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1996 had a classic upset, a classic Rose Bowl, and a terrifying national champion

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I was a senior in high school in 1996, and I had a new girlfriend, colleges to apply to, etc., so my attention span was probably a bit more limited this fall than it was in others. Plus, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State both stunk, so the the local media weren't spending quite as much time and detail on the sport.

That said, here's what I remember about 1996:

  • That amazing Rose Bowl. It's almost hard to fathom, but less than 20 years ago, Arizona State came within 19 seconds of winning a national title. The path was about to be clear -- No. 1 Florida State was going to lose to No. 2 Florida on the evening of January 1, and while Steve Spurrier's Gators would probably steal some No. 1 votes with their dominant performance over the Seminoles, they probably weren't going to surpass an unbeaten team that had just taken down Ohio State (and had whooped still-awesome Nebraska earlier in the year). But Joe Germaine found David Boston from five yards out, setting the table for Spurrier's national title.
  • The right team winning the national title. I was rooting desperately for ASU because I love underdogs, and I remember being annoyed that Florida won the title instead ... but I also remember being terrified of that Florida team. It was the best in the country.
  • Being absolutely stunned and disoriented when Nebraska lost to Arizona State. We didn't know how good the Sun Devils were yet, but beyond that ... the Huskers hadn't lost since the 1994 Orange Bowl. It was a foreign concept. (I think I also remember thinking Scott Frost stunk because they lost this game, his third as NU's starting QB. We all make mistakes.)
  • BYU playing 15 games. That was a lot weirder then than it was now. The Cougars played in the Pigskin Classic against A&M the week before the regular season started and took on Joe Tiller's Wyoming in the inaugural WAC Championship. That's two bonus games. Plus, since they played at Hawaii, they got a 12th regular season game as well. So that inflated Steve Sarkisian's passing totals a bit (he finished with 4,027 yards). That said, he still had a 174 passer rating, and while this team wasn't top-five good, it was a strong squad.
  • Falling in love with Donovan McNabb. Damn, those Syracuse offenses were fun to watch. This was McNabb's sophomore season, and he didn't have Marvin Harrison to throw to anymore (which is probably the reason his completion rate fell from 61 to 54 percent), but dual-threats who could pass really well were still a novel concept in 1996. He was hypnotic.
  • Missouri and Texas playing the first Big 12 game in an outright monsoonNaturally, it's on YouTube (the storm blows in in the third quarter, starting around 1:37:00 on the video).

And speaking of Texas, I guess I also remember this, huh?

It's hard to think of Texas beating Nebraska as a massive, classic upset ... but that's exactly what it was. Texas was 7-4, and since losing to ASU, Nebraska was Nebraska again.

Okay, so I remember a decent amount. Here are your estimated S&P+ ratings.

