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The 1998 college football season broke so, so, so, so, so many hearts

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Our journey through old estimated S&P+ ratings revisits one of the most dramatic regular seasons college football has ever seen

Vincent Laforet/Getty Images

I'm not going to lie: I couldn't wait to revisit the 1998 season. Few in college football's history have included more regular season drama than this one, and few years have haunted more fan bases because of missed opportunities.

Let us count the ways.

  • Ohio State was far and away the best team in the country for most of the year. The Buckeyes began the season with comfortable wins over teams ranked No. 7 (Missouri), 11 (Penn State), 23 (WVU), and 50 (Toledo) in Est. S&P+. They finished with comfortable wins over No. 16 Michigan and No. 6 Texas A&M. And somehow, in between, they lost to Nick Saban's No. 27 Michigan State at home.
  • The Spartans were most assuredly better than their 6-6 record, at least in spurts. They got blown out at Oregon and Penn State and lost by one point to Purdue at home (the week after beating Ohio State, no less), but they also crushed Notre Dame and made most of their bad opponents look even worse than they were. And they forever robbed Ohio State of a ring.
  • Florida State had one of its best defenses under Bobby Bowden and Mickey Andrews, and following an early-season loss to N.C. State, they caught fire, thumping ranked USC, Georgia Tech, and Virginia teams by an average of 26 points and eking by Florida to reach the BCS Championship game. But quarterback Chris Weinke got hurt against UVA, and FSU could manage only 16 points in the title game against Tennessee. One more touchdown could have won the national title.
  • Kansas State managed to one-up Ohio State in the heartbreak department. The Wildcats were astoundingly good this year and finally cleared the Nebraska hurdle in finishing the regular season 12-0. But Sirr Parker and Texas A&M took out Bill Snyder's best team in the Big 12 title game. And then Drew Brees' late awesomeness and Purdue's pass rush created a stunning upset of KSU in the Alamo Bowl to boot.
  • UCLA, step right up. The Bruins began the season 10-0 with a mediocre defense and the best offense in the country. The Bruins won at Texas (No. 17) and Arizona (No. 22) and survived Oregon (No. 21) at home. They should have finished the regular season by doubling up USC (No. 19) at home, but Hurricane Georges postponed a visit to Miami from September to the first weekend in December. Maybe the Bruins would have lost in September, too, but as KSU was losing to A&M, UCLA was losing to Miami, 49-45. The Bruins then lost in the Rose Bowl to Wisconsin for good measure.
  • And don't underrate Missouri's pain! How does an 8-4 team end up ranking seventh? By losing to No. 1 Ohio State, No. 3 Texas A&M, and No. 9 Nebraska on the road and by losing to No. 3 Kansas State at home in the final minute. The Tigers led all 12 games at halftime and managed to fall to KSU, A&M, and NU by a combined 16 points. A better home-road split, or another late-game play or two, and Missouri is 10-2 or 11-1.

Wisconsin was undefeated until a late-season trip to Michigan. Nebraska lost by a touchdown or less to Texas A&M and Texas and, uh, had a beef with how the final minutes of the KSU game played out. Texas A&M lost by two at Texas the week before beating KSU. Arkansas was unbeaten until a devastating loss at Tennessee (ohhhhhhh, Clint Stoerner) led to a late-season slide. Hell, even Air Force had a what-if, losing by one point at TCU in September, then plowing through the rest of the season.

This was the most incredible what-if season of all-time. Meanwhile, Tennessee, playing its own what-if game after missing so many opportunities (mostly against Florida) in the Peyton Manning era, just cruised along, winning tight game after tight game.

The Vols beat Syracuse by one, Florida by three, Auburn by eight, Arkansas by four, and Mississippi State by 10, then won the BCS title game, 23-16, over Weinke-less Florida State. Were they the best team of 1998? Nope. But they were the only ones that didn't stumble, and they were a worthy champion because of it.

