The coming college football season marks the 20-year anniversary of a landmark campaign. In 1998, the game’s decision-makers launched the Bowl Championship Series: a compromise between traditionalists who sought to maintain the postseason bowl system, and those pushing for a system to crown a more clearly defined national champion.
The BCS functioned as the upgraded version of the Bowl Alliance beta test, and in both instances it was the worst kind of compromise. Neither traditionalists nor ardent playoff supporters were satisfied, while we as fans were left with opaque computer rankings; shameful politicking; and dubious balloting from people like Craig James, whose personal biases against certain programs became almost laughable.
Controversy followed the BCS from its very first season, despite it fulfilling its intended purpose of declaring a clear national champion. The various legitimate concerns that arose as a result of the new system perhaps obfuscate the magic of the 1998 season, at least in hindsight.
Previously on #TBT, Your Humble Author reminisced on my first autumn closely following college football: 1993. ’98 lives in my memory alongside ’93 as one of the best seasons in my time as a spectator. Others with that distinction are 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2017.
Now, by 1998 I was five years older and theoretically wiser. Entering my sophomore year of high school, I began thinking about what I might want to do later in life. Entertainment long intrigued me; I recorded a talk show on blank tapes throughout my youth, performed a standup set in fifth grade (and was a forerunner to Carlos Mencia, lifting my material directly from comedians I’d seen on TV), and would often host the televised morning announcements in eighth grade.
However, the notion of pursing journalism specifically only began to take hold in high school. Sports Illustrated was a key influence.
I had been a subscriber to Sports Illustrated for Kids for much of elementary school and transitioned to the big-boy version of SI by seventh grade. Aside from the swimsuit issues — I was a teenager, whaddya want from me? — one of the first editions of SI I really remember vividly from that time was the 1998 college football preview.
Ohio State linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer graced the cover, and as a huge mark for Goldberg at the time, I couldn’t help but glean similarities between the Buckeye and the reigning WCW World Heavyweight Champion. The artwork alone gave Katzemoyer a larger-than-life presence, but the feature by Austin Murphy told a story that made the star linebacker relatable; vulnerable, even.
All this is to say that if I viewed the 1993 season through a lens of childlike enthusiasm, I began observing college football with the first ever-so-semblance of critical savvy in 1998.
’98 was a pretty memorable time to start seeking more nuance, given the inception of the BCS. The season lacked some of the chaos that defined other noteworthy campaigns, like 2007 and 2008, but provided enough to be both enthralling and an accurate bellwether for the silliness of the BCS era.
The final week of the 1998 season ranks among the single most turbulent Saturdays in recent college football history, but our story begins three months earlier. Florida State played for a national championship the season prior and sported a No. 2 ranking to open 1998.
The Seminoles opened the season handling Texas A&M at Giants Stadium in the now-defunct Kickoff Classic, then enjoyed an early bye week. Up next was a matchup against NC State, a program that hadn’t beaten Florida State in 31 years, including the previous six since the two began sharing a conference.
What transpired was the beginning of a quasi-curse that endures today. Twirling T-Shirt Guy was just a preschooler when the ’98 Pack scored a dominant, but the 24-7 win in a game the Seminoles were favored by 25 points began an ongoing stretch in which NC State has eight wins over Florida State.
The date of the contest — Sept. 12 — plays an important part in shaping BCS narratives.
Florida State bounced back, running the table the rest of the way. Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles scored wins over four teams ranked in the final AP Top 25 of the regular season, making for a pretty strong BCS championship resume. Tennessee guaranteed itself one of the two title-game berths in Tempe on the strength of an undefeated record, an accomplishment no other BCS conference* program could match, but the Seminoles did a fine job building a case for the other bid.
Controversy can be gleaned in retrospect from similar resumes, however.
Both Kansas State and UCLA finished with one loss and numerous wins over teams ranked in the final AP Top 25. The precedent the inaugural BCS set dictated that when a team lost mattered. Losses deep into the schedule impacted a portfolio more negatively — and both UCLA and K-State lost at the absolute latest point possible on the regular-season calendar.
Dec. 5, 1998 may very well be the most significant day in modern college football history. Three BCS conference teams began that Saturday undefeated. All were in action, with Tennessee State facing Mississippi State (seriously!) in the SEC Championship Game; Kansas State up against Texas A&M in the Big 12 Championship; and UCLA trekking across the country to play Miami in the Orange Bowl.
