The Eight Million Dollar Extra Point

The fallacies of the Bowl Alliance were never more acutely displayed than in the final weeks of 1996. Notre Dame, Syracuse, Wyoming, BYU and yes, even Colorado were victims of the system which was designed to end arguments over polls and bowls.

Notre Dame played Southern Cal in its regular season finale. The Fighting Irish were 8-2, ranked No. 8 in the country, and poised to play in either the Fiesta or Orange Bowl. Either of the two Alliance Bowls would have guaranteed an $8.486 million payday. A loss to the Trojans, though, would mean slim bowl pickings. Only the Independence and Copper bowls had at-large openings, and Notre Dame, being Notre Dame, had indicated that it would not be interested in “lesser” bowls. Thus, the stage was set: win against USC, and a New Year’s Day bowl would be the reward; lose, and go home.

The Fighting Irish faced a similar scenario in 1995, needing a win against Air Force to secure an Orange Bowl bid. The Falcons did not present a challenge, though, and order was maintained with a Notre Dame victory. As the Irish had not lost to USC since 1982, plans for New Year’s Day and a big payoff were anticipated for Notre Dame.

Notre Dame dominated most of the game, but couldn’t put the Trojans away. Notre Dame scored with 3:52 left in the fourth quarter to take a 20-12 lead. The extra point, however, which would have given Notre Dame a 21-12 lead – and more importantly a two score edge – was missed by kicker Jim Sanson. USC scored and converted the two point conversion, sending the game into overtime. In the extra period, the Trojans scored and then shut down Notre Dame, winning 27-20. The loss dropped the Irish to an 8-3 record and a No. 18 ranking.

True to its snobbish word, the Irish elected to stay home, ending Lou Holtz’s coaching career at Notre Dame without a sendoff.

The missed extra point had cost Notre Dame a cool $8,486,000.00.

The same weekend Notre Dame played USC, Syracuse played at home against Miami. The Orangemen controlled their own destiny in the Big East Conference. If they could beat the Hurricanes, Syracuse would win the conference and the automatic bid in the Alliance. A loss to Miami, though, and there would be a three way tie for the conference championship. Virginia Tech, being the highest ranked of the three, would receive the ticket to the Orange Bowl and the $8 million payday.

Miami pulled off the upset, 38-31, and the Orangeman lost out. Adding insult to injury, the Gator Bowl, which was to take the No.2 team from the Big East – presumably Syracuse, as the Orangemen were the second highest ranked team – instead went with West Virginia. Both teams were 8-3 and similarly ranked, but the Mountaineers had finished fourth in the Big East standings. As WVU would bring more fans to the bowl game, Syracuse was relegated to the Liberty Bowl against Houston, a Friday afternoon game during bowl week worth $800,000.

Syracuse fell from the Alliance to the Gator to the Liberty, all in one game.

The loss to Miami cost Syracuse over $7 million.

Wyoming’s plight was even more frustrating.

Wyoming was 10-1, Pacific Division champions of the Western Athletic Conference, and possessed a No. 20 national ranking – but no guaranteed bowl game.

Facing sixth-ranked BYU in the inaugural WAC Championship, the Cowboys had to win to go bowling. BYU survived 28-25 in overtime, and Wyoming was shut out of the bowl picture. The Copper Bowl was supposed to take the No. 2 team from the WAC, and clearly this was Wyoming, as no other WAC team was ranked. Still, the bid went to Utah. As with Syracuse, traveling bodies and television appeal meant more than on the field efforts.

Wyoming, though, would not get much sympathy from BYU. With the win, the 13-1 Cougars moved to No. 5 in the national rankings. As Arizona State, at No. 2, and Ohio State, at No. 4, were destined for the non-Alliance Rose Bowl, an at-large bid for the Alliance was a no-brainer.

But was it? When the bids came out, 9-2 Nebraska, fresh off of its upset loss to Texas in the inaugural Big 12 championship game, and 9-2 Penn State, ranked No. 7 but carrying the baggage of a 38-7 blowout loss to Ohio State in its past, were given the two at-large Alliance slots. BYU landed in the Cotton Bowl, reduced from an $8 million extravaganza to a $2 million sideshow. Perceptions – coming from a less respected conference, a smaller television audience, and lack of star-appeal – once again undid what the players had achieved.

Rooting for Nebraska?

It is difficult, if not impossible, for me to acknowledge that I would ever cheer for the Nebraska Cornhuskers in a football game. Acknowledge success on the field, yes, but openly root for the Bugeaters? Never. Yet as conference championship weekend approached, that is the position that I and other Buff fans were forced to accept.

Before the Texas/Nebraska game, virtually all of the prognosticators had decided that the Alliance at-large bids would go to Colorado and No. 8 Penn State, and that these two teams would play each other in the Fiesta Bowl. Nebraska would play undefeated and No. 1-ranked Florida State in the Sugar, and Florida would play Big East tri-champ Virginia Tech in the Orange. All of this depended on Florida and Nebraska holding serve – that is to say win their respective conference championship games.

Florida did its part, beating Alabama 45-30. Nebraska, however, played without inspiration and fell to Texas, 37-27. The automatic bid, therefore, went to the Longhorns, who were invited to play Penn State in the Fiesta. Florida, benefitting from the ineptitude of the Cornhuskers, earned a rematch with the Seminoles. Nebraska still earned an invitation to the Orange, and the Buffs had to settle for the Holiday Bowl invitation.

For the second time in six years, I had cheered for a Nebraska win. For the second time in six years, the Cornhuskers lost. The previous game had been the 1991 Florida Citrus Bowl, when Nebraska played Georgia Tech. The Yellowjackets had only a tie to blemish their record, and Colorado needed the Cornhuskers to win the game in order to secure an undisputed national title. Nebraska tanked the game, though, 45-21, giving Georgia Tech a share of the title.

So, let me get this straight.

Every time I cheer for the Bugeaters, they lose. Hmmm……


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