PASADENA, Calif. -- An unlikely matchup in an unlikely setting seems to be the perfect way to end a most improbable college football season.
Top-ranked Miami is poised to win its first national championship in a decade when it plays No. 4 Nebraska in the Rose Bowl on Thursday night.
In the wild, wild world of the Bowl Championship Series, the computer-driven ratings system made once-beaten Nebraska the much-debated choice to challenge unbeaten Miami in the BCS' first national title game in Pasadena.
The selection of Nebraska, despite its 62-36 loss to Colorado on Nov. 23, had the Huskers trying to justify the choice for nearly six weeks.
''Yes, it's tiring answering the same question over and over again,'' Huskers coach Frank Solich said Wednesday. ''But we will be a team filled with confidence entering the national championship game.''
Even Miami coach Larry Coker supports Nebraska. ''It's ridiculous to criticize them for being here,'' he said. ''This is the system we're using.''
The BCS was supposed to deliver a definitive national title game when it started in 1998. But a Nebraska win probably would create split champions, with No. 2 Oregon (11-1) claiming the No. 1 ranking in the AP media poll released hours after the Rose Bowl.
The Rose winner is automatically crowned champion in the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll. The sports writers and broadcasters on the AP panel are not restricted in who they vote for in the final poll.
Oregon stated its case with a 38-16 win over No. 3 Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl on Monday night.
If Miami wins, there's no debate -- the Hurricanes finish as the nation's only unbeaten team and increase their winning streak to 22 games.
''Our goal is to win by one point,'' Coker said, ''and if we win by one point we're the undisputed national champions.''
The Hurricanes won AP national titles in 1983, 1987, 1989 and 1991. They were edged out of last year's BCS title game by Florida State, a team they beat earlier in the season.
Nebraska hasn't lost two games in a row since 1990 and also is going for its fifth AP title. They won in 1970-71 and 1994-95.
In 1997, Michigan was the AP national champion and the Huskers won in the coaches poll.
Only an extraordinary string of upsets allowed the Huskers to get here after their humiliating loss to the Buffaloes. Oklahoma lost, then Florida, Texas and Tennessee, and Nebraska was back in the chase.
''We are very hungry for a victory,'' Nebraska's Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch said. ''And we want to go out and prove to the whole world we're a better football team then we showed the last time we played.''
Miami and Nebraska have played three national title games, all at the Hurricanes' home field in the Orange Bowl. Miami won 31-30 in the '84 game and 22-0 in the '92 game; the Huskers won 24-17 in the '95 game.
''We've had a few tussles, Nebraska and us,'' said Art Kehoe, Miami's longtime offensive line coach. ''Once again, they are real good. They will be real physical. We're going to have to play our tails off and find a way to win.''
The game could be another classic, matching Nebraska's power against Miami's speed.
As usual, the Huskers led the nation in rushing at 314.7 yards per game, while averaging 37.4 points. The Hurricanes were the nation's top defense, allowing just 9.4 points per game and coming up with 45 turnovers, 27 from interceptions.
Crouch is Solich's option genius, piling up 1,115 yards and 18 touchdowns rushing and 1,510 yards and seven TDs passing. I-back Dahrran Diedrick chipped in with 1,299 yards and 15 TDs.
Miami will rely on its speed to stretch the option and force Crouch to pitch early. Huskers tackle Dave Volk says his team can counter by ''wearing them down and playing mistake free. We need to hold onto them, sustain our blocks, play power football and get them tired of getting hit. That's our best chance.''
Ken Dorsey, the Hurricanes' 6-foot-5, 200-pound junior, plans to be on target in his first game in his home state since high school.
''I never dreamed I would be playing in the Rose Bowl,'' said Dorsey, who finished third in the Heisman voting after throwing for 2,652 yards and 23 TDs.
Dorsey has a ton of support, starting with running back Clinton Portis, who had 1,200 yards and 10 TDs. He may get more work than usual with the absence of injured fullback Najeh Davenport. Dorsey's top receivers are 6-6 tight end Jeremy Shockey and wide receiver Andre Johnson.
Several other Hurricanes will miss the game, including injured linebacker Chris Campbell and backup wide receiver Ethenic Sands, who was suspended for violating team rules.
''Missing starters will affect you,'' Coker said, ''but we've got some depth and the other kids will just have to pick it up.''
Coaching history is in the making, too.
Coker, promoted after Butch Davis abruptly left to coach the Cleveland Browns, can become only the second rookie coach to win a national title, joining Bennie Oosterbaan, who won at Michigan in 1948.
Solich, a 19-year assistant under Tom Osborne, can win his first national title in just his fourth year. Osborne needed 22 seasons to win his first.
The Miami players have been relaxed all week, the Huskers a bit uptight after taking so much criticism. They were even booed when introduced to the crowd at a Lakers game.
''We don't have anything to lose because nobody thinks we should be here,'' Huskers tight end Tracey Wistrom said. ''We've sort of been given a second chance.''
Counters Rob Chudzinski, Miami's offensive coordinator who played in two Miami-Nebraska games in the 1990s: ''They might be telling themselves they don't have anything to lose, but they have the same stake in this that we do -- a shot at the national championship. None of the hype going in matters. Once the game starts, there's no difference between us and them.''
There's a little. Oddsmakers favor Miami by eight points.
''It's strange,'' Diedrick said. ''I can't remember too many times since I've been here that we've been an underdog for any game.''
Fits right in, doesn't it?
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