clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The 1990 college football season was elite-level crazy

New, 8 comments

The AP national champion had two blemishes and needed a fifth down and a clipping penalty to avoid a third. That says quite a bit right there.

Mike Powell/Getty Images

I think 2007 scrambled all of our perceptions of in-season insanity; it set the bar too high for any other season to reach. That's unfortunate because 1990 was maybe even crazier. Consider:

Preseason top 5: 1 Miami, 2 Notre Dame, 3 Auburn, 4 Florida State, 5 Colorado. Nothing much changes in Week 1 -- Colorado drops to sixth after tying No. 8 Tennessee in the Pigskin Classic -- but in Week 2, defending national champion Miami loses at No. 16 BYU. BYU leaps to No. 5, and Miami falls to 10th. Colorado, meanwhile, drops to ninth after an unimpressive home win over unranked Stanford.

Top 5 after two weeks: 1 Notre Dame, 2 Auburn, 3 FSU, 4 Michigan, 5 BYU. Michigan finally opens its season by losing 28-24 at Notre Dame; it's an impressive showing, but this is a big, dumb, reactionary poll, and Michigan falls to seventh. Colorado, meanwhile, posts another disappointing result -- losing at No. 21 Illinois, 23-22 -- and dives to 20th. In Week 4, USC, now up to No. 5, gets destroyed by No. 21 Washington, 31-0, and plummets from fifth to 18th.

Top 5 after four weeks: 1 Notre Dame, 2 FSU, 3 Auburn, 4 BYU, 5 Tennessee. We've already had a few upsets, but BYU's the only semi-surprise near the top so far. But the Cougars get stomped, 32-16, at unranked Oregon in Week 5. And in Week 6, everything changes. Notre Dame loses at home to Stanford (36-31), and FSU, as it is wont to do, loses at Miami (31-22). Suddenly Michigan, sixth just two week earlier, surges to No. 1. Your No. 2 team: Virginia, which waxed Clemson in Week 2, then feasted on Navy (56-14), Duke (59-0), and William & Mary (63-35).

Top 5 after six weeks: 1 Michigan, 2 Virginia, 3 Miami, 4 Oklahoma, 5 Tennessee. Michigan's reign lasts a single weekend; the Wolverines fall at home to unranked Michigan State, 28-27. Meanwhile, after beginning the year with wins over ranked UCLA and Pitt teams, Oklahoma moved into the top five only to immediately lose, 14-13, to unranked Texas. Virginia is now your No. 1 team, but the shakeup isn't over. In Week 8, new No. 2 Miami loses at Notre Dame (29-20), and new No. 3 Tennessee loses at home to unranked Alabama (9-6).

Top 5 after eight weeks: 1 Virginia, 2 Auburn, 3 Notre Dame, 4 Nebraska, 5 Illinois. UVA was 15th in the preseason, and Illinois was 21st after one week. Auburn falls after barely beating unranked Mississippi State, but that's really all the action in Week 9. Good thing because Week 10 is insane. No. 1 Virginia loses at home to No. 16 Georgia Tech, 41-38, in one of the best games ever played. No. 3 Nebraska loses at home to No. 9 Colorado, 27-12. No. 4 Auburn gets destroyed at No. 15 Florida, 48-7. No. 5 Illinois gets destroyed at home by No. 13 Iowa, 54-28. Four top-five teams lose on the same weekend, and two lose by a lot.

Top 5 after 10 weeks: 1 Notre Dame, 2 Washington!, 3 Houston!, 4 Colorado, 5 Miami. Washington was 20th in the preseason, Houston 24th. Neither stay at the party long. Washington celebrates its new status by losing at home to unranked UCLA (25-22), and high-scoring Houston gets rocked at No. 14 Texas (45-24). For good measure, No. 6 Iowa, fresh off of two top-10 wins, loses at home to unranked Ohio State (27-26).

