Some college football programs have always held the antiquated notion that bowl games are a reward to the players for a good regular season and not much else. Kind of like the NFL preseason games.
However, college football players face the very real possibility of suffering a debilitating injury every time they take the football field which could drastically alter their NFL draft status, not to mention giving the player a lifelong limp or disability of some kind.
The best college football programs treat bowl games as a reward for the players AND an opportunity to, as former Jets and Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards famously said: “play to win the game!!!” Any time a player is not properly prepared and disciplined to win a game, they are being cheated by their school and coaches in my opinion.
With that being said, even as a proponent of a college football playoff system, the FBS division of college football is still the only dinosaur left in sports that does not have a playoff, many bowl games over the years have provided football fans such as myself with a thrill or five.
Here are my five most memorable college football bowl games in chronological order:
Jan. 2, 1978 Orange Bowl, Arkansas-Oklahoma
As a longtime Arkansas Razorback fanatic, maybe I am a little prejudiced, but even though this game was not a close one, it’s significance in the history of college football bowl games cannot be denied.
After a 10-1 regular season with only a single 4 point loss to Texas, the #1 ranked team going into the bowls, the Hogs were mystically something like a 17 or 18 point underdog to Oklahoma a month or so before the 1978 Orange Bowl.
Then something happened. A trio of Razorback players, Ben Cowins, Michael Forrest and Donnie Bobo, the leading rusher, the second leading rusher and the leading receiver, were suspended for the game due to an incident in the dorm involving allegations of sexual assault.
Then Hog headman Lou Holtz didn’t wait for the courts to decide the fate of the players, or “let the legal system run its’ course” as coaches often do today. Holtz said the players violated his “do-right” rule and would not play in the Hogs’ biggest game in a number of years.
Oddsmakers took the game off the board, ignoring the fact that the Razorbacks’ stellar defense and kicking game were not affected by the suspensions.
Local Okies in western Arkansas, right across the border from eastern Oklahoma, were giddy with the anticipation of a “Hog-Killin’ time” in Miami. I heard jaws drop when as a young man in his early 20s I proclaimed that the Hogs would STILL win the game.
An obscure third stringer named Roland Sales ran for an Orange Bowl record 205 yards in the game as the Hogs crushed Barry Switzer’s overconfident Sooners 31-6. I still say the Hogs were the better team and that the margin was the only upset.
Unlike the ridiculous NCAA Ohio State ruling allowing five Buckeyes to play in the Bowl, then sit for the first 5 games in 2011 after the discounted Tattoo scandal, Lou Holtz disciplined the players and formed a great gameplan to win a bowl game.
Jan. 1, 1979 Cotton Bowl Notre Dame-Houston
In a glimpse of what was to come, Notre Dame rode a QB named Joe Montana, who sat out most of the second half of the game with hypothermia on a frigid day in Dallas, to an incredible comeback from a 34-12 deficit in the 4th quarter.
I know first hand how cold Dallas can be on New Years Day after attending the Cotton Bowl in 2002. On this day, I returned home from vacation to find my apartment’s windows frozen due to an ice storm and a heater that went out while I was gone.
With no electricity, I went to a local Wal-Mart to catch the last minutes of the game in time to see Montana throw to Kris Haines in the endzone to cap the 35-34 Irish comeback. It’s appropriate that Joe Montana, who bedeviled the Dallas Cowboys through the 80s, had a marquee moment in Dallas…
Jan. 2, 1984 Orange Bowl Miami-Nebraska
This game is significant and makes the list of most memorable college football games partly due to the game itself and partly due to this game being the start of the Miami Hurricane dynasty of the 80s into the early 2000s.
Even though Howard Schnellenberger was Miami’s head coach then, not Jimmy Johnson or Dennis Erickson who won most of the Canes’ championships, this signature win in a thrilling 31-30 slugfest began Miami’s explosion on the national scene in college football.
After the Canes saw a 31-17 lead slip away in the 4th quarter to 31-30, Nebraska coach Tom Osborne went for a two point conversion to win the game after Jeff Smith’s TD with 0:48 left in the game left the Huskers within a single point.
Keep in mind that there was no college football overtime then and a tie would probably have resulted in a Nebraska national championship in the polls since the Cornhuskers still would have been the only undefeated team after the bowls.
Tom Osborne showed a lot of courage in going for two to win the game rather than settle for a wimpy tie. Too bad Dr. Tom abandoned such principles later in his career, allowing thugs like Lawrence Phillips and the Peter brothers to play in spite of numerous transgressions in order for him to finally win a national championship.
Jan. 1, 1994 Nebraska-Florida State
After several near misses, Florida State’s Bobby Bowden finally reached for the brass ring and grabbed something besides another close loss in a national championship game featuring a missed field goal.
With a pair of high scoring offenses, this game figured to be a shootout. Wrong! Bobby Bowden uncharacteristically went ultra-conservative in this game, putting free-wheeling Heisman winning QB Charlie Ward under center in the I formation after running a shotgun spread offense the entire season.
This strategy nearly cost FSU the game and their first national championship, but the Noles hung on…but only after Nebraska’s Tommy Frazier led the Huskers into field goal range with seconds remaining on the clock and Nebraska missed a field goal to lose 18-16.
It was ironic to be sure, a Florida State opponent losing on a missed kick. Unlike most of FSU’s misses, the Nebraska miss was wide left. I’m sure Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh could find a conspiracy in there somewhere.
Jan. 3, 2003 Fiesta Bowl Miami-Ohio State
In the first college football national championship game to feature overtime, I guess the teams decided two OTs would be twice as nice. As the the game ended the 4th quarter tied at 17, the teams headed to overtime. Both teams scored touchdowns and the game went to a second OT at 24-24.
Of course, no discussion of this game would be complete without mentioning the controversial pass interference call on Miami on a fourth and goal play. The call, which was questionable in most eyes, gave Ohio State new life on the two yard line, allowing the Buckeyes to score a TD and send the game to a 2nd OT.
In any event, Ohio State’s Maurice Clarett scored the winning touchdown to send Ohio into delirium, winning 31-24 in the 2nd OT for the Bucks’ first national championship since the Woody Hayes era.
Maurice Clarett could not run from his own demons, however. After leaving Ohio State early for the NFL, Clarett was cut by the Denver Broncos and wound up in prison. In a recent documentary, The Long Road Back, Clarett’s story was updated.
Hopefully, the young man has his life on track and is on a path to being a productive citizen whether or not his football comeback is successful.