S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
1 Florida 12-1 28.0 99.24% 45.6 1 17.6 14
2 Nebraska 11-2 26.2 98.83% 41.1 2 14.9 8
3 Ohio State 11-1 23.5 97.90% 36.1 6 12.7 2
4 Florida State 11-1 22.8 97.61% 37.3 4 14.4 7
5 Arizona State 11-1 21.6 96.91% 40.2 3 18.6 23
6 Colorado 10-2 17.4 93.46% 32.5 18 15.1 9
7 Washington 9-3 17.2 93.24% 35.5 8 18.3 18
8 North Carolina 10-2 17.2 93.22% 28.5 37 11.3 1
9 Notre Dame 8-3 16.4 92.18% 34.9 13 18.6 22
10 Syracuse 9-3 16.1 91.91% 35.0 11 18.8 27
11 Penn State 11-2 15.8 91.46% 31.1 25 15.3 10
12 Kansas State 9-3 15.0 90.35% 28.8 35 13.7 4
13 Tennessee 10-2 14.7 89.89% 33.3 17 18.6 21
14 BYU 14-1 13.6 88.06% 35.7 7 22.1 41
15 Virginia Tech 10-2 13.1 87.15% 30.6 28 17.6 13
16 Texas 8-5 12.8 86.69% 35.4 9 22.6 44
17 Michigan 8-4 12.2 85.51% 25.2 59 13.0 3
18 Miami-FL 9-3 11.8 84.66% 29.5 32 17.7 15
19 Iowa 9-3 11.4 83.92% 30.0 30 18.5 20
20 Alabama 10-3 11.1 83.19% 25.1 60 14.0 5
21 Virginia 7-5 10.9 82.69% 28.1 44 17.2 11
22 Army 10-2 10.5 81.80% 29.7 31 19.2 28
23 Texas Tech 7-5 10.0 80.62% 28.1 43 18.1 16
24 USC 6-6 9.5 79.59% 29.4 34 19.9 30
25 East Carolina 8-3 8.9 77.86% 27.6 49 18.7 25
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
26 Air Force 6-5 8.7 77.39% 31.2 22 22.5 43
27 UCLA 5-6 8.0 75.61% 33.5 16 25.5 60
28 Michigan State 6-6 7.8 74.92% 31.4 21 23.6 48
29 Southern Miss 8-3 7.7 74.63% 28.1 42 20.4 33
30 West Virginia 8-4 7.2 73.22% 21.3 81 14.1 6
31 Wisconsin 8-5 7.1 73.09% 27.4 50 20.3 32
32 Wyoming 10-2 6.8 72.35% 34.7 14 27.8 69
33 Auburn 8-4 6.6 71.65% 31.5 20 24.9 58
34 Rice 7-4 6.3 70.71% 30.8 26 24.5 56
35 Oregon 6-5 6.1 70.12% 36.5 5 30.4 82
36 Texas A&M 6-6 6.1 70.01% 28.4 41 22.3 42
37 LSU 10-2 6.0 69.80% 25.7 56 19.7 29
38 Arizona 5-6 5.3 67.74% 29.5 33 24.2 55
39 Stanford 7-5 4.7 65.96% 22.1 77 17.4 12
40 Northwestern 9-3 4.4 64.74% 27.8 47 23.4 47
41 San Diego State 8-3 4.0 63.60% 35.3 10 31.3 86
42 South Carolina 6-5 3.9 63.38% 23.9 66 19.9 31
43 Houston 7-5 3.8 62.94% 30.8 27 27.0 62
44 Colorado State 7-5 2.9 59.76% 30.4 29 27.5 66
45 Miami-OH 6-5 2.6 59.00% 21.3 80 18.7 24
46 Georgia 5-6 2.6 58.86% 23.4 67 20.8 35
47 Navy 9-3 2.5 58.65% 31.2 23 28.7 75
48 Kansas 4-7 2.4 58.07% 31.1 24 28.8 76
49 California 6-6 1.6 55.61% 33.8 15 32.2 90
50 Nevada 9-3 1.0 53.43% 34.9 12 34.0 98
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
51 Indiana 3-8 0.9 52.99% 24.6 63 23.8 50
52 Ball State 8-4 0.7 52.37% 21.4 79 20.7 34
53 Utah 8-4 0.4 51.37% 26.1 54 25.7 61
54 Clemson 7-5 0.1 50.45% 21.1 82 21.0 36
55 Washington State 5-6 -0.2 49.46% 28.6 36 28.8 77
56 Ohio 6-6 -0.4 48.79% 22.2 76 22.6 45
57 Tulane 2-9 -0.7 47.67% 21.5 78 22.1 40
58 Georgia Tech 5-6 -0.8 47.38% 20.3 83 21.0 38
59 New Mexico 6-5 -1.2 45.94% 25.9 55 27.1 63
60 Purdue 3-8 -1.2 45.92% 22.9 69 24.1 53
61 Iowa State 2-9 -1.2 45.86% 32.0 19 33.2 96
62 SMU 5-6 -1.3 45.42% 22.6 73 24.0 51
63 Louisville 5-6 -2.0 43.16% 16.5 100 18.5 19
64 Arkansas 4-7 -2.0 43.08% 19.0 87 21.0 37
65 Minnesota 4-7 -2.2 42.34% 25.1 61 27.3 64
66 Missouri 5-6 -2.7 40.85% 28.5 39 31.1 84
67 Idaho 6-5 -2.8 40.35% 28.5 38 31.3 85
68 Cincinnati 6-5 -3.0 39.66% 18.4 88 21.4 39
69 Mississippi State 5-6 -4.0 36.49% 19.7 84 23.7 49
70 Memphis 4-7 -4.0 36.44% 14.2 104 18.2 17
71 Baylor 4-7 -4.3 35.35% 24.5 64 28.8 78
72 Boston College 5-7 -4.5 34.79% 23.9 65 28.4 73
73 Oklahoma 3-8 -4.9 33.64% 27.0 51 31.9 89
74 Vanderbilt 2-9 -5.4 32.03% 13.4 109 18.7 26
75 Illinois 2-9 -5.5 31.54% 22.8 71 28.3 72
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
76 Utah State 6-5 -5.9 30.46% 26.4 53 32.3 91
77 Kentucky 4-7 -6.4 29.01% 17.7 92 24.0 52
78 Oklahoma State 5-6 -6.9 27.53% 22.9 70 29.8 80
79 NC State 3-8 -7.1 26.93% 26.9 52 34.0 99
80 Pittsburgh 4-7 -7.6 25.64% 25.5 57 33.1 95
81 Tulsa 4-7 -7.6 25.40% 22.5 74 30.1 81
82 UL-Lafayette 5-6 -7.7 25.37% 28.5 40 36.1 102
83 Maryland 5-6 -8.0 24.38% 15.3 103 23.3 46
84 Ole Miss 5-6 -8.1 24.18% 17.2 96 25.3 59
85 Toledo 7-4 -8.4 23.32% 16.4 101 24.8 57
86 Central Michigan 5-6 -8.9 22.02% 27.6 48 36.5 105
87 Fresno State 4-7 -9.0 21.79% 23.3 68 32.3 92
88 Central Florida 5-6 -9.1 21.45% 18.2 89 27.3 65
89 Oregon State 2-9 -10.1 19.18% 22.8 72 32.8 94
90 TCU 4-7 -10.3 18.55% 18.1 91 28.4 74
91 Temple 1-10 -10.4 18.40% 22.3 75 32.7 93
92 Bowling Green 4-7 -10.7 17.73% 13.5 107 24.2 54
93 Eastern Michigan 3-8 -10.8 17.57% 17.0 98 27.8 68
94 Rutgers 2-9 -11.0 17.11% 17.3 94 28.3 71
95 Louisiana Tech 6-5 -11.6 15.75% 28.0 45 39.6 106
96 Western Michigan 2-9 -12.1 14.66% 17.1 97 29.2 79
97 Duke 0-11 -12.8 13.35% 18.2 90 31.0 83
98 UNLV 1-11 -13.4 12.20% 27.9 46 41.3 107
99 North Texas 5-6 -14.0 11.24% 13.9 106 27.9 70
100 Wake Forest 3-8 -14.8 10.01% 16.9 99 31.7 88
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
101 Akron 4-7 -15.2 9.34% 12.5 111 27.7 67
102 San Jose State 3-9 -16.7 7.35% 19.5 85 36.3 103
103 UAB 5-6 -17.6 6.40% 17.3 93 34.9 100
104 UTEP 2-9 -18.2 5.78% 13.5 108 31.6 87
105 Arkansas State 4-7 -18.3 5.66% 24.9 62 43.1 109
106 Hawaii 2-10 -18.3 5.63% 15.6 102 33.9 97
107 UL-Monroe 5-6 -18.7 5.25% 17.2 95 35.9 101
108 Kent 2-9 -20.5 3.82% 25.3 58 45.7 111
109 New Mexico State 1-10 -22.4 2.64% 14.2 105 36.5 104
110 Boise State 2-10 -24.3 1.76% 19.0 86 43.3 110
111 Northern Illinois 1-10 -29.0 0.61% 12.5 110 41.5 108