Top 5 after 11 weeks: 1 Notre Dame, 2 Colorado, 3 Miami, 4 Georgia Tech, 5 BYU. The dust has settled, and sanity has prevailed. Granted, Georgia Tech was unranked in the preseason, and Colorado is somehow now second despite a loss, a tie, and the Fifth Down. There is little sane about that. But the top three teams were all in the preseaon top 5. And then Notre Dame loses at home to No. 18 Penn State. Two-blemish Colorado is your new No. 1. And when Miami barely survives at San Diego State (30-28), No. 4 BYU gets rocked at Hawaii (59-28), and prolific new No. 6 Florida gets thumped at No. 8 Florida State, your end-of-regular-season top 5 looks like this:

1. Colorado (10-1-1, fifth in the preseason)

2. Georgia Tech (10-0-1, unranked)

3. Texas (10-1, unranked)

4. Miami (9-2, first)

5. Notre Dame (9-2, second)

That's pretty high on the insanity scale. And, of course, it got even sillier when Colorado barely survived Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl (thanks to the clipping penalty on Rocket Ismail's late punt return score) and Miami obliterated Texas (while committing 78 personal foul penalties) in the Cotton Bowl. Split national title, here we come.

S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
1 Miami-FL 10-2 25.6 99.14% 39.1 4 13.5 4
2 Florida State 10-2 21.3 97.61% 38.5 5 17.2 16
3 Washington 10-2 21.1 97.51% 36.6 6 15.5 10
4 Colorado 11-1-1 19.1 96.21% 33.7 14 14.6 7
5 Georgia Tech 11-0-1 17.8 95.10% 32.2 19 14.3 6
6 Texas 10-2 17.7 95.04% 33.2 16 15.5 11
7 Notre Dame 9-3 16.7 93.98% 34.1 10 17.4 21
8 Florida 9-2 16.6 93.82% 34.7 8 18.1 24
9 Oklahoma 8-3 15.8 92.91% 34.1 11 18.3 25
10 Michigan 9-3 15.6 92.66% 32.3 18 16.7 14
11 Tennessee 9-2-2 15.2 92.15% 34.0 12 18.8 28
12 Clemson 10-2 14.8 91.51% 25.2 42 10.4 1
13 Virginia 8-4 14.7 91.43% 34.4 9 19.6 33
14 Penn State 9-3 14.2 90.64% 26.9 31 12.7 2
15 Nebraska 9-3 13.7 89.89% 33.0 17 19.2 31
16 BYU 10-3 13.2 88.92% 40.3 3 27.2 72
17 Texas A&M 9-3-1 13.0 88.64% 33.6 15 20.6 37
18 San Jose State 9-2-1 12.2 87.09% 33.8 13 21.6 42
19 Houston 10-1 11.2 85.00% 41.2 2 30.0 85
20 South Carolina 6-5 10.8 84.17% 27.3 29 16.5 13
21 Iowa 8-4 10.0 82.24% 34.9 7 24.9 58
22 USC 8-4-1 9.6 81.33% 28.7 24 19.1 30
23 Oregon 8-4 9.2 80.49% 26.6 35 17.3 19
24 Virginia Tech 6-5 8.4 78.34% 25.6 40 17.2 17
25 Alabama 7-5 8.3 77.87% 21.6 67 13.3 3
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
26 Michigan State 8-3-1 7.9 76.78% 26.2 36 18.3 26
27 Auburn 8-3-1 6.8 73.70% 24.1 50 17.3 18
28 NC State 7-5 6.7 73.41% 21.5 68 14.7 8
29 California 7-4-1 6.7 73.34% 31.2 20 24.4 56
30 Stanford 5-6 6.6 73.03% 28.2 26 21.6 41
31 Southern Miss 8-4 6.4 72.51% 20.4 75 13.9 5
32 Ohio State 7-4-1 6.1 71.50% 26.8 34 20.6 38
33 Illinois 8-4 5.8 70.41% 23.8 55 18.1 23
34 San Diego State 6-5 5.6 70.00% 41.5 1 35.8 101
35 Syracuse 7-4-2 5.5 69.60% 24.0 51 18.5 27
36 Maryland 6-5-1 5.4 69.27% 24.4 47 19.0 29
37 Louisville 10-1-1 4.7 66.99% 21.2 69 16.4 12
38 Baylor 6-4-1 4.7 66.82% 22.5 61 17.8 22
39 UCLA 5-6 4.1 64.85% 31.1 22 27.0 71
40 North Carolina 6-4-1 3.9 64.23% 19.0 86 15.1 9
41 Louisiana Tech 8-3-1 2.6 59.67% 25.7 39 23.1 45
42 Hawaii 7-5 1.8 56.65% 27.5 28 25.7 65
