It's Jan. 2, 1997. New Orleans. The Superdome falls silent. After almost four hours of play, the Sugar Bowl national-championship game between Tennessee (12-0) and two-time defending national champion Nebraska (12-0) is tied 31-31. They will play the first major bowl overtime in history to decide who wins the title. Team captains gather around a huge corporate logo at midfield, and a coin is tossed into the air....
College football seasons are like class reunions: The faces change, but almost everything else stays the same. Nebraska runs, Florida passes, Notre Dame gets on television a lot. Three controversies arise each season, one pertaining to the Heisman Trophy, one to a spate of early blowouts and one to some perceived injustice done by the polls. The sport is as reliable as the return of autumn itself.
The Heisman debate has begun already. Set aside two stuffed chairs at the Downtown Athletic Club for Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning and his Florida counterpart, Danny Wuerffel. Get another one ready for Northwestern's Darnell Autry, yet another "slash" player—the actor/tailback. And surely there needs to be a place for Iowa State's Troy Davis or for Florida State's Warrick Dunn. But perhaps the best player of all is a hulking lineman with a voice as soft as custard, Ohio State's Orlando Pace, a 6'6", 320-pound offensive tackle. Or maybe it's USC junior defensive tackle Darrell Russell, 6'4", approximately 320 pounds and nimble enough to dunk a basketball from a standstill.
And once the games begin, many of the other signposts guiding you through the autumn will be familiar ones. Florida at Tennessee on Sept. 21. Florida State at Miami on Oct. 12. Michigan at Ohio State on Nov. 23. Colorado at Nebraska on Nov. 29. Notre Dame at USC, Florida at Florida State and Miami at Syracuse, all on Nov. 30. In this year, as in most, you can navigate the college football season with just a schedule to show the way. The plots are laid out in August, awaiting the insertion of small details.
There are occasional teams that are surprises ( West Virginia in 1988, Georgia Tech in 1990, Washington in 1991, of recent vintage), and occasional players, too. (Who would have thought a year ago that Eddie George would win the Heisman?) But this is not the custom. Change generally affects college football like beach erosion, altering the scenery so link' each year that it is hardly noticeable at all. There is something beneficent in this, something that helps obscure the hypocrisy in the sport—a big business masquerading as cozy, down-home pastime.
This fall, however, the ocean washes over the shoreline in one wave. And the game changes. Boy, does it change.
The shift from cozy, regional leagues to superconferences without geographic borders, promised since the beginning of the decade, has finally taken place. In addition to the Southeastern Conference, which has had 12 teams in two divisions since 1992, the Big Eight has taken in four members of the deceased Southwest Conference (Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech) to form the Big 12; and the Western Athletic Conference has adopted three of the four remaining SWC schools (Rice, SMU and TCU) as well as San Jose State, Tulsa and UNLV to swell its ranks to a bloated 16. All three conferences will have championship games on Dec. 7. These, it should be noted, are truly the Games of the Year, where the likes of Nebraska, which enters the season with 25 consecutive wins, or Tennessee could stumble after putting together 11-0 marks.
Even more abruptly, the tie game has been legislated out of existence and, with it, the unique drama created by the possibility of a deadlock. In its place is a fast-food alternative, a tiebreaker that was in effect for bowl games last season and that has been used in lower divisions for as many as 15 years. The format is simple: Team A gets possession on the opponent's 25-yard line and keeps the ball until it runs out of downs, commits a turnover or scores a touchdown or field goal. Then Team B takes a turn. The game ends when one team scores more in its half-inning than the other. There is a huge advantage to winning the coin toss and getting the ball last, knowing what is needed to win, or to stay alive.
It is a seductive rule change because of its apparent common sense. "I don't think anybody likes to tie," says Arkansas coach Danny Ford. Of course not. Yet three of the most storied games in history are Notre Dame's 0-0 tie with Army in 1946, the Fighting Irish's 10-10 tie with Michigan State in 1966 and even Harvard's 29-29 tie with Yale in 1968. It can be argued that any of them—certainly the Harvard-Yale game—would have been less memorable if the tie had been broken. And the very threat of a tie has left deep emotional footprints across the history of the game, forcing coaches to make the late-game choice between kicking an extra point to pull even or attempting a two-point conversion for a win.
Nebraska coach Tom Osborne's choice was to go for two in the 1984 Orange Bowl, when a tie with Miami would have given the Cornhuskers the national title. The attempt and failure elevated that game and established Osborne—however else he is regarded—as a man who had the courage to risk a sure thing in pursuit of victory. In the fall of 1987, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden went for two against Miami, failed and lost 26-25. The Seminoles finished 11-1 and lost a chance to play for the national title. Bowden waited six more years for his first championship.