The hypothetical playoff

How would a College Football Playoff have taken shape in 1996? Pretty simply.

FSU and Arizona State (No. 1 and No. 2 in the December 9 AP poll) were unbeaten at the end of the regular season, so they were in. Florida (No. 3) had lost only to FSU at the end of the season. The Gators were probably in. Ohio State (No. 4) had lost at home to Michigan and wouldn't have been a complete slam dunk, but thanks to Nebraska's famous loss to Texas, the Buckeyes probably still get in.

The end-of-regular-season Est. S&P+ top 5 would have laid out similar candidates: 1 Nebraska, 2 Florida, 3 FSU, 4 Ohio State, 5 Arizona State. Nebraska's second loss (and the lack of a conference title) would have just about eliminated the Huskers.

The other candidates just weren't up to par. Big Ten co-champion Northwestern was 9-2 with a substandard rating. Big 12 champion Texas had four losses. None of three Big East co-champions (Miami, Syracuse, Virginia Tech) ranked higher than 10th in the AP poll. BYU would have had a decent case with the 13-1 record but lacked in the quality wins department.

So yeah, you probably end up with 1 FSU vs. 4 Ohio State and 2 ASU vs. 3 Florida. And if the Rose and Sugar Bowls were any indication, these games would have been entertaining as hell.

Other thoughts

  • So close, Jim Lambright. Don James' successor at Washington put top-10 caliber teams on the field in both 1996 and 1997 ... and went 17-7. We talked about the 1997 team last time, but the 1996 team was very similar. The Huskies lost by three at Arizona State and lost only to Notre Dame in South Bend and Colorado in the Holiday Bowl. Meanwhile, they beat BYU handily and won five games by at least 19 points. They were close to huge seasons both years and came through neither time. And when UW went 6-6 in 1999, Lambright didn't have enough goodwill stored up to keep his job. In came Rick Neuheisel ... who went 11-1 in 2000 with a lot of Lambright recruits.
  • Hey there, North Carolina. Mack Brown's second-to-last UNC team was probably better than the 1997 iteration that went 11-1. The 10-2 Heels lost at FSU and at Virginia (20-17) but had the best defense in the country -- they held FSU to 13 points and didn't allow more than 20 in a single game. (And yes, this was the year that Dre Bly picked off 11 passes.)
  • No. 3 Nebraska ... No. 6 Colorado ... No. 12 Kansas State. There was imbalance from the start of the Big 12, but the quality wasn't in the South.
  • LSU went 10-2 and barely squeezed into the top 40? How? By losing two games (to Alabama and Florida) by a combined 82-13 and by beating No. 33 Auburn by four, No. 43 Houston by one, No. 54 Clemson by three, No. 64 Arkansas by 10, and No. 69 Mississippi State by eight. Only one top-40 win. That'll do it.
  • Meanwhile, you had Bob Toledo's UCLA going 5-6 and squeezing into the top 30. The Bruins lost to No. 5 ASU (home), No. 7 Washington (away), No. 13 Tennessee (away), No. 17 Michigan (away), No. 38 Arizona (away), and No. 39 Stanford (home) and whooped No. 35 Oregon (away). Absolutely ridiculous schedule.

1995 is on the clock.