S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
1 Ohio State 11-1 23.2 98.60% 35.5 11 12.3 3
2 Florida State 11-2 21.5 97.92% 32.3 16 10.8 1
3 Kansas State 11-2 21.0 97.69% 41.5 2 20.4 28
4 Tennessee 13-0 18.3 95.87% 33.0 15 14.7 7
5 Florida 10-2 17.2 94.82% 30.6 26 13.4 5
6 Texas A&M 11-3 17.0 94.66% 28.0 41 11.0 2
7 Missouri 8-4 16.3 93.84% 31.8 19 15.5 9
8 UCLA 10-2 16.0 93.47% 42.1 1 26.2 60
9 Nebraska 9-4 15.7 93.21% 31.3 21 15.5 8
10 Wisconsin 11-1 15.6 93.05% 29.6 29 14.0 6
11 Penn State 9-3 15.4 92.80% 28.5 34 13.0 4
12 Purdue 9-4 14.9 92.16% 35.2 12 20.3 25
13 Syracuse 8-4 13.0 89.01% 39.0 4 26.1 58
14 Virginia Tech 9-3 12.7 88.53% 28.4 36 15.7 10
15 Arkansas 9-3 12.6 88.40% 32.0 17 19.4 19
16 Michigan 10-3 12.4 88.05% 29.0 32 16.6 12
17 Texas 9-3 12.3 87.73% 38.5 6 26.2 62
18 Air Force 12-1 12.2 87.66% 31.2 22 19.0 17
19 USC 8-5 11.6 86.36% 28.3 37 16.7 13
20 Miami-FL 9-3 11.2 85.63% 35.8 10 24.6 50
21 Oregon 8-4 10.9 84.86% 38.9 5 28.1 72
22 Arizona 12-1 10.5 83.92% 31.2 23 20.7 31
23 West Virginia 8-4 10.5 83.91% 33.5 14 23.0 42
24 Virginia 9-3 10.4 83.70% 30.4 27 20.0 24
25 Tulane 12-0 9.9 82.46% 39.9 3 30.0 82
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
26 Georgia Tech 10-2 9.6 81.87% 34.9 13 25.3 55
27 Michigan State 6-6 9.1 80.69% 30.8 24 21.7 35
28 Notre Dame 9-3 8.2 78.13% 28.1 40 19.9 23
29 Southern Miss 7-5 7.8 77.12% 29.8 28 22.0 37
30 LSU 4-7 7.1 74.91% 31.6 20 24.5 49
31 Colorado 8-4 7.0 74.53% 26.6 44 19.6 21
32 Georgia 9-3 6.0 71.61% 24.4 60 18.3 15
33 Kentucky 7-5 6.0 71.45% 37.1 7 31.1 91
34 Central Florida 9-2 5.9 71.12% 29.5 30 23.6 46
35 Colorado State 8-4 5.7 70.63% 28.2 38 22.5 39
36 Alabama 7-5 5.1 68.62% 24.9 57 19.8 22
37 Mississippi State 8-5 4.9 67.85% 25.2 55 20.3 27
38 Miami-OH 10-1 4.8 67.57% 23.2 68 18.4 16
39 Marshall 12-1 4.5 66.51% 26.4 46 21.9 36
40 Texas Tech 7-5 4.3 65.65% 25.8 52 21.6 34
41 Oklahoma State 5-6 3.9 64.24% 29.2 31 25.3 56
42 NC State 7-5 3.8 63.89% 31.9 18 28.1 74
43 Washington 6-6 3.7 63.88% 28.8 33 25.1 52
44 Auburn 3-8 3.6 63.21% 19.9 87 16.3 11
45 BYU 9-5 3.1 61.43% 26.1 49 23.1 43
46 Minnesota 5-6 2.8 60.43% 23.1 69 20.3 26
47 Wyoming 8-3 2.7 60.23% 21.8 75 19.1 18
48 Bowling Green 5-6 1.8 56.69% 28.4 35 26.6 64
49 North Carolina 7-5 1.1 54.04% 24.3 61 23.2 45
50 Toledo 7-5 1.1 54.00% 19.0 92 17.9 14
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
51 Rice 5-6 0.5 51.79% 22.6 71 22.1 38
52 Arizona State 5-6 0.4 51.43% 30.8 25 30.4 84
53 TCU 7-5 0.3 51.09% 21.0 83 20.7 30
54 Utah 7-4 0.2 50.79% 25.8 53 25.6 57
55 Oregon State 5-6 0.2 50.61% 26.3 48 26.2 61
56 Indiana 4-7 -0.2 49.24% 24.9 58 25.1 53
57 Louisville 7-5 -0.6 47.84% 36.8 8 37.3 106
