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The 1991 season produced two national champions ... but only one all-time great team

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The 1990 and 1991 seasons are the reasons why the existence of the BCS was such a magnificent thing for the sport of college football. It was maddening, and the powers-that-be tinkered with the formula too much, neutering the computer rankings whenever they spit out a result that didn't feel quite right (which negated the point of having computer rankings at all), but even if we didn't always agree with who was No. 2 and who was No. 3, it gave us a 1-versus-2 matchup of some sort. That was something.

1991 wasn't as totally nuts as 1990 (we'll get to that one soon enough), but at the end of the regular season, the AP rankings looked like this:

1. Miami (11-0)
2. Washington (11-0)
3. Florida (10-1)
4. Michigan (10-1)
5. Florida State (9-2)
6. Penn State (10-2)
7. Iowa (10-1)
8. Alabama (10-1)
9. Texas A&M (10-1)
10. Tennessee (9-2)

Miami then played No. 11 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl (on its home field), cruising to a 22-0 win. No. 3 Florida, meanwhile, played No. 18 Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl (and lost badly). No. 7 Iowa played unranked BYU in the Holiday Bowl (and tied), and No. 8 Alabama played No. 15 Colorado in the Blockbuster Bowl.

That No. 2 Washington had to play No. 4 Michigan, meanwhile, in the Rose Bowl almost felt like a punishment. That the Huskies whooped the Wolverines by 20, however, felt like a pretty clear hint as to who should win the national title. Alas, UW split the title with Miami. It still counts, I guess, but as the Est. S&P+ numbers below further hint, Washington was quite easily the superior team of the 1991 college football season. Miami was awesome, Washington was phenomenal.

