Zemek: Bama's Big Break - The Rematch

Posted Jan 10, 2012

Matt Zemek on the BCS Championship: It's 1997 All Over Again

By Matt Zemek

The story of the 2012 BCS National Championship Game begins at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Florida, on November 30, 1996, at 12:10 p.m. Eastern time. It was on that field at that moment that No. 2 Florida State began to beat – and beat up – No. 1 Florida with one week left in the regular season. It was the ultimate put-up-or-shut-up showdown near the end of a long journey through autumn. It was the classic confrontation between Steve Spurrier and Bobby Bowden, between defensive coordinators Bob Stoops and Mickey Andrews. It was the prove-it-for-real pigskin passion play, the lay-it-on-the-line high-stakes poker duel that sports fans dream about.

It was a college football main event writ large, everything this sport promises at its very best. Florida State and the Bowden-Andrews braintrust had their way with Spurrier, earning the right to not only play for the national title, but see the Gators shuffle on off to the Orange or Fiesta Bowl, far removed from the Louisiana Superdome on January 2, 1997.

However, a twist of fate otherwise known as a ballsy 4th-and-2 pass play from Texas coach John Mackovic and quarterback James Brown (in the first Big 12 Championship Game) knocked out Nebraska and, with the Bowl Alliance system in place, put Ohio State and Arizona State in the Rose Bowl.

Guess who was able to slide back into the Sugar Bowl when Texas did its deed?

Yes, the Florida Gators. The Bowl Alliance system forced a rematch on the college football world, proving how worthless it was as a successor to the old poll and bowl system that should have been so easy to replace. Then, when Ohio State knocked off Arizona State – No. 2 and unbeaten Arizona State – in the final minute of regulation in Pasadena, guess who gained the chance to win the national championship by winning a rematch of a game it lost?

Yes, Florida.

Spurrier, after getting his tail kicked in Tallahassee, got a do-over against Bowden, his old tormentor.

Danny Wuerffel, after being beaten to a pulp by Florida State pass rushers Reinard Wilson and Peter Boulware, was able to stare down the Seminoles a second time.

Florida's team, which tasted the bitter herbs of crushing defeat on November 30, 1996, was granted a mulligan 33 days later.

You saw what happened. Spurrier tweaked his system, adopting the shotgun look that he had always been loathe to use against FSU or anyone else. Wuerffel made his own adjustments, which were enhanced by the fact that inside the Superdome, he was playing in a climate-controlled environment more conducive to pitch-and-catch brilliance. The Gators had everything to prove, while Florida State's coaches and players – despite a fierce dislike of their in-state rival – simply could not summon the same juice the second time around. How could they have been expected to do so? They had already climbed the mountain, already conquered their foremost adversary in a time of test and tension. What was left for them to do? All the eagerness and ambition and energy stood on Florida's sideline.

The Gators thumped the Seminoles, 52-20. Florida State was humiliated, Bowden made to look like a fool, his defense rendered impotent and his game plan turned into a laughingstock. Florida State received withering scorn in an intensely-focused national spotlight, but the Seminoles had already done the heavy lifting. They won the true test, the game when both the 1996 Florida and Florida State football teams were a mystery to each other. In the rematch, there was no mystery, and the losing team held all the cards, not to mention all the incentive and motivation.

That was under the old Bowl Alliance system, ladies and gentlemen.

Now, 15 years later, consider what – exactly – was meaningfully different about THIS rematch in the Superdome, THIS rendezvous after a November showdown? What was different about the LSU-Alabama sequel? What central dynamic from the 1997 Sugar Bowl did NOT exist in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game?

The winner went all-out. The loser didn't seem to care very much… because, after all, it had already prevailed against the team on the other sideline. The winner positively dominated from the word go. The loser got buried and embarrassed, pounded into submission with haymaker after punishing haymaker. Pundits – enough of them to register, at any rate – were converted and brought around to the view that, yes, this dominant performance of considerable quality (and it WAS a dominating performance of considerable quality, mind you…) was enough to give Alabama the undisputed national title, over and against an LSU squad that merely defeated the Cotton (Arkansas), Rose (Oregon), Orange (West Virginia), and….uhhhhh… the BCS National Championship Game (Alabama) winners.

Florida was voted and honored as the undisputed 1996 national champion of college football within the framework of the Bowl Alliance system. Alabama, at press time, will likely be honored as the undisputed 2011 national champion of college football within the framework of the Bowl Championship Series system.

College football, whose signature events – the Orange, Sugar and Cotton Bowls – are no longer bastions of January 1 tradition or old-time prestige, is a sport which thrives on history and the passing of timeless memories from one generation to the next. Having a classic New Year's Day, with the great bowl games being played when they were meant to be played, represents college football for so many fans and communities. It is the experience of our fathers and grandfathers. It is the tie that binds. It is the sweet smell of the Southwest Conference and of Keith Jackson and Frank Broyles calling the Sugar Bowl while Don Criqui and Bob Trumpy would call the Orange Bowl. This stuff is supposed to matter in college football, but the BCS took it away, giving us empty-calorie post-January 1 weeknight bowls with more than 10,000 empty seats. The BCS eroded college football's soul and lifeblood. It has made New Year's Day a pale imitation of its former self.

In exchange for that, the BCS should have given us legitimate championships and meaningful ways of resolving contentious disputes. If the BCS was going to destroy tradition, it needed to vastly and overwhelmingly improve the way college football seasons were adjudicated.

What does the 2012 BCS National Championship Game prove, 15 years after the Bowl Alliance's rematch in the 1997 Sugar Bowl? It proves that this sport really hasn't improved at all in a decade and a half, all while its once-cherished bowl traditions have been dumped in the garbage bin of history. One should vote LSU as the national champion of college football for the 2011 season… and spit on the BCS, the single worst thing to happen to the on-field product of college football, case closed.

The 1996 Florida State Seminoles would surely agree.