58 San Diego State 7-5 -0.7 47.36% 19.9 88 20.6 29
59 Boston College 4-7 -1.1 45.92% 26.0 51 27.1 66
60 Fresno State 5-6 -1.1 45.80% 21.7 76 22.8 41
61 Louisiana Tech 6-6 -1.2 45.51% 36.5 9 37.6 107
62 Oklahoma 5-6 -1.9 42.93% 17.7 101 19.6 20
63 Ole Miss 7-5 -2.1 42.13% 22.0 73 24.1 47
64 SMU 5-7 -2.7 39.78% 18.2 97 21.0 32
65 Baylor 2-9 -2.8 39.72% 22.1 72 24.9 51
66 California 5-6 -2.9 39.06% 18.2 98 21.1 33
67 Clemson 3-8 -3.3 37.67% 21.1 82 24.5 48
68 Ohio 5-6 -3.7 36.42% 24.2 63 27.8 71
69 Tulsa 4-7 -3.8 35.89% 18.9 93 22.7 40
70 Kansas 4-7 -3.8 35.89% 25.0 56 28.8 79
71 Army 3-8 -4.1 34.72% 24.4 59 28.5 78
72 Iowa State 3-8 -4.3 34.26% 22.8 70 27.1 65
73 Houston 3-8 -4.6 33.29% 23.7 65 28.2 75
74 Iowa 3-8 -4.7 32.68% 18.4 95 23.2 44
75 Stanford 3-8 -4.7 32.64% 26.1 50 30.9 89
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
76 Wake Forest 3-8 -4.9 32.17% 23.2 67 28.1 73
77 South Carolina 1-10 -5.6 29.85% 21.6 77 27.2 67
78 Nevada 6-5 -6.3 27.46% 28.1 39 34.5 101
79 Pittsburgh 2-9 -6.6 26.52% 20.6 85 27.2 68
80 Idaho 9-3 -6.8 25.95% 27.1 43 33.9 100
81 Maryland 3-8 -6.9 25.78% 19.2 91 26.1 59
82 Northwestern 3-9 -7.1 24.99% 19.4 90 26.5 63
83 East Carolina 6-5 -7.2 24.85% 23.4 66 30.6 86
84 San Jose State 4-8 -7.6 23.54% 23.7 64 31.3 92
85 Rutgers 5-6 -8.5 20.95% 24.2 62 32.8 98
86 Western Michigan 7-4 -8.6 20.77% 26.3 47 34.9 102
87 UTEP 3-8 -8.6 20.66% 19.8 89 28.4 76
88 Duke 4-7 -8.9 19.87% 21.2 81 30.2 83
89 Washington State 3-8 -9.2 19.28% 21.4 78 30.6 85
90 Northern Illinois 2-9 -9.5 18.44% 18.0 100 27.4 70
91 Memphis 2-9 -9.8 17.55% 20.8 84 30.7 87
92 Illinois 3-8 -10.0 17.08% 15.2 108 25.3 54
93 Temple 2-9 -10.4 16.23% 18.5 94 28.9 80
94 Akron 4-7 -10.5 16.08% 20.4 86 30.9 88
95 Central Michigan 6-5 -11.4 14.09% 15.9 107 27.3 69
96 Navy 3-8 -11.5 13.73% 22.0 74 33.5 99
97 UNLV 0-11 -13.3 10.39% 18.1 99 31.4 93
98 Vanderbilt 2-9 -13.3 10.36% 16.5 106 29.8 81
99 Eastern Michigan 3-8 -13.4 10.18% 18.4 96 31.8 97
100 New Mexico State 3-8 -13.4 10.17% 27.7 42 41.2 112
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
101 UAB 4-7 -14.0 9.30% 17.6 103 31.5 94
102 New Mexico 3-9 -14.0 9.28% 21.4 79 35.4 104
103 UL-Monroe 5-6 -14.0 9.19% 17.6 102 31.6 96
104 North Texas 3-8 -14.3 8.70% 14.1 110 28.5 77
105 Cincinnati 2-9 -14.6 8.40% 25.3 54 39.9 109
106 Boise State 6-5 -14.6 8.35% 26.4 45 41.0 111
107 Utah State 3-8 -15.0 7.73% 16.6 105 31.6 95
108 Ball State 1-10 -17.1 5.22% 13.8 111 30.9 90
109 UL-Lafayette 2-9 -18.1 4.31% 21.2 80 39.4 108
110 Arkansas State 4-8 -21.5 2.07% 14.2 109 35.7 105
111 Hawaii 0-12 -22.7 1.59% 12.4 112 35.1 103
112 Kent 0-11 -23.5 1.29% 16.7 104 40.3 110