S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
1 Washington 12-0 27.5 99.46% 39.2 1 11.7 2
2 Miami-FL 12-0 23.8 98.65% 32.1 14 8.3 1
3 Florida State 11-2 23.4 98.49% 36.2 6 12.8 5
4 Florida 10-2 21.3 97.57% 34.8 9 13.6 6
5 Michigan 10-2 21.0 97.42% 36.5 5 15.5 12
6 Penn State 11-2 19.6 96.54% 35.1 8 15.6 13
7 Notre Dame 10-3 18.5 95.73% 38.4 2 19.8 38
8 Texas A&M 10-2 17.6 94.87% 32.1 15 14.5 8
9 Nebraska 9-2-1 16.9 94.13% 37.0 3 20.2 42
10 California 10-2 16.8 94.05% 36.9 4 20.1 41
11 Oklahoma 9-3 14.8 91.57% 30.1 20 15.2 11
12 Stanford 8-4 13.8 89.95% 32.0 16 18.2 30
13 Tennessee 9-3 12.6 87.80% 32.0 17 19.4 36
14 UCLA 9-3 12.3 87.31% 27.5 26 15.2 10
15 BYU 8-3-2 12.1 86.87% 35.2 7 23.2 63
16 Alabama 11-1 11.2 85.16% 24.0 43 12.8 4
17 Colorado 8-3-1 10.5 83.55% 26.4 30 15.9 15
18 Syracuse 10-2 9.9 82.04% 26.6 29 16.7 20
19 Georgia Tech 8-5 9.5 81.03% 23.9 47 14.4 7
20 Iowa 10-1-1 9.1 80.01% 26.3 31 17.2 23
21 Virginia 8-3-1 9.0 79.87% 25.0 39 16.0 16
22 Georgia 9-3 8.6 78.81% 27.4 27 18.7 33
23 Clemson 9-2-1 8.0 77.12% 25.2 35 17.2 24
24 East Carolina 11-1 6.8 73.49% 31.4 18 24.6 72
25 Kansas 6-5 6.7 73.41% 28.7 22 22.0 53
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
26 USC 3-8 6.6 72.96% 26.3 32 19.7 37
27 Texas 5-6 6.6 72.92% 18.6 75 12.0 3
28 Baylor 8-4 6.6 72.85% 23.5 48 16.9 21
29 Mississippi State 7-5 6.3 71.91% 23.3 49 17.0 22
30 Indiana 7-4-1 5.6 69.88% 24.8 40 19.2 35
31 Illinois 6-6 5.3 69.00% 21.4 55 16.1 17
32 NC State 9-3 5.2 68.52% 25.2 36 20.0 39
33 Auburn 5-6 5.1 68.10% 22.4 52 17.3 26
34 Air Force 10-3 5.0 67.70% 26.1 33 21.1 46
35 Kansas State 7-4 4.9 67.66% 24.1 42 19.2 34
36 Bowling Green 11-1 4.2 65.24% 20.7 62 16.4 19
37 San Diego State 8-4-1 4.1 64.98% 32.4 12 28.3 84
38 Ohio State 8-4 3.9 64.27% 21.2 58 17.3 25
39 Houston 4-7 3.8 63.66% 33.7 10 30.0 92
40 Tulsa 10-2 3.8 63.65% 25.1 37 21.4 48
41 Virginia Tech 5-6 3.8 63.64% 24.4 41 20.7 44
42 Arizona State 6-5 3.3 62.20% 21.1 59 17.7 28
43 Boston College 4-7 3.3 61.96% 24.0 44 20.8 45
44 Fresno State 10-2 2.2 58.11% 32.2 13 30.0 93
45 Arkansas 6-6 2.0 57.22% 16.6 83 14.6 9
46 North Carolina 7-4 1.7 56.43% 20.1 65 18.4 31
47 West Virginia 6-5 1.7 56.31% 19.5 68 17.7 29
48 LSU 5-6 1.5 55.42% 24.0 45 22.5 56
49 San Jose State 6-4-1 1.3 54.77% 31.2 19 30.0 91
50 Pittsburgh 6-5 1.0 53.59% 22.5 51 21.5 49
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
51 South Carolina 3-6-2 0.8 52.99% 23.2 50 22.4 55
52 Miami-OH 6-4-1 0.8 52.89% 16.4 85 15.6 14
53 Texas Tech 6-5 0.2 50.90% 26.9 28 26.6 78
54 Arizona 4-7 0.2 50.67% 27.9 23 27.7 80
55 Ole Miss 5-6 -0.3 48.99% 21.0 60 21.2 47
56 Oregon 3-8 -0.7 47.32% 19.3 71 20.0 40
57 Purdue 4-7 -1.0 46.23% 21.8 54 22.8 61
58 Toledo 5-5-1 -1.2 45.55% 17.3 79 18.5 32
59 Washington State 4-7 -1.4 44.91% 27.6 24 29.0 88
60 Hawaii 4-7-1 -1.4 44.71% 29.5 21 31.0 94
61 Memphis 5-6 -1.6 43.93% 19.9 67 21.6 50
62 TCU 7-4 -1.9 42.84% 23.9 46 25.8 74
63 Central Michigan 6-1-4 -2.5 40.92% 15.1 92 17.6 27
64 UTEP 4-7-1 -2.8 39.72% 20.9 61 23.8 68
65 Louisiana Tech 8-1-2 -3.2 38.42% 19.2 72 22.4 54
66 Utah 7-5 -3.4 37.56% 21.3 56 24.8 73
67 Kentucky 3-8 -3.7 36.73% 19.0 73 22.6 58
68 Vanderbilt 5-6 -4.0 35.57% 19.4 69 23.4 65
69 Utah State 5-6 -4.2 34.75% 20.0 66 24.2 70
70 Ball State 6-5 -4.5 33.66% 11.8 105 16.4 18
71 Western Michigan 6-5 -5.3 31.30% 18.8 74 24.0 69
72 Wyoming 4-6-1 -5.4 30.86% 27.5 25 32.9 98
73 Cincinnati 4-7 -5.8 29.53% 21.3 57 27.1 79
74 Maryland 2-9 -6.2 28.38% 16.9 80 23.0 62
75 Missouri 3-7-1 -6.2 28.16% 25.4 34 31.7 96
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
76 Rutgers 6-5 -6.2 28.12% 15.6 91 21.9 52
77 Duke 4-6-1 -6.7 26.70% 19.4 70 26.1 75
78 Southern Miss 4-7 -7.0 25.94% 16.7 82 23.7 67
79 Michigan State 3-8 -7.4 24.54% 16.0 89 23.4 64
80 Pacific 5-7 -7.6 24.12% 33.6 11 41.2 107
81 Rice 4-7 -7.6 24.11% 20.1 63 27.7 81
82 Oklahoma State 0-10-1 -8.1 22.62% 14.6 95 22.7 60
83 Colorado State 3-8 -8.3 22.08% 25.1 38 33.4 99
84 Minnesota 2-9 -8.3 22.08% 14.2 98 22.5 57
85 Iowa State 3-7-1 -8.6 21.16% 14.0 100 22.6 59
86 UL-Lafayette 2-8-1 -8.9 20.53% 14.8 94 23.7 66
87 Wisconsin 5-6 -9.0 20.31% 11.5 106 20.5 43
88 Eastern Michigan 3-7-1 -9.4 19.25% 12.3 104 21.7 51
89 Northwestern 3-8 -10.2 17.27% 16.1 87 26.2 77
90 Oregon State 1-10 -11.0 15.39% 16.8 81 27.8 82
91 Wake Forest 3-8 -11.0 15.31% 17.3 78 28.4 85
92 Temple 2-9 -13.1 11.31% 13.2 102 26.2 76
93 Ohio 2-8-1 -13.3 10.84% 15.1 93 28.4 86
94 Kent 1-10 -13.8 9.98% 14.2 97 28.1 83
95 SMU 1-10 -13.8 9.96% 15.8 90 29.6 90
96 Army 4-7 -14.8 8.57% 9.6 107 24.4 71
97 Louisville 2-9 -15.1 8.03% 14.0 99 29.1 89
98 Tulane 1-10 -15.3 7.78% 16.5 84 31.8 97
99 Long Beach State 2-9 -15.3 7.73% 20.1 64 35.5 102
100 New Mexico 3-9 -15.4 7.70% 22.1 53 37.5 105
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
101 Navy 1-10 -15.5 7.54% 13.3 101 28.8 87
102 Akron 5-6 -16.6 6.24% 17.5 76 34.1 100
103 Northern Illinois 2-9 -16.7 6.04% 14.4 96 31.2 95
104 New Mexico State 2-9 -17.5 5.28% 17.4 77 34.9 101
105 UNLV 4-7 -19.6 3.48% 16.2 86 35.8 104
106 Arkansas State 1-10 -21.6 2.27% 16.0 88 37.6 106
107 Fullerton State 2-9 -22.8 1.74% 13.0 103 35.8 103