43 Indiana 6-5-1 1.3 54.79% 24.3 49 23.0 44
44 Arizona State 4-7 0.8 53.14% 26.2 37 25.3 63
45 Central Michigan 8-3-1 0.8 52.83% 18.2 90 17.4 20
46 Colorado State 9-4 0.7 52.74% 26.8 32 26.1 67
47 East Carolina 5-6 0.5 51.76% 23.9 53 23.4 47
48 Texas Tech 4-7 0.5 51.69% 31.1 21 30.7 86
49 Pittsburgh 3-7-1 0.3 51.27% 24.4 46 24.1 51
50 Toledo 9-2 0.3 50.94% 21.1 72 20.8 40
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
51 Air Force 7-5 -0.3 48.98% 23.9 54 24.1 53
52 Mississippi State 5-6 -0.4 48.57% 19.9 80 20.3 34
53 Northern Illinois 6-5 -0.5 48.15% 27.1 30 27.6 74
54 Arizona 7-5 -0.9 46.53% 23.6 58 24.5 57
55 Ole Miss 9-3 -1.0 46.32% 19.7 82 20.7 39
56 Temple 7-4 -1.1 46.09% 24.6 45 25.6 64
57 Fresno State 8-2-1 -1.2 45.42% 25.6 41 26.8 69
58 Wyoming 9-4 -1.3 45.24% 24.0 52 25.3 62
59 Iowa State 4-6-1 -1.4 44.96% 26.2 38 27.5 73
60 Missouri 4-7 -1.4 44.70% 28.4 25 29.8 82
61 Minnesota 6-5 -2.6 40.60% 21.7 66 24.2 54
62 LSU 5-6 -3.0 39.20% 17.6 94 20.5 36
63 Memphis 4-6-1 -3.0 38.92% 17.4 95 20.4 35
64 Duke 4-7 -3.1 38.74% 21.8 64 24.9 59
65 Rice 5-6 -3.3 38.03% 21.7 65 25.0 60
66 Kansas 3-7-1 -3.4 37.65% 24.6 44 28.0 77
67 Oklahoma State 4-7 -3.4 37.60% 22.6 60 26.0 66
68 Western Michigan 7-4 -3.5 37.27% 20.2 78 23.7 50
69 Tulane 4-7 -4.0 35.47% 20.2 77 24.2 55
70 UL-Lafayette 5-6 -4.0 35.46% 17.6 93 21.6 43
71 Kansas State 5-6 -4.3 34.48% 23.6 57 27.9 76
72 Georgia 4-7 -4.8 32.90% 19.3 84 24.1 52
73 Ball State 7-4 -4.9 32.42% 12.2 106 17.1 15
74 Washington State 3-8 -4.9 32.36% 27.9 27 32.9 98
75 TCU 5-6 -5.2 31.56% 26.8 33 32.0 91
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
76 Utah State 5-5-1 -5.7 29.85% 24.3 48 30.0 83
77 West Virginia 4-7 -5.7 29.77% 17.8 92 23.5 48
78 Arkansas 3-8 -6.5 27.19% 25.1 43 31.6 88
79 Boston College 4-7 -6.7 26.64% 18.3 89 25.0 61
80 Purdue 2-9 -7.2 25.29% 19.4 83 26.6 68
81 Akron 3-7-1 -7.2 25.27% 19.8 81 27.0 70
82 Kentucky 4-7 -8.4 21.89% 20.6 74 28.9 81
83 Miami-OH 5-5-1 -8.7 21.07% 14.9 100 23.6 49
84 Wake Forest 3-8 -8.9 20.46% 23.8 56 32.7 97
85 Utah 4-7 -9.0 20.26% 21.1 71 30.0 84
86 Wisconsin 1-10 -9.0 20.22% 14.4 102 23.4 46
87 Bowling Green 3-5-2 -9.4 19.12% 10.2 107 19.6 32
88 Long Beach State 6-5 -9.5 18.87% 22.5 62 32.0 92
89 Pacific 4-7 -9.9 17.93% 29.3 23 39.2 104
90 Navy 5-6 -9.9 17.91% 18.8 87 28.7 80
91 New Mexico 2-10 -11.1 15.08% 22.8 59 33.9 99
92 Arkansas State 3-7-1 -11.7 13.95% 19.2 85 30.8 87
93 UNLV 4-7 -12.0 13.19% 20.0 79 32.0 93
94 Northwestern 2-9 -12.2 12.82% 20.3 76 32.5 94
95 Eastern Michigan 2-9 -12.9 11.51% 15.6 99 28.5 79
96 UTEP 3-8 -13.3 10.78% 18.6 88 32.0 90
97 Rutgers 3-8 -13.4 10.74% 14.8 101 28.1 78
98 Tulsa 3-8 -14.3 9.18% 13.5 103 27.8 75
99 Cincinnati 1-10 -16.2 6.68% 20.7 73 36.9 102
100 SMU 1-10 -16.4 6.36% 22.0 63 38.4 103
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
101 Oregon State 1-10 -16.6 6.15% 16.0 98 32.6 96
102 Ohio 1-9-1 -18.7 4.08% 13.0 105 31.7 89
103 Army 6-5 -18.8 4.00% 16.5 96 35.3 100
104 Kent 2-9 -19.2 3.72% 13.3 104 32.5 95
105 Vanderbilt 1-10 -20.2 3.05% 21.1 70 41.3 107
106 Fullerton State 1-11 -22.7 1.74% 18.1 91 40.8 106
107 New Mexico State 1-10 -24.5 1.13% 16.1 97 40.6 105