Quite honestly, Dec. 5 deserves its own retrospective — and to that end, you can help make it happen. A new goal on The Open Man Patreon is set at $100; if reached by Sept. 3, the end of the 2018 season’s opening weekend, you can expect a complete retrospective on the wildest day in college football history with interviews, a podcast and more.
OK, shilling complete. *adjusts tie* Where were we?
Ah, yes — so the day-long jockeying for championship positioning between K-State, Tennessee and UCLA became the catalyst for a Florida State vs. UT BCS Championship. The precedents seemingly set that season weren’t exactly followed.
While the late-loss deduction came back to haunt K-State a second time — its defeat against Baylor in 2012 coinciding with SEC Body Bag Week combined with Oregon falling to Stanford to pave the way for Alabama — Bill Snyder’s Wildcats (mostly Darren Sproles) didn’t keep Oklahoma out with an upset win at the 2003 Big 12 Championship.
Strength of loss, the questionable defense behind an Alabama-LSU rematch in 2011, also didn’t factor into shaping the initial BCS Championship Game. Both K-State and UCLA fell to teams ranked in the final Top 25, which NC State did not.
In an odd scheduling coincidence, though, Florida State actually faced and beat both of those ranked teams, Miami and Texas A&M. That Aug. 31 date referenced earlier had an impact as profound as Dec. 5, with Florida State’s win over Texas A&M giving the Seminoles an edge over K-State.
Another important date: Sept. 25. That was the date on which UCLA was originally scheduled to fly from LAX to MIA for its nonconference tussle with The U.
An actual hurricane forced the cancellation of the Bruins’ meeting with the Hurricanes — a cancellation that became a rescheduling on Oct. 12. That date’s significant, coming just two days after UCLA hung 52 points on Arizona’s vaunted defense in a showdown of Top 10-ranked teams at Arizona Stadium. It became clear then that UCLA was in the national championship hunt — and a high-profile road game against Miami might be needed to get the Bruins over the hump.
Outside of Los Angeles, UCLA’s loss resonated most profoundly in Arizona. The Bruins being on course for the BCS Championship Game gave the Wildcats, in their best season in program history, a clear path to the Rose Bowl Game. UA never reached the Granddaddy of ‘Em All previously, and still hasn’t in the 20 years since.
Had Arizona advanced to the Rose Bowl, waiting would have been Wisconsin. The Badgers, through an odd series of tiebreakers, won the bid over Ohio State and Michigan; all of which finished 7-1 in Big Ten play.
Coming back to Big Kat and that SI cover, Ohio State went almost wire-to-wire as No. 1. A November loss to Michigan State was the Buckeyes’ lone blemish, but impacting enough that despite beating the Michigan team that handed Wisconsin its only loss, kept Ohio State out of the national championship game.
Ohio State and Wisconsin losing in consecutive weeks a little less than a month ahead of Dec. 5 cleared the way for a college football landscape in which there were only two undefeated teams left heading into the postseason. Of all the precedents for the BCS era set in 1998 that were later ignored both by the BCS, and into the current College Football Playoff ecosystem, the one that endures today is disdain for the conference outsiders.
The BCS was founded around including six conferences in the national championship race: the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC. The idea of a team outside of that group contending for a title seemed like more of an afterthought — even though we were a relatively short 14 years removed from one such program, BYU, winning the mythical national championship.
Tulane’s perfect run through Conference USA, during which only one opponent played the Green Wave to within single digits, spotlighted the exclusionary essence of the BCS.
Shaun King was arguably the most exciting quarterback in the country in 1998, but his better than 67 percent complete passing; 36 touchdown passes against just six interceptions; 10 rushin touchdowns and more than 500 yards compiled in the regular season weren’t good enough for inclusion at the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
A glass ceiling that remains today was built in 1998 when the Green Wave were relegated to the Liberty Bowl instead of one of the newly formed BCS bowls.
If there’s any misstep Tulane made in its perfect season, it’s not printing national championship t-shirts then, instead waiting 19 years and following the lead of present-day American Athletic Conference counterpart UCF.
Oh — and speaking of UCF, the current bane of malcontent Alabama fans’ existence was in just its third season at the Div. I-A level, but the first indication that the fledgling program could factor into the national conversation surfaced when quarterback Daunte Culpepper finished sixth in Heisman balloting.
College football may be done with the BCS, and its evolution to today’s Playoff system has arguably spawned more negatives than positives. Imagine even the toughest Power Five member nonconference schedule in 2018 featuring both Texas and Miami, for example.
But whether positive or negative, the chaos of the 1998 season played an integral role in shaping the present landscape for the sport.