Who makes the Playoff?

After all the damage was done, here's what the AP poll looked like at the end of the regular season: 1 Tennessee, 2 Florida State, 3 Ohio State, 4 Kansas State, 5 Arizona, 6 UCLA, 7 Florida, 8 Texas A&M, 9 Wisconsin, 10 Tulane.

And here's what the inaugural BCS standings looked like: 1 Tennessee, 2 Florida State, 3 Kansas State, 4 Ohio State, 5 UCLA, 6 Texas A&M, 7 Arizona, 8 Florida, 9 Wisconsin, 10 Tulane.

For good measure, here's Est. S&P+ before bowls: 1 Ohio State, 2 Florida State, 3 Kansas State, 4 Tennessee, 5 Texas A&M, 6 Missouri, 7 UCLA, 8 Nebraska, 9 Florida, 10 Penn State.

12-0 Tennessee obviously gets into a hypothetical Playoff, and I guess you get FSU, Ohio State, and K-State in some order after that? This actually seems pretty cut-and-dried. The Wildcats obviously don't get a conference title bump, but only losing to A&M is better than A&M losing to both Texas and Florida State, right? And UCLA's iffy computer ratings (and the quality they signify) probably keep the Bruins below KSU, right?

I would actually have been annoyed if UCLA made it in over KSU simply because of a conference title bump. The Big 12 was incredible in 1998, and KSU would have absolutely romped through the Pac-10. So yeah, for my own peace of mind, I'll say we get semifinals of Tennessee-KSU and FSU-Ohio State, and holy moly, would that have been a great Playoff.

(And since this is my universe, I'll say that the best Missouri team since, like, 1978 gets better bowl bid than the damn Insight.com Bowl. What if, what if, what if.)

Other thoughts

  • I was curious about where Tulane would fall. Tommy Bowden's Green Wave had Rich Rodriguez's offense humming, but there were obviously some defensive issues -- they allowed 34 points to Cincinnati, 24 to Rutgers, 31 to Memphis, 35 to Army, 30 to Louisiana Tech, and 27 to BYU. But oh, what I wouldn't have given for a UCLA-Tulane bowl game. The Playoff committee could have given that to us.
  • Boise State was still scuffling in its third year of FBS play, needing wins over CS-Northridge, Portland State, and Weber State to reach 6-5.
  • Seriously, the Big 12 had four of the top nine teams, and a) none of them were Oklahoma or Texas, and b) three were North division teams. Meanwhile, the Big Ten boasted No. 1, 10, 11, 12, and 16. The SEC had Tennessee and Florida ... but that was just about it. Arkansas was the only other team in the top 25.

Up next: 1997.