National and Big Eight recap -1991
For the second consecutive year, after occurring only twice in the past twenty, the college football season ended with a split national championship. The Miami Hurricanes went 12-0 in 1991 to win the Associated Press title, it’s fourth championship in nine years. Miami was forced to share the limelight, however, with the Washington Huskies, who also went 12-0. Washington was awarded the national championship by the Coaches’ poll, later re-named the CNN/USA Today poll. Both teams went 11-0 in the regular season, but with Washington contractually bound to play Big Ten champion Iowa in the Rose Bowl, there was no way for the teams to decide the matter on the field.
Washington beat Iowa, 46-34, in the Rose Bowl, capping a season in which the Huskies led the nation in turnover margin and rushing defense. Miami, for its part, beat Nebraska, 22-0, in the Orange Bowl, winning the inaugural Big East title in leading the nation in scoring defense (9.1 pts. per game). Don James of Washington was the consensus choice for coach of the year, while wide receiver Desmond Howard of Michigan was the Heisman trophy winner.
In the Big Eight, as nationally, there was a shared title. Colorado and Nebraska tied 19-19 when they met in November in Boulder, and each team finished 6-0-1 in conference play. Nebraska finished the 1991 season 9-2-1, losing to both co-national champions for the second consecutive year. After losing to Miami in the Orange Bowl, the Cornhuskers finished ranked 15th. Colorado finished the year 8-3-1, with disappointing non-conference losses to Baylor and Stanford, coupled with a 30-25 loss to Alabama in the second-ever Blockbuster Bowl. The Buffs finished 20th in the final polls. Oklahoma, off of bowl probation, finished 9-3, losing only to the Big Eight conference co-champions and to Texas. The Sooners rebounded with a 48-14 whipping of Virginia in the Gator Bowl to complete the season ranked No. 16.
The old saying that “you can’t tell the players without a scorecard” applied equally to the conferences themselves after a series of announced realignments nationwide. The Southeastern Conference (SEC) adopted Arkansas from the Southwest Conference and independent South Carolina to form a 12-team conference, effective in 1992. The Big Ten Conference readied itself to welcome its eleventh member, Penn State, with the new conference schedule to be in place by 1993. Florida State opted out of its independent status, hooking up with the Atlantic Coast Conference. The ACC, heretofore known as a basketball-only conference, was more than happy to take in the top-ranked Seminoles. Finally, another conference name usually associated only with basketball, the Big East, created a football conference consisting of Miami, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Rutgers, Temple, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Boston College. The new conference would not have a full slate of conference games until 1993, but insisted it would crown champions in 1991 and 1992 nonetheless.
The Big Eight and Pac-10 were unaffected by the latest round of changes, but the rumors continued to circulate. There was talk of Nebraska joining the Big 10, of Texas and/or Texas A&M joining the Big Eight or the Pac-10, and of the merger between the Big Eight and the Southwest Conference.
Above it all was Notre Dame, with its exclusive deal with NBC to broadcast its home games. Why share television revenue with eight or nine other schools, the reasoning went, when you can keep it all for yourself? Of course, the revenue stream would depend on Notre Dame being successful on the field, something which independents such as Temple and Rutgers could not depend upon. The safety of shared revenue made sense to more and more independents, and the conference maps of college football were re-written as a result.
Florida State was the near consensus pre-season choice to replace Colorado and the Seminoles ACC rival, Georgia Tech, as the nation’s #1 team. Coming off of a 10-2 campaign in 1990, the Seminoles featured a potential All-American backfield with quarterback Casey Weldon, running back Amp Lee, and fullback Edgar Bennett. Michigan, with quarterback Elvis Grbac and wide receiver Desmond Howard, also figured to challenge. A showdown of the two top-ranked teams was scheduled for Ann Arbor on September 28th.
