Bowl and Poll Era: 1990-1994
Here we go with the final years before college football switched up to a true national championship format … sort of. That all starts in 1995, but first …
1990 Colorado 10, Notre Dame 9 Orange Bowl
This wasn’t a pretty year for the college football rankings systems. Georgia Tech had the best season going 11-0-1, but with a 13-13 tie against an okay North Carolina team as the blemish. It went on to beat No. 1 Virginia in a 41-38 thriller, and ended up blowing out Nebraska 45-21 in the Citrus Bowl to go undefeated.
Colorado also beat Nebraska, but only 27-12. It also tied Tennessee to start the season, lost to Illinois, and pulled out a baffling 33-31 win over Missouri thanks to the historic fifth-down play – getting one extra shot at a late touchdown thanks to an error by the officials.
The Buffs also caught another mega-break in the Orange Bowl against Notre Dame, surviving thanks to a phantom clip call late in the game to negate a Rocket Ismail punt return for a touchdown.
Even at 11-1-1, Colorado won the AP national championship, and Georgia Tech got the USA Today/Coaches version. The Yellow Jackets would’ve won both had Ismail’s return not been flagged.
1991 Miami 17, Florida State 16
And here come the Wide Rights.
Washington went 12-0 with a great run and a 34-14 Rose Bowl blowout over a strong Michigan team to win the USA Today/Coaches Poll national title. Miami won the AP national championship after also going 12-0, closing out with a 22-0 stuffing of Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
Overall, according to the CFN Historical Season Rankings, Miami had the better year, mostly because it survived 10-0 No. 1 Florida State.
At the time, the No. 2 Canes were 8-0 thanks to an amazing defense that ended up allowing just 100 points on the season and three or fewer in five of the 12 wins. However, the great defensive performance in Tallahassee didn’t appear to be enough, as FSU’s Gerry Thomas lined up for a 34-yard field goal down 17-16 with 29 seconds to play. It went … wide right.
1992 Alabama 34, Miami 13 Orange Bowl
On a 29-game winning streak, Miami’s second straight national title and fourth in six years appeared to be almost a lock, considering it was battled-tested with a 19-16 win over Florida State in Wide Right II – the Noles finished the year 11-1 – and with a fight to get by a magnificent Syracuse team in the Carrier Dome.
However, it ran up against a 12-0 Alabama team that survived a showdown against Florida in the first SEC Championship game. The Crimson Tide D allowed 13 points or fewer in 11 of its 13 games, including the total domination of the Canes.
Key Game to Know
1993 Boston College 41, Notre Dame 39
There were several parts to the national championship puzzle in 1993.
It started with the epic showdown in South Bend when No. 1 Florida State and eventual Heisman-winner Charlie Ward were stopped 31-24 by the 10-0 Fighting Irish. Just when it seemed like that was effectively the national championship, Boston College rolled into town for the regular season finale.
Notre Dame struggled early against the Eagles, came back from down 21 in the fourth to take the lead, and then saw it all slip away as David Gordon nailed a 41-yard line drive field goal for the Eagle win.
And here’s where things get theoretically tricky.
Even with the loss, FSU rose back up to the AP No. 1 a few weeks later thanks to a win over a tremendous Florida team. The USA Today/Coaches Poll had unbeaten Nebraska No. 1, and 11-0 West Virginia No. 2. Despite the head-to-head loss, both polls had the Noles ahead of the Irish.
West Virginia got obliterated 41-7 by Florida in the Sugar Bowl to eliminate that part of the national title discussion. Notre Dame went on to beat Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, and Nebraska had a shot to be the unanimous national champion, but it lost to Florida State 18-16 on a field goal in the final seconds. Had Gordon not hit that field goal for Boston College, Notre Dame would’ve been playing Nebraska for the national title.
1994 Nebraska 24, Colorado 7
Penn State finished 12-0 with a Big Ten title and an easy Rose Bowl win over Oregon. So why did the dominant team with the incredible offense fail to get even a piece of the 1994 national title? It played 12 games and Nebraska played 13, and it didn’t play anyone who was all that amazing.
The Huskers got by a strong Miami team 24-17 in the Orange Bowl to complete the perfect season, and they also had to get by a Colorado team that was No. 2 at the time in the AP poll and No. 3 in the Coaches Poll. Nebraska handed the Buffs their only loss of the season – they went on to go 11-1 with a win over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl – 24-7.