TEMPE, Ariz. -- No national championship is at stake, but Tennessee vs. Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl tonight might be the best game outside of New Orleans this bowl season.
They are two of the game's most high-powered, high-profile programs. Sixth-ranked Tennessee (9-2) won the national title a year ago in the Fiesta Bowl. No. 3 Nebraska (11-1) is a perennial championship contender.
Nebraska, a 4 1/2 -point favorite, had 107 victories in the 1990s, second only to Florida State's 108. Tennessee was fourth with 100.
Both teams were just a few plays away from going for the big prize in the Sugar Bowl, where Virginia Tech and Florida State play on Tuesday night.
"We both had our opportunities and we both didn't quite get to the national championship game," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said Saturday. "But this is about as close as it can get, I would say."
Fiesta Bowl president Win Holden said Saturday that all 73,471 tickets have been sold. The crowd should have a decidedly red hue. Tennessee returned 7,200 of its allotted 15,000 tickets, and many of them were snapped up by Nebraska fans after the Huskers sold their entire allotment in five days.
Both coaches have stressed the similarities of their teams all week. Even though an obvious difference is Nebraska's option offense compared with the more traditional style of Tennessee, both teams prefer to run the ball first.
"That's Tennessee football," said center Spencer Riley. "You don't lead the SEC in rushing two years in a row for nothing."
While the Volunteers' speedy defense tries to contain quick Cornhuskers quarterback Eric Crouch and a trio of powerful I-backs, Nebraska's defense will focus on slowing the double-barreled tailback attack of Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry.
Ball control is the goal.
"The time of possession statistic I think can be very misleading," said Huskers coach Frank Solich. "In this game, though, I feel it's really critical. Even though both teams have excellent big-play people and can strike from anywhere on the football field, I think the team that controls it, the team that's able to keep its defense off the field the most, probably has a big edge."
The defenses are similar in style, speed and talent.
"Their defense we know because we do it. We see it every day," Fulmer said.
If Nebraska tries to put eight players on the line of scrimmage to stop the run, the pressure will be on the Huskers' talented secondary -- led by Mike Brown and unrelated Ralph Brown -- in a one-on-one matchup with Tennessee's wide receivers.
The Vols' Tee Martin will have his favorite target, Cedric Wilson, but not at full strength.
"I'm kind of hanging on, but you can't feel sorry for yourself," said Wilson, who has been bothered by a variety of injuries this year, most recently a groin pull.
The Nebraska defenders know the key is stopping Martin, a big, strong quarterback who can turn a broken play into a big gain.
"We're going to try to blitz him," Ralph Brown said. "And, hopefully, if he makes some hurried throws or some mistakes, or we can get some sacks."
The Vols are 22-2 since Martin replaced Peyton Manning as Tennessee's starting quarterback, and he wants nothing more than to go out a winner on the same field where he led his team to a national title.
"I have a good feeling about this game," Martin said.
Lewis, who is considering skipping his final college season to go to the NFL, is as healthy as he's been in months, but Henry will get the start.
Nebraska won't have tight end Tracey Wistrom because of a knee injury.
Otherwise, the long layoff since the Cornhuskers' victory over Texas in the Big 12 championship game has helped heal a variety of wounds.
Nebraska's offense was at its best at the end of the season, as Crouch improved with each game. The sophomore quarterback knows he will be prime target of the Tennessee defense.
"I've taken a lot of hits, and I've been able to feel well going into all of the games," he said. "We've had three weeks off, and right now I feel even better. I'm going to be ready to play and I know I'm going to take a lot of hits. That's just part of the game."
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