When the pre-season poll was announced, Florida State received 49 of the 60 first place votes. Michigan, with five votes, came in 2nd. Other schools receiving first place votes included #3 Miami (2), #4 Washington (1), #5 Florida (1), #9 Clemson (1), and #12 Houston (1). Noticeably out of the mix were defending co-national champions from 1990, Georgia Tech and Colorado. In the first poll of the 1991 campaign, the Yellow Jackets were ranked eighth; the Buffaloes thirteenth.
In the Big Eight, if the Associated Press pre-season poll was to be an indicator, it was time for the Oklahoma Sooners to return to prominence. NCAA-inflicted probation removed, the Sooners, coming off of an 8-3 season in 1990, were ranked #10. Colorado, at #13, was just ahead of Nebraska, which opened 1991 ranked 15th. No other Big Eight school was considered close to meriting national attention.
In 1990, the Colorado Buffaloes had faced the nation’s most difficult schedule, with six of their 13 opponents playing on New Year’s Day. The same could not be said for the 1991 schedule. Colorado’s preseason opponents for 1991 included Wyoming (9-4 in 1990); Baylor (6-4-1); Minnesota (6-5) and Stanford (5-6). Decent teams all, but not the caliber of the slate which included Tennessee, Illinois, Washington, and Texas the year before.
The dilution of the schedule was welcome, though, as the 1991 Buffs would have to overcome a tremendous loss of talent. No fewer than nine Buffs from the 1990 team were taken in the NFL draft, including two first-rounder picks (Mike Pritchard and Alfred Williams) and two second-rounders (Eric Bieniemy and Kanavis McGhee). Head coach Bill McCartney, though, remained optimistic. “This team has big shoes to fill, because we’ve graduated several celebrated players” said McCartney, “but I wouldn’t classify it as a rebuilding year. We have to answer that challenge by being hungry, disciplined, and by displaying a great work ethic.”
The greatest potential weakness on the offensive side of the ball was on the line. Only one starter, center Jay Leeuwenburg, returned. “They’re young and inexperienced”, said McCartney of his new front five, “but I’m confident that someone will rise to the occasion.” Quarterback Darian Hagan returned, but was coming off of knee surgery. If Hagan could not go, the job would be left for sophomore Vance Joseph, who had completed all of five-of-seven passes in his collegiate career.
The positions of running back and wide receiver were left wide open with the departure of record-setters Eric Bieniemy and Mike Pritchard. Red-shirt freshman Kent Kahl was given the task of replacing the Buffs’ all-time leading rusher, to be backed up by sophomores Chuck Snowden and Dennis Collier. At the wide out position, the Buffs remained stocked, with potential stars returning in the form of seniors Rico Smith and Mark Henry to be backed by sophomore Charles Johnson and red-shirt freshman Erik Mitchell.
While the offense had questions, the Buff defense had answers. The defensive line would be anchored by junior Joel Steed, along with returning starter Leonard Renfro and junior Marcellous Elder. The linebacking corps was a tale of contrasts. On the inside of Colorado’s 3-4 alignment were two potential All-Big Eight performers in Chad Brown and Greg Biekert, while on the outside the Buffs would struggle to replace All-American performers in Alfred Williams and Kanavis McGhee. The secondary would be an area of strength, featuring returning starters in safety Greg Thomas and cornerback Deon Figures.
“I look for our team to be hungry, aggressive and enthusiastic,” said their head coach. “I expect our team to fiercely defend our title in the Big Eight.” For McCartney to put his young team in a position to defend, a non-conference slate of mid-level teams had to be overcome. Stanford and Baylor were being given some pre-season votes in the polls, and Wyoming had strung together a nine-game winning streak the previous year. “I think our schedule is very challenging,” said McCartney, going on to add, “I see the Big Eight as being improved from top to bottom. There won’t be any easy games, for anyone, the way the conference is shaping up.”
Whether McCartney’s words were to be prophetic or merely pre-season coach-speak would be tested soon enough. The defending co-national champions would open the season with three straight home games, commencing with a night game against Wyoming on September 7th.