This offseason, I posted a list of the best college football programs, on average, from each decade. It created plenty of argument: Oklahoma and Texas over Florida and USC in the 2000s? Florida State over Nebraska in the 1990s?? Pitt over Cal in the 1920s???*
I think it also did a pretty effective job. College football doesn't change quickly, but these decade-by-decade lists were good ways to look at the shifts.
That said, we're nearly midway through 2016, and 2016 doesn't look much like the 2010s. Among the top 10 programs of the decade (Alabama, Stanford, Oklahoma, LSU, Oregon, Ohio State, Florida State, Notre Dame, Georgia, Michigan State), only two are currently among the top 12 in the AP rankings: No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Ohio State.
Other 2010s heavyweights are nearby (Stanford is 15th in the AP, Oklahoma 20th, Florida State 23rd), but this is taking on a strange, but familiar, look.
Michigan is fourth in the polls. Washington is fifth. Tennessee is ninth. Nebraska is 12th. Colorado just entered the rankings for the first time in 11 years.
The 1990s are back, you guys.
* Note: I made one of these three complaints up. You'll never guess which.
Pardon me for a moment while I set the mood.
Of the top 10 programs from the 1990s, five rank among the AP top 12: No. 2 Ohio State, No. 4 Michigan, No. 9 Tennessee (highest ranking in a decade), No. 10 Miami (which is going back to wearing its throwback uniforms full-time), and No. 12 Nebraska.
And this doesn’t even tell the whole story. The current No. 1, Alabama, won the 1992 national title. No. 5 Washington split the 1991 title with Miami. No. 8 Texas A&M won four conference titles. No. 11 Wisconsin went to three Rose Bowls. And the Colorado Buffaloes, new poll entrants at No. 21, were 10th in the 1990s.
This is Houston’s highest AP ranking since 1990.
Hell, Florida’s still hanging around.
Really, the only thing wrecking this ‘90s reunion is Florida State’s stumble. The Seminoles were in the top 10 but fell to Louisville and North Carolina.
Even if it is just temporary, this is a wonderful development. We tend to look back on most aspects of the 1990s with fondness, no matter how awful the fashion was.
It also has to do with age: Just as so many seasoned sportswriters grew up in Bruce Springsteen’s universe, so many internet sports fans are in their 20s, 30s, or early 40s. We usually look back fondly at these years.
Beyond that, though, the 1990s were a really damn fun decade of football. Big players were getting bigger, fast players were getting faster, blue-bloods and out-of-nowhere powers traded blows, and rarely have styles of play been more diverse.
Here are 10 reasons college football was awesome in the 1990s.
1. Pick an offensive style, any offensive style
The so-called pro-style offense came of age at the turn of the 1990s as teams looked for ways to take advantage of defenses that had become smaller and faster to deal with the wishbone.
Even so, just about every style imaginable was present. You could find the run-and-shoot in places, Nebraska’s I-formation option was devastating in the mid-1990s, and Air Force finished 12-1 and 13th in the country in 1998 with most of the elements of a wishbone offense. Bill Walsh College Football gave every team a wide-open playbook.
Plus, what would become the pass-first spread offense was showing up at the major conference level. Kentucky hired air raid inventor Hal Mumme in 1996, and Purdue hired prolific Joe Tiller in 1997.
2. Fast quarterbacks who could pass
The 1980s were an either/or decade. You could win the national title with pass-first pocket-statue gunslingers (Robbie Bosco at BYU in 1984, Steve Walsh at Miami in 1987), game-manager types (Buck Belue at Georgia in 1980, John Shaffer at Penn State in 1986, etc.), or option masters (Jamelle Holieway at Oklahoma in 1985). But there weren’t many guys who could destroy you with his arm or his legs.
Florida State's Charlie Ward threw for 5,679 yards and rushed for 843 in 1992-93, won the 1993 Heisman Trophy, and played 12 seasons as an NBA point guard. Alcorn State's Steve McNair captured the nation's imagination by throwing and passing for more than 6,000 yards as a senior. He finished third in the 1994 Heisman voting despite playing at the FCS level.
In 1993-94, Colorado’s Kordell Stewart twice threw for 2,000-plus yards while rushing for 500-plus. And in 1999, Woody Dantzler became Clemson’s starting quarterback. By 2001, he would post the first 2,000/1,000 season.
You still had incredible option maestros (Nebraska’s Tommie Frazier) and blue-chip statues (Tennessee’s Peyton Manning). But in the 1990s, “Why not both?” became a feasible option. And it reached full personification with the emergence of Virginia Tech’s Michael Vick in 1999.
