This is the fifth in a series of installments that have been running throughout December looking back on great New Year's Days of years gone by. Today it's New Year's morning, even if it is an NFL day today (Let me interject quickly to say--Go 'Skins!!!).But today's a good day to wrap up our historical series as we look ahead to tomorrow's collegiate action. 1993 was the last true New Year's Day the college game had--the last time every major bowl game was played that day and a national champion crowned. On a personal level, my social circle always used to congregate at my parents' house for my mom's chili and to sweat off our hangovers. In '93 we were all just starting to depart college, so this would be the last get-together. It marked the end of an age.
Tomorrow afternoon Barry Alvarez coaches his last game for Wisconsin. 1993 was when he burst on to the national scene. The Badgers climbed slowly, winning their first six games before a loss at Minnesota seemed to mark them as just a very improved program that would go to a minor bowl. Ohio State was the toast of the Big Ten, winning a big non-conference game against Washington and entering mid-November with a perfect record. The Badgers beat Michigan in Madison and set up a battle with the Buckeyes in Camp Randall. The game ended in a 14-14 tie. Ohio State still had a one-game lead, but the Badgers owned the tiebreaker because of the "ineptitude factor"(see Steve Rhoads' explanation of tiebreaker rules). But Buckeye coach John Cooper always had problems with Michigan, and the Wolverines salvaged their season by destroying Ohio State 28-3 in Ann Arbor. Two weeks later Wisconsin traveled to Japan to play their game against Michigan State. A 41-20 win meant UW's first Rose Bowl bid since 1963 was clinched on the far side of the Pacific. They were paired up with UCLA, who overcame an 0-2 non-conference start to win the Pac-10.
Notre Dame enjoyed an outstanding season in '93, coming off a Top 5 finish the year before. Lou Holtz's team was not expected to do great things with the graduation of star quarterback Rick Mirer. But Holtz's best teams were with quarterbacks who could run the option and lightly regarded senior Kevin McDougal could do just that. The Irish beat Michigan on the road to open the year. They began to eye up top-ranked Florida State who was coming to town on November 13. Notre Dame turned in an outstanding performance, beating the Seminoles 31-24 and moving to the top of the polls. One week later, the Irish season took a stunning turn. Their fellow Catholics from Boston College arrived, and kicked a last-second field goal to pull off a 41-39 win. Notre Dame was Cotton Bowl bound to play Texas A&M for the second consecutive year.
With both Notre Dame and FSU now having a loss, Nebraska and lightly-regarded West Virginia were the only unbeaten teams left. The Cornhuskers locked up a weak Big Eight and an Orange Bowl bid. They were #1 in the coaches poll, and #2 with the writers at season's end. But no one gave them a chance against the Seminoles, who got the nod as their opponent.
West Virginia ended Miami's run at the king of the Big East by beating the Hurricanes 20-14 in Morgantown. But the Mountaineers could get no respect and they stayed ranked behind Florida State. As a result they headed to the Sugar Bowl to play SEC champ Florida. They could aspire to a perfect season, but the best they could hope for was a share of the national title if Nebraska lost. As for Miami, after having played the last two New Year's for #1, this time they were 9-2 and Fiesta Bowl-bound. They were scheduled to face Pac-10 runner-up Arizona.
Florida State was the fair-haired boys of the media this season and was actually ranked #1 in the writer's poll. Yes, they were ranked ahead of two major unbeaten teams and another team they'd lost to. The media's coverage of Bobby Bowden as he pursued his first national title was about as objective as the New York Times coverage of George W. Bush.
In the early hours of New Year's some secondary bowl games were going on. Penn State was in its first season in the Big Ten and they played Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl. The Lions easily beat the Vols and their #7 ranking was the prelude to a perfect season in 1994.
The rest of the games were worthy of this day's historical status as the last true New Year's. Notre Dame and Texas A&M were locked up at 21, until a big punt return by ND's Mike Miller set up the winning field goal with five minutes left. Arizona left the nation in shock by not only beating Miami, but shutting them out, 29-0. Wisconsin brought so many fans to Pasadena, that the Bruins' home field was dubbed "Camp Randall West." They did not leave disappointed, as quarterback Darrell Bevell made a memorable scramble for a touchdown and UCLA's last drive ran out of time just inside the UW red zone. A 21-16 win was the first of three Rose Bowl triumphs for Alvarez.
In prime time, Florida spared the country the prospect of seeing West Virginia left out in the cold. The Gators pounded the Mountaineers early and often, on their way to a 41-7 win. The Orange Bowl was another classic as both Tom Osborne and Bowden commanded the nation's sympathy in pursuit of their first crown. A late field goal by Nebraska appeared to give them control at 16-15 with under two minutes left. Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward rushed the 'Noles back into position with considerable help from two very questionable 15-yard penalties issues against the Huskers. FSU kicked a short field goal to make it 18-16 and they looked to have it locked up. Nebraska came charging back, and a last completion to get them in field goal range appeared to have run out the time. Gatorade was dumped on Bowden. But the officials ruled there was still one second on the clock. So with the FSU coach already drenched, the Cornhuskers lined up a field goal of 40+ yards to try and win it. It was badly shanked.
Lou Holtz correctly argued that his team deserved the #1 ranking. No teams were unbeaten, save 11-0 Auburn who was on probation and had not even played the SEC championship game, much less a bowl. Notre Dame and Florida State were the only one-loss teams who had won bowl games. Given that the Irish lost a vote to Miami in 1989 in these same circumstances due to a head-to-head loss, Holtz had historical precedent on his side in arguing his case this year. But the sympathy steamroller for Bowden was too strong and his team won the vote in both polls. This most historic of New Year's was regrettably marred by a shameless display of inconsistency on the part of the voters and some us still think of the '93 Notre Dame squad as an uncrowned champion. Bowden would wait until 1999 to win an unstained title. In 1993, the championship chair was left vacant.
The New Year's era was over. In 1994 the same basic bowl alignment remained, but a scheduling fluke deprived viewers of a complete day of college football. That season, the NFL owned January 1 and scheduled two first-round playoff games (our Bears readers no doubt have fond memories of their waxing of Minnesota that took place that afteroon). For some reason, the Orange Bowl kept its game on New Year's night while the rest of the bowls moved to January 2. And since the '94 Orange saw top-ranked Nebraska beat Miami, the crown was decided by the time everyone took the field for a bowl day. In 1995 four of the major conferences (all but the Big Ten/Pac-10) had established the Bowl Alliance, the forerunner of the BCS. It ensured the top two teams out of these four leagues would play, and the bowl game designated for the national title was moved off of New Year's.
A new era had begun, but the way New Year's used to be will always be a special part of college football's history. May the game's powers-that-be look at bringing it back.