Around this time we (college football fans) are hit with a deluge of endless talk about the College Football Playoff – who’s deserving, who’s better, who beat who. But one opinion that gets near unanimous approval is that “we’re better with the playoff than with the BCS.” This got me thinking, “who would have been in the playoffs each BCS year?”
I thought it would be fun to play the role of committee member in order to decide the playoff participants following the ‘Championship Week.’
So, here goes – it’s 1998.
The Decision – Records indicate records entering bowl season.
#1 Tennessee 12-0 (Eventual BCS Champion, SEC Champion)
Tennessee beat five ranked opponents (at #17 Syracuse, #2 Florida, at #7 Georgia, #10 Arkansas and #23 Mississippi State) en route to their perfect season. While undefeated Tennessee had many close calls and could be called a ‘team of destiny.’ The Syracuse game required a 27-yard field-goal by Vols Kicker Jeff Hall as time expired to clinch victory for the Vols. Against Florida, the Vols needed overtime to beat the pesky Gators. Then there was Arkansas, a game where the Vols entered as the #1 team in the country for the first time since 1956. The Vols trailed the Razorbacks in the 4th quarter, 24-22 when Arkansas QB Clint Stoerner’s “Stumblin’ Fumblin'” occurred which Tennessee recovered, drove down the the field and scored the game-winning touchdown. The Vols were the lone undefeated power conference team in the country and an obvious choice for #1.
#2 Florida State 11-1 (Lost to Tennessee in the BCS Title Game, ACC Champion)
The Seminoles won the ACC with their lone loss coming at North Carolina State in week two. While the loss to NC State wasn’t good, (lost by 17) Florida state could make up for it with an excellent out-of-conference schedule which included a neutral site win at East Rutherford, NJ against #14 Texas A&M, (who went on to win the Big XII) home against #18 Southern California, at Miami, and against#4 Florida. The Noles are a deserving addition, just as they were in the BCS era, of the #2 Ranking.
#3 Ohio State 10-1 (Won the Sugar Bowl against Texas A&M, Big Ten Co-Champions)
Ohio State was 1998’s pre-season #1 team in the AP, defeated four ranked opponents (at #11 West Virginia, vs #21 Missouri, vs #7 Penn State, vs #11 Michigan) and had an average margin of victory of 28-points. The lone blemish on the Buckeye’s record was their (28-24) loss to Michigan state who was being coached by none other than Nick Saban.
#4 UCLA 10-1 (Lost in the Rose Bowl to Wisconsin, Pac-10 Champion)
UCLA is one of the first cautionary tales of how losing late in the season can cost you a shot at the title game. The Bruins beat #23 Texas, #11 Oregon, and defeated #10 Arizona on the road, (by 26) but had their September scheduled game against Miami was postponed to December due to Hurricane George. That Miami game would be a thrilling contest and end in a Hurricanes 48-45 victory. That victory is a win that many Miami players and fans point to as the beginning of their resurgence as a power. The loss for UCLA would throw them out of the BCS title game.
Outside looking in:
Wisconsin 10-1 (Won the Rose Bowl against UCLA, Big Ten Co-Champions)
These Ron Dayne-led Badgers defeated only one ranked opponent in #14 Penn State, and had a non-conference schedule that included – at San Diego State, Ohio, and UNLV… not very impressive. Wisconsin’s lone loss was at #15 Michigan by 17.
Kansas State 11-1 (Lost to Purdue in Alamo Bowl, was ranked #2 prior to losing to #10 Texas A&M in the Big XII Championship Game)
Head Coach Bill Snyder had built up Kansas State from being the perennial door mat for the Big 8 conference in the late 80s to being a powerhouse. Led by Heisman-contending QB Michael Bishop, K-State had beaten three ranked opponents (at #14 Colorado, at #19 Missouri, and #11 Nebraska), en route to a perfect regular season. However their non-conference schedule left a lot to be desired – FCS Indiana State, Northern Illinois, and FCS Northeast Louisiana and with such a soft non-conference the Wildcats had no room for error. Then came the fighting Texas A&M Aggies’ who topped the Wildcats in a thrilling double overtime game to deny the first Big XII title for Bill Snyder’s team. Sorry Cats fans, but K-State isn’t getting invited to the dance.
It should also be noted that the loss to A&M resulted in Kansas Sate falling in the bowl order to the Alamo Bowl. Following the season a new rule was created where the #3 team in the BCS ranking would receive an automatic bid to a BCS bowl game.
Arizona 11-1 (Won Holiday Bowl against #14 Nebraska)
When I first looked at the AP polls from 1998, I thought I could make a compelling case for Arizona, then I compared Arizona’s non-conference schedule with the others and it’s not close. Add that Arizona’s lone loss to UCLA was a decisive defeat, 52-28 at home no less, and they are a paper tiger at 11-1. The Wildcats did defeated two ranked opponents (at #20 Washington, #12 Oregon) but as previously mentioned, their non-conference just doesn’t stack up (at Hawaii, Iowa, at San Diego State). 11-1 is a nice year, even a great one for a program like Arizona, but it’s not a Playoff-worthy one.
Texas A&M 11-2 (Lost Sugar Bowl to #3 Ohio State, Big XII Champion)
The Aggies started the year in New Jersey where they los to then #2 Florida State, but would go on to win their next ten games, beating #2 Nebraska, #25 Texas Tech, and #13 Missouri. Texas A&M had a misstep that throws them from the ranks of our Final Four, that misstep being to hated rival Texas on Thanksgiving in Austin. Certainly if the Aggies had only lost to Florida State they would have a compelling case to join the top 4, however being ‘hooked by the Horns is a coup de grace of sorts for the Aggies and their playoff hopes for our exercise.
Tulane 11-0 (Won Liberty Bowl against BYU)
You don’t have to look very close to realize that the Green Wave were not a real contender. Tulane didn’t play any ranked opponents and their non-conference didn’t have a single team that finished above .500. They aren’t getting in.
The #1 vs. #4 match-up would have seen the Vols and Bruins face-off for the sixth time in ten years, which is a lot considering the mileage between the two campuses. The Vols had beaten the Bruins in Pasadena the previous September, and considering the Vols of 1998 and the stout defense they had, I don’t believe the Bruins would have fared well.
In the #2 vs #3 match-up I could see the Ohio State Buckeyes prevailing over Florida State, as the Noles were a spent force ruling on their third string QB Marcus Outzen.
And in our title game we have #1 Tennessee and #3 Ohio State. I’ll toss my fandom into the ring and give the first playoff victory to my beloved Vols! But, in all seriousness, this Vols program had been building up to this point, stacked with NFL players – LB Al Wilson, WR Peerless Price, RB Travis Henry, RB Jamal Lewis (who was injured), and OT Chad Clifton. They had everything and had an unflappable QB in Tee Martin. The only thing holding the Vols back would have been how long-time offensive coordinator and QB savant David Cutcliffe had left to be the head coach at Ole Miss, thrusting another long-time assistant Randy Sanders into the play calling position.