PASADENA, Calif., Jan. 2 (UPI) -- The Miami Hurricanes, to this point the unquestioned No. 1 team in college football, take on what amounts to a designated challenger Thursday night to determine the sport's national champion.
Miami emerged from the regular season as the only unbeaten team in the country and under the current system, there was no doubt that the Hurricanes deserved a spot in the concluding game of the year.
Their opponent, however, was another matter.
That opponent turned out to be the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who when they last took the field surrendered 62 points and were beaten by 26.
But with the help of a series late-season upsets suffered by Oklahoma, Florida, Texas and Tennessee, Nebraska somehow squeezed its way into the second spot in the final Bowl Championship Series poll and will now face Miami in the Rose Bowl.
Nebraska has much to prove if it is to be declared a unanimous national champion. Even if the Cornhuskers do defeat Miami to earn the NCAA title as recognized by the American Football Coaches Association, they may not be able to convince those who vote in the media poll.
Oregon finished the regular season ranked second by both the media and coaches and the Ducks demonstrated their worth on Tuesday when they overwhelmed Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl, 38-16. It was Colorado which crushed Nebraska in November.
With that win, the Ducks could easily move to No. 1 in the media poll if Nebraska downs Miami.
"Certainly, when you don't have two clear-cut teams, you're going to have controversy," said Nebraska Coach Frank Solich, whose team was ranked only fourth by the coaches and media after the regular season. "We won 11 games with no one within 10 points of us. There were no failed extra points, no lucky bounces."
Solich's comment was likely directed to Miami's win over Boston College, where the Hurricanes benefited from an unusual bounce of the ball. On a day when Ken Dorsey threw four interceptions, the Hurricanes needed a bizarre interception return by star safety Edward Reed to escape with a win over the Eagles.
But good teams win when they don't play well, and Miami did that against Boston College as well as a few weeks later at Virginia Tech. A dropped two-point conversion pass was the difference in the 26-24 win over Virginia Tech.
When Miami is clicking on all cylinders, it is almost unstoppable. Quality teams such as Syracuse and Washington learned that on successive weeks in November when the Hurricanes humbled them by a combined score of 124-7.
The Hurricanes boast a balanced offense led by Dorsey, who threw 23 touchdown passes with just nine interceptions, and running back Clinton Portis, who ran for 1,200 yards and 10 scores.
Portis, however, will be without a key blocker. Fullback Najeh Davenport will miss the game after breaking a bone in his right foot during a practice.
The Hurricanes also will be without second-leading receiver Etheric Sands, who was suspended for an undisclosed violation of team rules. During the regular season, Sands recorded 26 receptions for 385 yards and one touchdown.
Dorsey and Portis each benefit from playing behind the best offensive line in the country led by tackles Joaquin Gonzalez and Bryant McKinnie. A major concern for the Hurricanes is the status of McKinnie, who underwent knee surgery at the end of the regular season and might not be at 100 percent by Jan. 3.
The importance of McKinnie, a senior who has yet to allow a sack in his career, cannot be overstated. The offense stalled noticeably when he left the game against Virginia Tech.
Nebraska will have over a month to find out what went wrong defensively against Colorado. The Buffaloes found gaping holes in the middle of the Cornhusker defense and collected 582 yards, including 380 on the ground.
That was not the first time Nebraska had some trouble on defense. Kliff Kingsbury of Texas Tech, for example, threw for 353 yards on Oct. 20, and the Red Raiders trailed by just seven points in the fourth quarter before losing.
Dorsey spent part of December on the banquet circuit with Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch, who walked away with the Heisman Trophy.
"It's almost a relief to let Eric have that pressure in a bowl game," Dorsey said. "I wanted to put that one behind me and move on."
It was just a year ago that Heisman Trophy-winner Chris Weinke of Florida State went into a national title game and lost to Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl.
Miami's defense posted three shutouts this season but will have its hand full with Crouch, who is a far better rusher (1,510 yards) than passer.
The Cornhuskers also can turn to Dahrran Diedrick, who ran for 1,299 yards.
With Crouch throwing more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (7), it is imperative that Nebraska establish a running game. Reed leads one of the best secondaries in the nation and likely will take plenty of chances since the Cornhuskers have no deep threat.
Miami seeks its fifth national title and first since 1991. Larry Coker has the chance to become the first rookie coach to win a national title since Bennie Oosterbaan of Michigan in 1948.
It took Tom Osborne two decades to win a national title at Nebraska, but Solich could accomplish the feat in just his
Nebraska last won a share of the national title in 1997, and could have to share it again if it defeats Miami. It has won at least a share of five national titles.
The last meeting between Nebraska and Miami was in the Orange Bowl following the 1994 season, when the Cornhuskers claimed their first national title under Osborne with a 24-17 victory.
Miami holds a 3-2 edge in bowl games, including a classic 31-30 win over the Cornhuskers in the 1984 Orange Bowl that gave the Hurricanes their first national championship.
A native of Orinda, Calif., Dorsey is looking forward to the unusual opportunity of playing in the Rose Bowl.
"I grew up watching the Rose Bowl games, with all the pageantry," he said. "It's going to be something special."
With the Rose Bowl becoming part of the BCS rotation, this will mark the first time since 1946 that the game will not feature a Pac-10 vs. Big Ten Conference matchup.