Title game is No. 1 off field, too Hype, ratings, revenue are also seen as tops; Showdown in the desert


TEMPE, Ariz. -- John Junker made only one promise.

"There will be no elephants," the Fiesta Bowl's executive director said recently about the game's halftime festivities. "It'll just be marching bands and a football game."

But tomorrow night's national championship game between top-ranked Nebraska (11-0) and No. 2 Florida (12-0) at Sun Devil Stadium isn't just about marching bands and football. It's about corporate America and television ratings. And about money.

Though it hasn't quite reached the status of the Final Four, give it time. With the advent of the Bowl Alliance, and the ability to put the two top teams in college football together on the same field, this year's Fiesta Bowl is a pretty good warm-up act for another game being played here later this month: Super Bowl XXX.

"We were extremely fortunate the way things played out, with [then-No. 2] Ohio State losing to Michigan and both these teams staying unbeaten," said Junker. "Even if it hadn't, it still would have been a very big game."

But not the only game that mattered. The Bowl Alliance, an offshoot of the flawed Bowl Coalition, gave college football a true national championship game for the second time in the past three years, and quieted the quickly fading argument for the type of playoff system used in Divisions I-A, II and III.

Junker was in New York last month for the National Football Foundation dinner. So were Nebraska coach Tom Osborne and Florida's Steve Spurrier, as well as coaches from some of the other top programs in the country.

"When you get such a varied and esteemed group to say unanimously, 'We want bowl games,' that is very significant to me," Junker said earlier this month. "Let's not discard a tremendous resource that's unlike anything else in sports. I really think that if there is some kind of playoff system in the future, it would be within the bowls."

The hype for this game has been building for more than a month, and began to peak after the Gators beat Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference title game. It has elevated interest in a single bowl game to heights rivaling the Penn State-Miami matchup here nine years ago or the 1988 Orange Bowl meeting && of the Hurricanes and Oklahoma.

Though tomorrow night's game doesn't have the same good vs. evil story line -- or, as was the case with the 1988 game, evil vs. evil -- the team's contrasting offenses provide more than their share of debate. It marks the 11th bowl game matching up the top two teams since the Associated Press rankings began in 1936.

"I think the media is always looking for a good story, but fans just want to see a good game," said Osborne, who chucked his reputation for losing big games with last year's victory over Miami in the Orange Bowl, a win that stopped a seven-game New Year's Day losing streak and gave the Cornhuskers the national championship.

Said Nebraska quarterback Tommie Frazier: "I don't see much of a difference between this year and last year. The only difference is that we're playing in a different city and a different stadium. Last year's game was significant, same as this year."

The biggest difference is the Bowl Alliance -- and the payout. Both teams will be sharing in $17.2 million, which they'll split with their respective conferences.

Junker said that the Fiesta Bowl "could have sold 200,000 seats for this game" instead of the 68,000 the stadium holds. The bowl's television contract with CBS is for $27.2 million, an estimated $118 million for its six-year duration. CBS is charging a reported $500,000 for each 30-second advertising spot during the broadcast, which begins at 8 p.m.

In some places, especially around Lincoln, Neb., and Gainesville, Fla., it is almost too hot a ticket. Don Blank, a member of the board of regents at the University of Nebraska, received 40 tickets to the game.

"People think, that's a neat deal that gets you tickets," said Blank. "It's not a neat deal. I make 20-some friends and 100-some enemies."

Another Nebraska regent, John Payne, got 38 tickets. "No more Mr. Nice Guy," said Payne. "I got a lot of people mad at me."

Junker, who has worked for the Fiesta Bowl since 1980, is hoping that the 27th and perhaps the biggest game comes off with few glitches, at least off the field. But the only thing he could say with complete certainty concerned the halftime show, which might seem no-frills compared to other bowls.

(The reference to the circus animals concerned the Orange Bowl, which saw the second half of a recent game held up as workers had to clean up after the performers went off.)

"We just want it to be about football," said Junker.

But the Fiesta Bowl isn't just about football. Not anymore.

Fiesta Bowl

No. 1 Nebraska (11-0) vs. No. 2 Florida (12-0)

Site: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.

When: Tomorrow, 8:30 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Line: Nebraska by 4

No. 1 vs. No. 2

Tomorrow night's game between Nebraska and Florida marks the 11th time the Nos. 1 and 2 teams have met in a bowl game. The previous 10:

Year .... .... .... .... Result .... .... .... .... .... Bowl

1963 .... .... .... (1) USC 42, (2) Wisconsin 37 ... ... Rose

1964 .... .... .... (1) Texas 28, Navy 6 ... .... ...... Cotton (2)

1969 .... .... .... (1) Ohio State 27, (2) USC 16 ...... Rose

1972 .... .... .... (1) Nebraska 38, (2) Alabama 6 ..... Orange

1979 .... .... .... (2) Alabama 14, (1) Penn State 7 ... Sugar

1983 .... .... .... (2) Penn State 27, (1) Georgia 23 ...Sugar

1987 .... ... ..... (2) Penn State 14, (1) Miami 10 .... Fiesta

1988 .... .... .... (2) Miami 20, (1) Oklahoma 14 ...... Orange

1993 .... .... .... (2) Alabama 34, (1) Miami 13 ....... Sugar

1994 .... .... .... (1) Fla. State 18, (2) Nebraska 16 .. Orange

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