three ranked teams. It was a 31-24 victory at Michigan that propelled Penn State to the top spot in the AP Poll for the first time. The Nittany Lions also collected a 38-14 win over USC and a 63-14 thrashing of Ohio State — the fourth-worst loss ever for the Buckeyes at the time. The season was capped with a 38-20 Rose Bowl win over Pac-10 champion Oregon.

The biggest scare for Penn State came at Illinois. Penn State trailed 21-0 in the first quarter and by 17 points in the third before rallying for a 35-31 victory. The Nittany Lions fell from No. 1 in the Coaches Poll following a 35-29 victory over Indiana the week prior in a contest that was not as close as the final score would indicate.

Common Opponents

In this case, Nebraska and Penn State shared no common opponents.

Who Would’ve Won and Why?

This one would have been extremely competitive, but the edge goes to Nebraska. By the end of the season, Nebraska’s defense was downright dominant. Penn State would have been better than any offense that the Cornhuskers faced all season, but against good teams like Colorado and Miami, they forced teams to be 1-dimensional.

Nebraska would have likely geared up to stop Carter and while Collins, Engram and the passing game would have made plays down the field, it would have not come at the rate it had become accustomed to. Penn State would have held the Nebraska ground attack in check early, but it would have eventually wore the Nittany Lions down.

It should be noted that Nebraska quarterback Tommie Frazier was injured throughout the year and shared time with Brook Berringer in the Orange Bowl against Miami. The Cornhuskers really got rolling offensively with Frazier in the contest.

Hypothetical Final: Nebraska 24, Penn State 21

Hypothetical Box Score

Scoring Summary
First Quarter

NEB: Tom Sieler 23 FG, 8:11
PSU: Kyle Brady 9 pass from Kerry Collins (Brett Conway kick), 1:40

Second Quarter
NEB: Cory Schlesinger 2 run (Sieler kick), 4:02

Third Quarter
PSU: Ki-Jana Carter 11 run (Conway kick), 11:29

Fourth Quarter
NEB: Lawrence Phillips 16 run (Sieler kick), 13:59
PSU: Bobby Engram 28 pass from Carter (Conway kick), 9:33
NEB: Tommie Frazier 3 run (Sieler kick), 4:47

First Downs:
Nebraska 24, Penn State 19
Rushing Yards: Nebraska 244, Penn State 74
Passing Yards: Nebraska 63, Penn State 238
Total Yards: Nebraska 307, Penn State 312
Turnovers: Nebraska 1, Penn State 3

Frazier (NEB): 4-9-0, 63 yards; Collins (PSU): 20-38-2, 238 yards, 2 TD
Rushing: Phillips (NEB): 23-121, TD; Carter (PSU): 23-71, TD
Receiving: Eric Alford (NEB): 2-34; Engram (PSU): 7-106, TD
Defense: Tyrone Williams (NEB): 4 tackles, INT; Phil Yeboah-Kodie (PSU): 13 tackles, FF

Your Thoughts?

Let us know what you think about this hypothetical title game by responding in the comment section, on Twitter or in our forums.

Mike Ferguson is the managing editor for Fifth Quarter. Be sure to follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeWFerguson. Follow all of Mike’s work by liking his Facebook page.