A Playoff now more than ever

The regular season accomplished almost nothing when it came to figuring out the team most deserving of a national title. And Est. S&P+ doesn't really drop many clues either. Before the bowls, there wasn't a single 99th-percentile team, and Miami was the only one above 97.6%. Washington, Florida State, and Colorado were in the 97s, Texas in the 96s, and that's it.

This situation was desperately screaming for a four-team playoff. But I'm not sure what happens even then. Colorado and Georgia Tech are in, obviously, and at 10-1, I guess Texas is, too. But then you've got two-loss Miami, two-loss Notre Dame, two-loss Florida State, two-loss Penn State (which hasn't lost since Sept. 15), and two-loss (and apparently awesome) Washington. (You also had one-loss Houston, which was ineligible for the postseason on account of that whole "nearly getting the death penalty" thing.)

You could have made a strong case for any of these teams. Hell, you could have made a decent case for two-loss, two-tie SEC champion Tennessee. But leaning on the numbers, I guess the final spot goes to Miami.

So you get 1 Colorado vs. 4 Miami and 2 Georgia Tech vs 3 Texas. Miami likely handles Colorado, and we'll say Georgia Tech (which beat No. 19 Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl to finish unbeaten) beats Texas, just to avoid a 46-3 national title game between Miami and Texas. (But my goodness, imagine the outcry if Miami has done its Cotton Bowl routine in a title game. The hot takes would still be going on today.)

I wrote in the 1991 piece that Miami got a share of the national title even though Washington was clearly the best team of 1991; we'll say Miami got that trophy because it didn't get one it might have deserved in 1990.

Next up: the 1990s in review.