Notre Dame's Ray Zellars eludes Florida State's Clifton Abraham in the 1993 contest between the Irish and the Seminoles in South Bend, Ind. Photo AP.
In 1993, No. 1 Florida State played No. 2 Notre Dame in South Bend for a contest most predicted would be an elimination game for the national championship. Things didn't work out that way.
When Florida State and Notre Dame met on Nov. 13, 1993, it was billed as the Game of the Century. The winner of the rare matchup of the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country was expected to have the fast track to the national championship. But almost before the final whistle had sounded the cry had arisen for a rematch in the title game.
By 1993 Bobby Bowden had Florida State at the top of the college football world. Since he took over in Tallahassee in 1976, the fortunes of the Seminoles football program had turned around completely. It had been six years since the team earned fewer than 10 wins in a season and more than a decade since the last season without a bowl invitation. The national championship, though, had remained frustratingly out of reach.
In 1992 the Florida State abandoned their independent status and joined the ACC and promptly won the conference championship. But for a loss to No. 2 Miami, the Seminoles would have gone unbeaten and, likely, earned a shot at the title. Ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls, Florida State was the prohibitive favorite to win it all in 1993.
Expectations were not quite so high in South Bend on the eve of the regular season. The 10-1-1 record from 1992 demonstrated that Lou Holtz’ Notre Dame squad was still a dominant unit but the loss of no less than nine key players to the pros tempered expectations somewhat. While the Fighting Irish were ranked No. 6 in the preseason polls, the consensus was the unit would take a step back and aim for the 1994 campaign.
Yet as September unfolded the two teams proceeded to tear through their schedules with authority. It was October before anyone managed more than one touchdown against the powerful Seminole defense, and the Irish offense kept putting up bigger margins of victory every week.
When No. 2 Alabama was tripped up with a tie to arch-rival Tennessee in the Third Saturday in October, the defending national champions fell to fifth in the polls and the path was cleared for a titanic clash between Florida State and Notre Dame less than a month later.
The buildup to the game was immense. Every utterance by the coaches and players was broken down and scryed for meaning by the opposition. ESPN's College GameDay - in just its third year of live gameday broadcasts - made its first appearance in South Bend even thought NBC held rights to the game due to its contract with the school. Lee Corso picked the Seminoles to win 31-30.
Face value for tickets was $27, but on gameday sidewalk scalpers were demanding – and getting – hundreds of dollars for even the most inconveniently located seats. Needless to say the opening kickoff was beheld by a Notre Dame Stadium sellout crowd of more than 59,000. On television, it would prove to be the most-watched college football game since the Auburn Alabama clash 12 years prior that had earned Paul W. Bryant his record-setting 315th victory.
The game started as the pundits predicted with Florida State overwhelming the Irish with a 10-play, 89-yard drive that culminated with a 12-yard pass from Ward to Kevin Knox. 7-0 Seminoles. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the win column.
Notre Dame proceeded to reel off 24 straight points and almost completely shut down the vaunted Florida State offense. The Seminoles wouldn’t find the end zone again until a full 32 minutes of play had elapsed. Scores in the fourth quarter put the game at 31-17 as the game entered its final four minutes.
Florida State’s Charlie Ward – who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy that season – propelled the Seminoles to a final desperate rally to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. A 99-second, 49-yard drive was capped with a miracle 4th-and-20 pass attempt that was tipped by the Notre Dame defender in the end zone and caught by Florida State’s Kez McCorvey for the score.
The Seminoles stopped the Irish’s subsequent drive and got the ball back on their own 31 with 51 seconds on the clock and no timeouts. Trailing by a touchdown, Ward again led his team down the field 49 yards and Florida State had reached the 14-yard-line with three seconds on the clock.
Ward took the snap and scrambled left. Spotting tailback Warrick Dunn in the end zone he unleashed the pass and watched helplessly as Irish cornerback Shawn Wooden batted it to the ground. Notre Dame players and fans rushed the field. The Irish had beaten the No. 1 team in the land 31-24.
Florida State's Knox was unbowed by the defeat and, in the locker room after the game, indicated that the outcome would very likely be different if the two teams met again.
"Hopefully, we can come back to haunt Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl," he said. While a trip to Tempe wasn't in the cards for either team, the Seminoles would certainly return to haunt the Irish in the post-season.
The next day the Bowl Coalition ranking, which employed a combination of the AP and USA Today/CNN polls to determine the teams that would vie for the national championship, put Notre Dame at No. 1 and Florida State at No. 2. The ensuing furor of a possible rematch to determine the 1993 champions became inescapable.
Three other undefeated teams in the country found themselves on the outside looking in -- Nebraska and West Virginia, due to suspect schedules in the eyes of the poll voters, and Auburn, due to NCAA probation.
Sports Illustrated, in their recap of the Florida State vs. Notre Dame game, titled the story simply "Round 1 To The Irish." Bowden was unapologetic at the opportunity it presented. "I sure hope it’ll motivate my boys," he told reporters when the Bowl Coalition numbers were released.
Motivation wasn’t expected to be an issue for the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame was slated to finish the regular season against a Boston College team they had destroyed 54-7 the season prior. But after dropping the first two games of the season, Tom Coughlin’s Eagles were on a seven-game win streak going into South Bend.
It turned out they were peaking at the perfect moment. A 41-yard field goal on the final play of the game gave Boston College a 41-39 victory and chaos enveloped the Bowl Coalition.
The Irish plummeted to No. 5 in the poll, eliminating them from contending for the national championship. Nebraska assumed the No. 1 position and Florida State edged undefeated West Virginia in the bowl poll to snare the No. 2 spot and the opportunity to meet the Cornhuskers for the title in the Orange Bowl.
The Seminoles would go on to edge Nebraska 18-16 in Miami on New Year’s Eve to claim the title. The Irish bested Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl 24-21 and earned the No. 2 spot in the final poll for their efforts. Nebraska rounded out the final top three.
Columnists immediately began dissecting the results. Many defended the system as the most fair to all the teams involved, others derided the system for crowning a champions over a team that had bested it in the regular season. Others tried to stand above the fray and envision something better.
"The whole thing," bemoaned L.A. Times columnist Gene Wojciechowski. "Is enough to make you wish for a playoff plan that actually worked."