There were 2 College Football National Champions for the 1997 season. How was that ever a thing?
Any child that was born before Jan 1st, 1998 would be either 19 or 20 years old at this point.
That means everybody that’s currently in high school (we hope there’s nobody that’s 19 or 20 right now that’s still in high school) has never seen a college football season where the #1 ranked team did not play the #2 ranked team at the end of the year.
Yes, I understand there were some that probably shouldn’t have been ranked in those top 2, but you still understand where I’m coming from.
There have been crazy things like 2003, when LSU and USC should have played for a title, but some computer numbers got messy and gave us Oklahoma & LSU instead, even after Oklahoma was upset in their conference title game.
In 2001, Nebraska reached the BCS National Championship game against Miami after being destroyed in the last game of the regular season 62-36 at Colorado.
There was 2004, where Auburn went undefeated, but they we ranked too far behind Oklahoma and USC to start the season, and both the Sooners and Trojans had undefeated regular seasons as well.
There was 2007, where LSU got into the national title game thanks to 3 of the top 4 teams being beaten in the last week of the regular season.
There was even just a couple of years ago, where Alabama lost at home to Ole Miss, who then went and got skull-drugged by Florida in the Swamp, was overwhelmed at Memphis, and it still took a 4th-and-25 miracle by Arkansas to get Alabama into the SEC Championship game, en route to a National Championship.
But 1997 still kinda takes the cake for the most ridiculous ending to a season, maybe ever.
Michigan was coming off of 4 straight 4-loss seasons, and they started out at #14 in the AP Poll and #13 in the Coaches Poll.
They opened up by beating #8/#7 Colorado 27-3 in the first game of the season, which jumped them up to #8 in both polls.
Michigan climbed the pollst through the entire season, beating #15 Iowa, at #14 Michigan St, at #2 Penn St, at #23 Wisconsin and #4 Ohio St.
Michigan first hit #1 in the AP Poll the week after November 8th, which we’ll break down when we talk about Nebraska’s season in a bit.
Michigan didn’t hit #1 in the Coaches Poll until after the final week of the season, when then #1 Florida St took their first loss of the season to Florida in Gainesville.
They never dropped in the polls a single week, regardless of the fact that they didn’t score more than 38 points in a single game, averaged only 26.8 ppg, and had several games that came right down to the wire.
Lloyd Carr was the head coach, and Michigan had the toughest schedule in all of college football that season.
After the regular season, Michigan was the Big 10 Champ, and was contractually obligated to play in the Rose Bowl at the end of the year, where they had to face #7 Washington St, coached by Mike Price and led by QB Ryan Leaf. Michigan won the game 21-16, but it came down to a crazy ending.
[Washington St’s] drive began at the Cougar 7-yard-line with 16 seconds left to play. Leaf completed a 46-yard pas to Nian Taylor to move the ball to the Michigan 47. Washington State drew an illegal formation penalty with 9 seconds remaining, but executed a hook and lateral play for 26-yards to the Michigan 26, with an 8-yard catch by Love Jefferson and an 18-yard run by Jason Clayton who was tackled by Weathers and Jones. With 2 seconds to play the clock was stopped to move the chains. With no timeouts left, Leaf spiked the football, but although there appeared to be 1 second remaining on the clock, Dick Burleson, the referee from the Southeastern Conference crew, shook his head as Leaf contested the decision.
To clear that up, Washington St started at their own 7 yard line with :16 left in the game, and managed to make it all the way to the Michigan 26 before they failed to spike the ball in time for one last play.
And it appears that pollsters didn’t appreciate Michigan not dominating that game.
It’s entirely possible that Nebraska could have set their own expectations too high early in the season, and almost cost themselves, even in a win, late in the year.
Nebraska started the year at #6 in the polls, and jumped up to #3 after beating #2 Washington in Seattle, 27-14, in the 3rd week of the season.
The Huskers moved up to #3, and then rallied off 5 straight wins against overmatched conference opponents (including 69-7 over Oklahoma, who was not yet Stoops’ team) by an average score of 47.6 to 10.8, including 2 shutouts, and the 7 points to Oklahoma.
On November 15th, Nebraska visited unranked Missouri, having outscored 3 straight opponents by a combined score of 133 to 7. Missouri was 6-3 and had lost 18 straight to Nebraska.
And Missouri was leading 38-31 with :07 left in the game, until this happened.
Nebraska caught the ball, sent the game into overtime, and then went on to win the game 45-38.
It dropped them to #3 in both polls, behind Michigan and Florida St.
Florida St, however, lost their last game of the season, which kept Nebraska at #2 in the polls, and the gap between the Huskers and Michigan really wasn’t even close. Michigan had over 50 1st place votes in both polls, while Nebraska had less than 10 in one, and 18 in another.
But then something changed… Nebraska’s legendary coach, Tom Osborne announced his retirement prior to their Orange Bowl matchup against Tennessee.
Nebraska blew out #3 Tennessee, and Peyton Manning, 42-17, and Nebraska finished the season undefeated, just like Michigan. The game also happened on Jan 2nd, 1998 – one day after Michigan’s win over #7 Washington St in the Rose Bowl.
The beatdown of #3, along with Michigan’s closer-than-expected win over #7 Washington St, combined with Tom Osborne’s retirement, was enough to sway some voters in the coaches poll, who voted Nebraska as their 1997 National Champion by a vote of 32 to 30.
What would a playoff have looked like?
Until Florida St was beaten by Florida, 32-29, there were 3 undefeated teams in college football, and Tennessee had one loss, also to Florida, early in the year. Your playoff that year would have looked like this:
#1 Michigan vs #4 Florida St
#2 Nebraska vs #3 Tennessee
We saw how Nebraska vs Tennessee played out, but could you imagine a game between Florida St and Michigan? Florida St ended the season ranked #1 in the S&P ratings, and probably would have kept Nebraska from winning a national title that season, even if they went undefeated.
It’s still crazy to look back and see that this was the 3rd time in 8 seasons that we had a split national championship. At the very least, the sport was absolutely ready for the BCS, even if it wasn’t the perfect system.