A certain fanbase would have been mad

If you look at the pre-bowl AP rankings above, you can see a pretty easy hypothetical College Football Playoff taking shape. Miami and Washington were undefeated. They're in. Florida was a one-loss SEC champion. They're in. Michigan was a one-loss Big Ten champion. They're in.

That's almost certainly how things would have taken shape. We'd have ended up with 1 Miami vs. 4 Michigan and 2 Washington vs. 3 Florida, and we'd have been pretty happy.

But in a year in which so few elite teams actually played each other (and so many finished 10-1), this Playoff would have punished one of the best teams in the country for actually playing somebody. Florida State lost to Miami and Florida by a combined six points and, on paper, very much proved itself an elite team. Penn State would have had nearly as good a case -- the Nittany Lions lost to Miami by just six and beat Georgia Tech, BYU, and Notre Dame by an average score of 34-14 -- if not for a 21-10 loss to a good-not-great USC team.

So yeah, we'd have almost certainly gotten an easy playoff call (which Washington almost certainly would have won), and 'Noles fans would have almost certainly been all sorts of crabby about it.

Other thoughts:

  • Hey there, USC ... 3-8 and No. 26. This was an incredible season (in the wrong ways) for Larry Smith's Trojans. They beat Penn State by 11 and beat mediocre Oregon and Wazzu teams on the road. They also lost to No. 1 Washington by 11 (only Cal came closer to the Huskies), No. 7 Notre Dame by 4, No. 12 Stanford by 3, and No. 14 UCLA by 3. If not for losses to Arizona and Memphis (and No. 10 Cal by 22), they'd have probably been in the top 15. They played a phenomenal slate of teams in one of the Pac-10's more impressive seasons, and ... well, somebody had to lose these games, I guess. That the cantankerous, emotional Smith got another year at the school was impressive, but he certainly fielded a good team this year, and with almost no results to show for it.
  • No. 10 Cal! Bruce Snyder's Golden Bears lost to Washington by 7 and got thumped in the Big Tame but otherwise beat UCLA, USC, and ASU, and crushed Clemson in the Citrus Bowl.
  • I was actually a little bit surprised this A&M defense ranked only eighth. The Aggies allowed 12.8 points per game -- 35 to 10-2 Tulsa in an upset loss, 21 to Rice, and 9.8 per game to everybody else (including FSU, which beat them just 10-2 in the Cotton Bowl).
  • Among major-conference teams, only Wake Forest, Oregon State, and Northwestern ranked lower than Wisconsin. Two years later, the Badgers were in the Rose Bowl. Two years after that, Northwestern was.
  • Barely more than a decade earlier, Florida, Florida State and Miami were all somewhere between "decent" and "in dire straits." And in 1991, they were three of the four best teams in the country. The development of all three of these programs -- FSU in the late-1970s and early-1980s, Miami in the early-1980s, and Florida in the early-1990s (after a false start in the mid-1980s) -- was one of the most significant events in college football's history. I would read a book about this trio.
  • To all of the Washington fans who sent me angry e-mails/tweets (and there was a staggering number of them) because these numbers only had UW's defense graded as fantastic and not one of the 10-15 best of all-time ... does this let me off the hook? Do I get some happy correspondence now?

Next up: the ridiculous, delirious 1990 season.