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Once upon a time, before there was such a thing as the College Football Playoff, before there even was the BCS, there was — well, a system eternally one step away from chaos in the polls, and raging controversy in the public.

Speaking of 20 years ago . . .

It is the final week of the 1997 season, and there is restlessness in the land of college football. The BCS, designed to create law and order by putting the two best teams together at the end, is one year away.

Michigan is No. 1, headed for the Rose Bowl against No. 8 Washington State. The Wolverines are 11-0, led by Heisman winner Charles Woodson on defense and quarterback Brian Griese, who has been so good and so durable, his backup has thrown only 15 passes all season. A junior named Tom Brady.

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How good are the Wolverines? Thirty-one players off the roster will one day play in the NFL.

“As I look back 20 years, we had so many great football players on that team,” then-coach Lloyd Carr says from the vantage of 2017. “At the time I wasn’t tuned in to any of that.  I was thinking about the next game. It was just a bunch of guys that had great talent and great leadership. They cared about winning. The chemistry was something really special.”

Nebraska is 12-0 and No. 2, preparing to play No. 3 Tennessee and Peyton Manning in the Orange Bowl. The new bowl alliance has created the match, but can’t set up Nebraska with Michigan, since the Big Ten and Pac-10 are tied to the Rose Bowl. The Cornhuskers had been on top of the polls, until an overtime 45-38 escape over Missouri in November had cost them votes. No. 4 Michigan ripped No. 2 Penn State 34-8 the same day and sped past in the rankings

RELATED: Looking back at Boise State’s 2007 Fiesta Bowl upset

The Orange Bowl is to be the last college football game for Nebraska’s Tom Osborne. He took his first job with the Cornhuskers as a volunteer assistant, his only pay the right to eat at the training table. Now he is retiring as head coach, having lost but 49 times in 25 seasons.

Scott Frost is the Nebraska quarterback in 1997. Twenty years later, he would be speaking as Central Florida’s head coach.

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“That season was meaningful for a lot of reasons. Nebraska had won two championships in ’94 and ’95, and then we went 11-2 in ’96 and people kind of acted like the sky was falling. So there were a lot of people hungry to recapture the title. We didn’t know Coach Osborne was going to retire until the end of the season so that certainly made us play harder at the end.”

Michigan is trying to end a half-century of chasing a national championship. Nebraska had just won two of them in 1994 and ’95. All in all, it sounds like a situation ripe for tumult.

And in the end, it was.

Michigan had to play first.

“I told our team, we’re going to be inundated with questions about the national championship,” Carr said of the buildup to the Rose Bowl. “What we need to do is go out and play our best game. We know what we’re playing for, we know what the stakes are. But let’s try to keep the conversation on what we need to do to win this game.”

Honoring player requests, he tried something different to separate practices from final exams. Michigan worked out rarely in Ann Arbor, but then spent two weeks in California, having two-a-days for nearly a week in Dana Point, south of Los Angeles.

MORE: College football national championship history

On Jan. 1, Michigan huffed and puffed and finally pushed past Washington State 21-16. The victory secured an unbeaten season, and that’s a lot. But it was not exactly a resounding closing argument.

At the suggestion of his sports information director – who had an eye for the voting campaign to come in the next 30 hours – Carr allowed television cameras into his post-game locker room for the first time, to broadcast his comments to his team.

“So across the country, here I am telling our team, that we had just won the national championship,” he said.  But on the other side of the continent, the Nebraska Cornhuskers sensed a door left ajar, at least in the coaches’ poll. The Associated Press media poll, they figured, was a lost cause.