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How 1993’s FSU-Notre Dame ‘game of the century’ helped build toward the Playoff

The controversy that followed the classic set in motion a chain of events that took only [checks notes] two more decades to produce a College Football Playoff.

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Heading into the break between the 1993 regular season and the bowls, the public was unhappy. At first glance, it might be difficult to see why.

This had been, after all, a rousing year. Just about every time two top-10 teams had met, they played a classic, from No. 5 Tennessee vs. No. 9 Florida early on (the Gators won, 41-34) to No. 9 WVU vs. No. 4 Miami late (the Mountaineers won, 17-14, to stay unbeaten). Plus, we had plenty of silliness, like unranked Michigan State beating No. 9 Michigan (that might seem familiar), a loss that set up unranked Michigan destroying No. 5 Ohio State (which might seem less familiar).

In between the zaniness were two legendary November contests, both of which involved Lou Holtz’s Fighting Irish.

On November 13, second-ranked Notre Dame hosted top-ranked Florida State. It was an all-time classic. The Irish went on a 24-0 run and led by 14 well into the fourth quarter, but FSU came back, scoring on a tipped, fourth-and-20 pass from Charlie Ward to Kez McCorvey to cut the Notre Dame lead to 31-24. The Seminoles got the ball back and drove to the Irish 14 with three seconds left.

Shawn Wooden’s deflection of a pass to Warrick Dunn gave the Irish the win. But that was alright — it felt like merely Chapter 1 in the era’s proto-BCS system. From Sports Illustrated’s Austin Murphy:

This game was Big, and, to the delight of NBC, Notre Dame’s in-house network, it was tight. ... The day after the game, the bowl-coalition ranking—which combines the AP and the USA Today/CNN polls—gave Notre Dame the No. 1 spot and dropped Florida State to No. 2. As a result, the Seminoles will likely get a second crack at the Irish on New Year’s Day in the Fiesta Bowl. [...]

The Irish didn’t catch any breaks Sunday when the Seminoles dropped to only No. 2 in the coalition standings. For [Notre Dame’s Kevin] McDougal’s response to Holtz to be proved prophetic, the quarterback probably will have to lead his team to one of the toughest doubles in football: two for two against FSU. Before their sweat had dried on Saturday, many of the Seminoles were talking rematch. Said Floyd, the fullback, “We’re hoping this was just Round 1.”

The thought of a rematch was new to college football, but this was a time for imagination.

The Supreme Court’s famed NCAA v. Board of Regents of Oklahoma ruling in 1984 had opened the television floodgates, and in the name of fairness revenue, the sport’s minds were making changes, including a conference realignment frenzy.

In the late-1980s, the College Football Association — originally formed to help programs negotiate with networks for TV deals — had begun to investigate the possibility of a (TV-driven) college football playoff. Many people had wanted it for decades, and only more so in the early-1990s, with split national titles in back-to-back seasons (Georgia Tech and Colorado in 1990, Miami and Washington in 1991).

In 1992, the Bowl Coalition formed to assure better matchups. It didn’t include the Big Ten and Pac-10, which were married to the Rose Bowl, but in 1992 it had produced No. 1 Miami vs. No. 2 Alabama and No. 4 Texas A&M vs. No. 5 Notre Dame. This was seen as definitive progress.

In 1993, however, came a lesson in the drawbacks of what amounted to a two-team playoff.

Even as FSU fell to only No. 2 in the polls following the tight road loss to new No. 1 Notre Dame, 10-0 Nebraska lurked at No. 3, with unbeaten No. 5 Ohio State (9-0-1), No. 6 Auburn (10-0), and No. 9 West Virginia (9-0) behind. Being assured of a No. 1 vs. No. 2 battle was great, but no one was going to be satisfied with just that in 1993.

That became doubly true when Notre Dame lost to Boston College.

Three teams finished the regular season unbeaten, and none were FSU or Notre Dame.

When the Bowl Coalition mashed poll rankings together, it produced a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup of FSU-Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.

Undefeated West Virginia would get rocked by No. 8 Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Unbeaten Auburn was banned from the postseason.

And No. 4 Notre Dame would play No. 7 Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. So Holtz would spend most of the bowl break politicking.

To those sympathetic and unsympathetic to Notre Dame alike, this stunk. A world of possibility was opening, and this sport was still settling its title in the least satisfying way possible. The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel’s Randall Mell:

It’s such an unsettling conclusion to a glorious year. ... It leaves us wondering what drama we are missing without a college football playoff.

”Our system isn’t the best way,” Florida coach Steve Spurrier said.

Still, the idea that this season’s unrest will lead to a playoff is pure fantasy. It isn’t going to happen. Period. ... College football, after all, is where university presidents continue to hold the preposterous notion that athletes are students first and where coaches and athletic directors willingly play along. These same presidents will fire a coach with a good graduation record because he lost three games in a season. [...]

Two years ago, the NCAA Presidents Commission took charge at the NCAA convention. It moved toward a de-emphasis of big-time sports, voting financial cutbacks, coaching cutbacks and scholarship reductions in football and basketball. The commission also reduced the hours athletes can practice. To favor a playoff now would negate their movement, even if it would make millions of dollars. It would be, ahem, hypocritical.

With a blowout over A&M and the narrowest of FSU victories over Nebraska, Notre Dame might have been able to swing the polls. But the Irish only eked by the Aggies, 24-21.

So when a late Nebraska field goal came up short, it clinched the Seminoles’ No. 1 ranking.

Twenty-five years later, the season is noted mainly for two classics and Bowden’s first title. But at the time, no one outside of Tallahassee was particularly satisfied.

It was clear that college football was capable of a great national race, but college presidents remained stubborn.

If you needed an ivory-tower villain to rail against, college football was still the standard. Here’s the San Francisco Examiner’s Ray Ratto after FSU’s Orange Bowl win:

Some team is going to get screwed out of college football’s national championship Sunday morning, and let me be the first to say what a great and wonderful thing this is.

It doesn’t matter whether the victim of Sunday’s balloting is Florida State ... or Notre Dame. ... The rest of America, which has been whining like never before for a national playoff system, gets to do what it does best — whine even more.

That the current system is entirely too subjective for the simple world of sports is plainly evident. ... The day will come when they finally give up their earnest fight for the right of the 1930s to endure into the next century, and they will set up a playoff system that (a) will put a true national championship game on the field each year and (b) make them even more money than the system currently in place. [...]

This is the perfect solution. One unworthy winner, one outraged victim. Either way ... the college football establishment is shamed a little bit more and pushed a little harder into doing what it could have done with just a hair of creativity and common sense more than 25 years ago — set up a playoff that screws everyone only a little bit, and equally.

The story, of course, has a happy ending.

After 1993, it would only take a Bowl Coalition, a Bowl Alliance, a Bowl Championship Series, a BCS formula modified to the point of parody, an all-SEC national title game, and a couple decades of increasingly amplified complaints for college football to establish a system that only screws half of FBS instead of 90 percent.

At this rate, we’ll figure out the amateurism issue by 2055 at the very latest.