College Football didn't have to develop in any particular direction. It could have gone down many different paths. We could be in another place today had things unfolded differently. In the days of Bear and Woody, the bowl system ruled the day. It wasn't about matching up the best teams back then. It was more about spreading the great teams among the big boy bowls so everyone could get a piece of the pie. Getting over that hurdle was monumental, but other limitations have been conquered. I've created a list of six games that changed college football for the better over the past 60 seasons. Let's jump in.
#1 Texas @ #2 Arkansas (December 6, 1969)
There were 12 meetings between one & two before this game, but only three had been in bowl match-ups. The rest had been in regular-season games, returning to Notre Dame at Michigan (Oct 9, 1943). Only the 1969 Rose Bowl had been a one vs. two game, specifically labeled as a national title game. So yes, it did take 33 years of the poll era to get to this place. But like all milestones, it isn't easy to go back once you pass one.
It was the last game of the regular season. By chance (and chance only), we had a one vs. two game. The AP title would still be on the line no matter how this game turned out because the AP did not award their championship until after the bowl games were in the books. But for the coach's poll, the winner of this game would take the trophy home. None of that mattered in 1969, though, because President Nixon made a statement that day. Attending this game, He called Texas, The "number one team in the land" after they won. And so it was the perception, declared by the highest office in the land.
That wasn't a declaration that Texas was "national champs," but it was interpreted as such. AND THAT WAS A BIG DEAL! The average college football fan now dreamed of one vs. two match-ups for the end of every season.
#3 USC @ #16 Alabama (September 12, 1970)
As it turned out, neither of these teams was very good. They ended up with six wins and were unranked at the end of their seasons. But in 1970, it wasn't all that much about football. When John McKay's Trojans traveled to Birmingham to take on Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide, it was as much a political event as it was a football game. It was the first time that a fully integrated team had played in the state of Alabama. I'm not here to tell you that Bryant and McKay cooked this event up, but that could be the case.
Up until that point, Bryant was having a variety of problems recruiting black players. Most notably, he could not get the Alabama brass behind it. And by 1970, there was simply no way to compete at a championship level without the best players available, no matter the color of their skin. But not until the USC Trojans showed up in Alabama's backyard with a fully integrated team and stomped them in front of a majority Alabama crowd could Bryant get the support he needed to make a move to integrate his football team fully. From that day forward, Alabama recruited the best players they could find, regardless of race. It wasn't hard to get it done after that.
This was the last flood gate to break open regarding integration in Southern football. It was the proverbial nail in the coffin to the old and tired racial prejudice living within the realm of college football in the south and helped usher in genuine progress when it came to breaking down racial barriers in the sport.
#10 Boston College @ #12 Miami (November 23, 1984)
As far as this game goes, it wasn't anything to write home about. Miami and Maryland had played a much more exciting game the week before when the unranked Terrapins overcame a 31-point halftime deficit in what many believe to be the greatest comeback in the history of college football (and the first epic comeback of Frank Reich's career). Does anyone remember that one, though? Not so much. But Doug Flutie's Hail Mary moment caught the nation's attention. It's one of the most shown highlight clips in the history of the sport to this very day.
I've watched the game on YouTube, and it's not that great of a game. Until the Hail Mary moment, it's just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill barn burner. It changed college football because it highlighted that we crave that type of storybook ending. In the most exciting way possible, we love our sports entertainment. "If you build it, they will come," they say. Doug Flutie built it that day, and college football responded with more emphasis on offense than ever before in the decades to follow. I'm a defensive guy, but no one can argue against the fact that offense sells tickets.
The NCAA loses its grip
The miraculous game-ending brought a much-needed emphasis to Eastern Football. The demand for televised college football was also growing exponentially. Ironically, it was earlier that year, in June, that SCOTUS had ruled on collegiate television rights. Schools and conferences would now be free to negotiate TV contracts on their behalf moving forward, breaking an NCAA chokehold on the entire process. It was that, mixed with the phenomenon of that Doug Flutie Hail Mary, that brought us to a new, improved age in televised college football.
#2 Penn State VS #1 Miami (Fiesta Bowl - January 2, 1987)
Again, we are in the thick of a one vs. two match-up. It was the fourth time a bowl had hosted a one vs. two game in the previous 15 seasons. But this was not like the other ones at all. Those games had been forged through a bowl tie-in system. In other words, they could only happen if the right teams were #1 and #2. For most years, this was impossible. This game was the first Bowl to make a deal for one vs. two without a bowl tie-in. In other words, the very first to match two independent teams, who just happened to be No.1 and No.2.
The game was sloppy and boring to watch for me, but it had a 25.1 TV rating. That was among the highest-rated ever for that time. Penn State won the game 14-10. Miami's Vinny Testaverde threw his 5th INT of the night in a red zone opportunity that could have won the game. No one raved about the game afterward. Penn State was the national champ, and Miami had blown what was otherwise a historic season. Now, the average fan could see what the bowl tie-ins were doing to the bowl picture. I mean, anyone should have already been able to see it. But the '87 Fiesta Bowl put it all in such a vivid array of colors that no one could miss.
No Reason To Return To Business As Usual
There was no going back after that '87 Fiesta Bowl. The College Football fans now wanted a real championship game annually. It would still take another 11 seasons to get there, to a system inclusive of all major college football participants. But now, the process was legitimately geared toward making that happen. In 1992, The Bowl Coalition was introduced. It did mandate a one vs. two bowl match-up, as long as none of the teams were in the Pac 10 or the Big 10. One small step on a journey toward a playoff.
#9 Boise State VS #7 Oklahoma (January 1, 2007)
This 2007 Fiesta Bowl set into motion a new concentrated effort. Moving forward, a process would include smaller programs into the extensive boy bowl schedule. Utah had been the original BCS buster in the 2005 Fiesta, with their 35-7 take-down of Pitt. But that did not have the same impact of Boise State - Oklahoma. A Group of 5 team with a good schedule and an exceptional record would now get the New Year's Six consideration they rightfully deserved. Let's not forget that the game was also an action-packed classic.
Since this Fiesta Bowl classic, at least one team from a non-power conference has made it into a BCS / CFP bowl every season but one. Before Boise - Oklahoma, it had happened only once. No way to argue that upset changed college football forever.
#2 Alabama VS #1 LSU (January 9, 2012)
No one wanted this game, although it probably was the two best teams. No one wanted to see a rematch, but the BCS signed them up anyway. Bama won the game and took home their 2nd championship in 3 seasons, but the TV audience was down 3 million viewers from the year before. The demand for a playoff came from this unpopular event, and they did not waste any time getting one off the ground. The CFP was arranged and in place in time for the 2014 season. This BCS Championship game is the reason it all happened, and that is much more interesting than the 21-0 Alabama victory in the game itself.
Just 6 Games?
I could have dug deeper and come up with more games for this list, but no one needs to read 15 pages of me rambling in a single article. There's a small list of games that did not make the cut but were considered. Miami / Nebraska 2002 was definitely on the list for the same reason that Alabama - LSU 2012 was there: people were not happy with the match-up. I almost put the inaugural SEC Championship Game from 1992 on the list for its influence over the development of the conference championship games. That one comes in at #7 for me. Another topic for another day, I guess.