3. Fifth downs
4. Florida vs. Florida State
Quite a few moribund programs found life. Virginia spent about a month at No. 1 in 1990, and Kansas State went 33-4 from 1997-99 and came within overtime of reaching the 1998 BCS Championship.
But the decade was defined by the continued power of Florida State and the sudden dominance of rival Florida. FSU finished in the top five in every year, and Florida nearly matched, finishing in the top 10 eight times. The winner of Florida-FSU would either play for or win the national title in 1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, and 1999.
That doesn't tell the whole story, though. It wasn't just Florida vs. Florida State -- it was Steve Spurrier vs. Bobby Bowden. The 1990s were the peak decade for two of the sport's biggest personalities, and the back-and-forth nature of the rivalry was, dare we say, a will they/won’t they drama on the level of Ross and Rachel.
5. A Big Ten in flux
In 1968, Ohio State found a rhythm under head coach Woody Hayes. In 1969, Michigan hired Bo Schembechler. And in the 25 seasons between 1968-92, these two would attend the Rose Bowl 20 times.
But while Michigan was awesome for much of the 1990s, the Wolverines were slightly vulnerable following Schembechler's retirement. Meanwhile, transitioning from Earle Bruce to John Cooper, Ohio State struggled for a few years.
The result: usurpers. Wisconsin made a stunning run to the Rose Bowl in 1993, beating Michigan, tying Ohio State, and taking down Michigan State in Tokyo to secure its first Rose Bowl in three decades. Conference newcomer Penn State won the Big Ten in 1994. The biggest underdog of them all, Northwestern, went to Pasadena under Gary Barnett in 1995. Wisconsin went to two more Rose Bowls in 1998 and 1999, and the 2000s began with Tiller’s Purdue.
6. 1990 was 2007, only maybe even better
We celebrate chaos, and the 2007 season, with its upsets and two-loss national champion, had more than most.
But 1990 began with No. 1 Miami losing to BYU, saw Virginia reach No. 1 before an epic loss to Georgia Tech, and featured a split national title between Georgia Tech (unranked to start the season) and Colorado, a one-loss, one-tie team that benefited from both the fifth down and one of the more controversial clipping penalties ever.
(Apparently Colorado sold its soul for the 1990 national title. Apparently that deed has expired after 25 years.)
The decade began with two straight split national titles and finished with the BCS’ guaranteed No. 1 vs. No. 2. The SEC expanded to 12 teams in 1992, the Big Ten added Penn State, and the Big Eight merged with the stronger entities of the tumultuous, dying SWC.
Eventually this would result in a more corporate, money-driven version of the sport. But it needed a little bit of organization in the 1990s. It also got some spectacular conference title games for the first time.
8. Even the defenses were fun
And they had fun nicknames. Texas A&M had the Wrecking Crew. Nebraska had the Black Shirts. Arizona had the Desert Swarm.
Even as offenses flourished, the 1990s were one of the most defense-friendly decades. Case in point: a defender even won the Heisman.
9. Rocket & Des
10. The 1997 Rose Bowl
Every decade has its great games and finishes, and the 1990s were no exception. The 1990 Virginia-Georgia Tech game combined back-and-forth action with “we may never have this chance again” anxiety. The 1994 Orange Bowl battle between Florida State and Nebraska both decided the national title and came down to a last-second missed field goal. Colorado beat Michigan in 1994 with the famous Kordell Stewart-to-Michael Westbrook Hail Mary. The 1994 Florida-Florida State game, a.k.a. the Choke at Doak, saw Florida State come back from 31-3 down to tie. And, of course, there was Wide Right I and Wide Right II.
But for sheer drama, quality, and tension, the 1997 Rose Bowl between Ohio State and Arizona State was one of the greatest games of all time.
Arizona State came that close to a national title.
So, what’s the most 1990s scenario still left on the table for 2016?
- Colorado wins the Pac-12 South with home wins over UCLA and Utah, setting the table for a Washington-Colorado Pac-12 title game.
- Miami beats Florida State and finally wins the ACC Coastal, then upsets Clemson.
- Tennessee finishes its blessed run of comebacks and lucky bounces with a trip to the SEC title game to face Alabama.
- Ohio State and Michigan meet as top-five teams, with the winner facing Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship.
- Texas celebrates the 20th anniversary of its 1996 Big 12 title by converting a huge fourth-and-1 with a play-action pass to a tight end to pull an upset and win the Big 12 at 8-4.
- Your 2016 Playoff semis: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Miami and No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Washington, with New Year’s bowls for Colorado, Michigan, Nebraska, and Tennessee.
Bump the Bell Biv Devoe and rock the Hypercolor. Let’s see if we can keep the 1990s going for a while longer.