Bowl Alliance 1995-1997
Here’s where things change. Up until this point in the history of college football, matching up the top two teams from the regular season in a bowl game relied on a lucky break – politics, and the built-in bowl tie-ins for the various conferences, had a lot to do with that.
After several split national titles, and with Nebraska and Penn State both going unbeaten in 1994, 1995 saw the first massive pivot to a true national championship game with the first ever Bowl Alliance game. It wasn’t perfect – there was one gigantic fatal flaw, which will show up in 1996 – but it led the way to the tweak to the BCS in 1998, which eventually led to the College Football Playoff in 2014.
So from here on, the idea of the most important game changes. Obviously, the one big game at the end of each season mattered more than anything else, but which ones were the key catalysts to getting the 1 vs. 2 matchup?
1995 Florida 62, Tennessee 37
National Championship: Nebraska 62, Florida 24 Fiesta Bowl
Tennessee couldn’t beat Florida in Gainesville – having not done it since 1971 – and this was the next step in a big, big problem for Peyton Manning against the Gators. Manning threw for 326 yards and two touchdowns on the way to a 24-7 lead, and then the roof caved in.
Danny Wuerffel went off, throwing six touchdown passes as the Gators scored 41 second half points on the way to a stunning 62-37 win.
The Vols rolled through the rest of their schedule to finish 11-1, closing out with a win over a fantastic Ohio State team in the Citrus Bowl. Had they beaten the Gators, they would’ve had the honor of dealing with a dominant Nebraska team that came up with great win after great win on the way to an 11-0 regular season.
Florida ripped through the rest of its schedule with blowout after blowout – including a win over preseason No. 1 Florida State and in the SEC Championship over Arkansas – but the Huskers won their second straight national title with a 62-24 annihilation over the Gators in the Fiesta Bowl.
1996 Ohio State 20, Arizona State 17 Rose Bowl
National Championship: Florida 52, Florida State 20 Sugar Bowl
10-0 Ohio State was supposed to steamroll over Michigan in the regular season finale. Instead, the Buckeyes were shut down in a 13-9 loss. However, the Buckeyes were still off to the Rose Bowl. Had Ohio State won – as things played out – it would’ve won the national championship. Instead, the win by Michigan was the first of the massive breaks Florida ended up needing to win the national title.
The Gators came off their national championship blowout loss to Nebraska by destroying just about everyone on the way to a 10-0 start. But just before getting by Alabama for the SEC championship, they were beaten up by the Florida State defense in a 24-21 loss. The Seminoles finished the regular season 11-0, and that appeared to be it for the Gator national title chances.
And then came break No. 2.
Two-time defending national champion Nebraska started the season with a 55-14 win over a decent Michigan State team, and a week later got its 26-game winning streak snapped by Arizona State in a stunning 19-0 Sun Devil win. The Huskers rolled through the rest of the schedule without much of a problem, but just when it seemed like they were positioned to play Florida State in a Bowl Alliance championship game, they lost to an okay Texas team 37-27 in the Big 12 Championship.
And then comes the big, giant problem with the Bowl Alliance – it didn’t include the Big Ten and Pac-10, who wanted to keep their tie-in with the Rose Bowl.
That meant 11-0 Pac-10 champion and Nebraska-destroyer Arizona State was off to play Ohio State in Pasadena instead of getting a shot at Florida State. That also meant Florida was going to get its chance at redemption against the Noles in a rematch of that earlier game.
On January 1st, Jake Plummer ran for the go-ahead touchdown as Arizona State took a 17-14 lead on the Buckeyes late in the Rose Bowl, but Ohio State roared back and pulled off the 20-17 win on a Joe Germaine touchdown pass to David Boston with 19 seconds to play. The ASU loss meant the Florida-Florida State Sugar Bowl was for the national championship.
On January 2nd, the Gators destroyed the Seminoles 55-20.
1997 Florida 32, Florida State 29
National Championship (tie): Michigan 21, Washington State 16 Rose Bowl
Nebraska 42, Tennessee 17 Orange Bowl
Florida screwed up everything.
In 1997, the Bowl Alliance was supposed to create a true national championship matchup in the bowls, but the Big Ten and Pac-10 weren’t a part of it – they wanted to keep their Rose Bowl matchup as is. That meant 11-0 Michigan played Washington State in Pasadena, and Charles Woodson’s Wolverines held off Ryan Leaf’s Cougars 21-16.
With Michigan not able to be a part of the Bowl Alliance game, that meant Peyton Manning’s No. 3 Tennessee team was the next one up in the rankings, so it got a shot to face Scott Frost’s unbeaten Nebraska squad in the Orange Bowl. If Michigan lost to Wazzu, and Tennessee could beat the Huskers, the Vols would be national champions. Instead, they got walloped 42-17.
Tennessee’s only loss before that was to defending national champion Florida, closing out Manning’s 0-4 career against the Gators. However, Florida lost to LSU and Georgia to get knocked out of the title chase. Florida State was 10-0 and ranked No. 1 in the Coaches and No. 2 in the AP, but in arguably the most intense of all the battles between the two – including the two the season before – Florida pulled off the 32-29 upset on a late touchdown, followed up by a game-sealing interception.
Had FSU won, it would’ve stayed No. 1 in the Coaches Poll in late November, and would’ve been in the top two in the AP before ending the season against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Considering it would’ve been a battle of unbeatens, the winner likely would’ve been national champion, and Michigan might have been shut out.