It's Jan. 2, 1997. New Orleans. The Superdome falls silent.
After almost four hours of play, the Sugar Bowl
national-championship game between Tennessee (12-0) and two-time
defending national champion Nebraska (12-0) is tied 31-31. They
will play the first major bowl overtime in history to decide
who wins the title. Team captains gather around a huge corporate
logo at midfield, and a coin is tossed into the air....
This is an article from the Aug. 26, 1996 issue
College football seasons are like class reunions: The faces
change, but almost everything else stays the same. Nebraska
runs, Florida passes, Notre Dame gets on television a lot. Three
controversies arise each season, one pertaining to the Heisman
Trophy, one to a spate of early blowouts and one to some
perceived injustice done by the polls. The sport is as reliable
as the return of autumn itself.
The Heisman debate has begun already. Set aside two stuffed
chairs at the Downtown Athletic Club for Tennessee quarterback
Peyton Manning and his Florida counterpart, Danny Wuerffel. Get
another one ready for Northwestern's Darnell Autry, yet another
"slash" player--the actor/tailback. And surely there needs to be
a place for Iowa State's Troy Davis or for Florida State's
Warrick Dunn. But perhaps the best player of all is a hulking
lineman with a voice as soft as custard, Ohio State's Orlando
Pace, a 6'6", 320-pound offensive tackle. Or maybe it's USC
junior defensive tackle Darrell Russell, 6'4", approximately 320
pounds and nimble enough to dunk a basketball from a standstill.
And once the games begin, many of the other signposts guiding
you through the autumn will be familiar ones. Florida at
Tennessee on Sept. 21. Florida State at Miami on Oct. 12.
Michigan at Ohio State on Nov. 23. Colorado at Nebraska on Nov.
29. Notre Dame at USC, Florida at Florida State and Miami at
Syracuse, all on Nov. 30. In this year, as in most, you can
navigate the college football season with just a schedule to
show the way. The plots are laid out in August, awaiting the
insertion of small details.
There are occasional teams that are surprises (West Virginia in
1988, Georgia Tech in 1990, Washington in 1991, of recent
vintage), and occasional players, too. (Who would have thought a
year ago that Eddie George would win the Heisman?) But this is
not the custom. Change generally affects college football like
beach erosion, altering the scenery so little each year that it
is hardly noticeable at all. There is something beneficent in
this, something that helps obscure the hypocrisy in the sport--a
big business masquerading as cozy, down-home pastime.
This fall, however, the ocean washes over the shoreline in one
wave. And the game changes. Boy, does it change.
The shift from cozy, regional leagues to superconferences
without geographic borders, promised since the beginning of the
decade, has finally taken place. In addition to the Southeastern
Conference, which has had 12 teams in two divisions since 1992,
the Big Eight has taken in four members of the deceased
Southwest Conference (Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech)
to form the Big 12; and the Western Athletic Conference has
adopted three of the four remaining SWC schools (Rice, SMU and
TCU) as well as San Jose State, Tulsa and UNLV to swell its
ranks to a bloated 16. All three conferences will have
championship games on Dec. 7. These, it should be noted, are
truly the Games of the Year, where the likes of Nebraska, which
enters the season with 25 consecutive wins, or Tennessee could
stumble after putting together 11-0 marks.
Even more abruptly, the tie game has been legislated out of
existence and, with it, the unique drama created by the
possibility of a deadlock. In its place is a fast-food
alternative, a tiebreaker that was in effect for bowl games last
season and that has been used in lower divisions for as many as
15 years. The format is simple: Team A gets possession on the
opponent's 25-yard line and keeps the ball until it runs out of
downs, commits a turnover or scores a touchdown or field goal.
Then Team B takes a turn. The game ends when one team scores
more in its half-inning than the other. There is a huge
advantage to winning the coin toss and getting the ball last,
knowing what is needed to win, or to stay alive.
It is a seductive rule change because of its apparent common
sense. "I don't think anybody likes to tie," says Arkansas coach
Danny Ford. Of course not. Yet three of the most storied games
in history are Notre Dame's 0-0 tie with Army in 1946, the
Fighting Irish's 10-10 tie with Michigan State in 1966 and even
Harvard's 29-29 tie with Yale in 1968. It can be argued that any
of them--certainly the Harvard-Yale game--would have been less
memorable if the tie had been broken. And the very threat of a
tie has left deep emotional footprints across the history of the
game, forcing coaches to make the late-game choice between
kicking an extra point to pull even or attempting a two-point
conversion for a win.
Nebraska coach Tom Osborne's choice was to go for two in the
1984 Orange Bowl, when a tie with Miami would have given the
Cornhuskers the national title. The attempt and failure elevated
that game and established Osborne--however else he is
regarded--as a man who had the courage to risk a sure thing in
pursuit of victory. In the fall of 1987, Florida State coach
Bobby Bowden went for two against Miami, failed and lost 26-25.
The Seminoles finished 11-1 and lost a chance to play for the
national title. Bowden waited six more years for his first
The new rule has virtually killed traditional game-ending
suspense. "Now you would almost never go for two to win the game
in regulation unless there was some sort of strange circumstance
involved," says USC coach John Robinson. College football
becomes in this way a little brother to the NFL, whose coaches
would sooner floss with barbed wire than attempt a two-point
conversion to win a game in the final seconds. They always kick
and play OT. Now the colleges can be expected to embrace this
same, safe philosophy. "It's a fundamental of football that you
go out there to win," says former Syracuse coach Dick
MacPherson, whose 1987 team was involved in a bitter 16-16 Sugar
Bowl tie with Auburn, when the Tigers kicked a 30-yard field
goal with one second to play. "That's all changed [with the new
rule]. A tie puts you into overtime. You just play some more.
They're teaching ties now."
The new OT can be entertaining stuff. You can get scores like
58-55, the margin by which Rhode Island beat Maine in a 1982
Division I-AA game, after they were tied 21-21 at the end of
regulation. But the tiebreaker is also something less than the
game itself, like a soccer shoot-out. "It seems like an
artificial way to settle a game," says Penn State coach Joe
Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel says, "Maybe it will be exciting
for TV and fans, but it doesn't seem like football to me."
Those are the reasons behind not only the tiebreaker but
conference expansion as well: excitement, television, a stodgy
institution trying to drag itself into the 20th century before
the 21st arrives. After all, the tiebreaker promises action and
suspense, Mortal Kombat-style, but without the decapitations.
Conference realignment gives us three monster games in December,
when once there was only Army-Navy. And in two years the Pac-10
and the Big Ten join the Bowl Alliance, nearly guaranteeing a
national-championship game every year, the biggest change of
Of course, it's also possible that college football isn't moving
boldly into the future but that it's frightened, running for
security and protection. That superconferences have been created
to provide financial safety in numbers, culminating with a
megabucks title game to try to help everyone into the black. And
that the tiebreaker isn't a solution but a sanctuary for coaches
who feared the two-point quandary and now won't have to face it.
Just sit tight for overtime. Plus, it gets more teams those
precious six wins needed to play in a bowl, which makes more
money for those teams and their (super)conferences.
In the end it doesn't matter. Whether from fear or prescience,
the game is different this fall.
On the final play of a long night, fourth-and-one in overtime,
Tennessee tailback Jay Graham scores the winning touchdown.
Tennessee wins its first national title in 45 years....
Nebraska losing. Now, that's change.