In Search of  …. Redemption

The 1998 season could not start soon enough for Colorado.  The 1998 campaign would allow the Buffs coaches and players, not to mention their fans, a chance at redemption.  The 1997 campaign had been a season with too many firsts: the first losing record since 1984; the first conference finish lower than 2nd since 1988; the first time out of the polls since the start of the 1989 season.

It had all just been a bad dream; an anomaly.

Hadn’t it?

While anxious to kickoff the new season, the passing calendar was also greeted by the Buffs and their fans with apprehension.  What if 1997 was not just a fluke?  What if the losing season, made 0-11 by the NCAA after sanctions imposed for using an ineligible player, was just the beginning of a slide back to mediocrity (or worse, obscurity)?  Could Rick Neuheisel survive another campaign which ended with a 5-6 record and no bowl game?

The Buffs had company in facing self doubt.  Many other “powerhouse” teams of college football had slipped in 1997.  Notre Dame finished 7-5, while USC and BYU also just finished on the positive side of the ledger at 6-5.  Miami finished 5-6, while Alabama and Texas slipped to 4-7 records.  The Oklahoma Sooners, they of the Boomer Schooner and six national titles, finished 4-8 to complete their fourth consecutive non-winning season.

Colorado could find some solace in the similar fates of other teams, but solace did not alter the 1997 record, nor did it give the Buffs any sympathy from its 1998 opponents.  Redemption would only be available to the Colorado Buffaloes if they went out and earned it.

Preseason – 1998

If the Buffs wanted to find more W’s in the schedule, the 1998 schedule provided some opportunities.

With the conclusion of the ‘96-’97 home-and-home series with Texas, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma State, the Buffs could turn their attention to the other half of the Southern division of the Big 12 – Baylor, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech – for the ‘98-’99 seasons.  Prognosticators for the upcoming season generally had the Buffs’ new opponents ranked as the bottom half of the Southern division, so the switch in opposition was certainly welcome.

In addition, the non-conference slate had eased.  Gone were Michigan and Wyoming, replaced with Utah State and Fresno State.  The only perceived tough non-conference game was the season opener against Colorado State, and that “road” game had been moved to a neutral site, Mile High Stadium in Denver.  Discounting the 25 mile trip down the Boulder turnpike to Denver, the Buffs would not leave home until the calendar turned to October.

The Buffs’ schedule, rated by the NCAA in 1997 as the toughest in the nation (CU’s opponents combined record for the season was 76-37 (.672) – the highest winning percentage for opponents in school history), had been softened considerably.  The only upcoming opponents who were ranked in the AP preseason poll were Nebraska (No. 4), Kansas State (No. 6), and Colorado State (No. 15).

Nationally, the field was wide open.  The Big-10 and Pac-10 Conferences joined the Bowl Alliance, making their champions available to the newly formed Bowl Championship Series.  Now the champions of the Big-10 and Pac-10, previously tied exclusively to the Rose Bowl, could be released to play in a National Championship game if their champ was ranked either No. 1 or No. 2.

At the conclusion of the 1998 season, the No. 1 and No. 2 teams would square off in the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Arizona, with the National Championship game to rotate amongst the four “major” bowls – the Rose, Orange, Sugar, and Fiesta.

The trick, of course, remained selecting the top two teams.  A new formula, which took into account not only the AP and USA Today/ESPN polls, but also computer rankings and strength of schedule, was designed to end debate as to the selection of the two teams.  Few were convinced that it would work perfectly, and many continued to clamor for a playoff.  No one could dispute, though, that if the system had been in place in 1997, Nebraska and Michigan would not have shared the title.  With the BCS, the National Championship would have been decided on the field between unbeaten Michigan and unbeaten Nebraska.

The road to Tempe would travel through many venues.  In the AP preseason poll, no fewer than eight teams received first place votes, and the difference between the No. 1 team, Ohio State, with 1,668 total points, and No. 2 Florida State, with 1,663, was one of the narrowest margins in history.  In addition to the first place votes showered upon Ohio State (30) and Florida State (22), the teams ranked third through eighth were also strong enough to sway one or more voters that they would complete the season ranked No. 1.  Florida was tabbed at No. 3 (five first place votes), followed by Nebraska (4 votes), Michigan (4), Kansas State (2), UCLA (1), and Arizona State (2).

Missing from the preseason poll, for the first time since 1989, was Colorado.  The Buffs garnered some support from the voters, but only enough to be amongst the “others receiving votes”.  In the AP poll, CU was seen as the 30th best team in the nation; in the USA Today/ESPN poll, the Buffs were 28th overall.

An early convincing win would boost the Buffs back into the polls, and the schedule provided just such an opportunity.

State Bragging Rights

Colorado State had not beaten Colorado since 1986, going 1-9 against CU overall (including seven in a row) since the series had resumed in 1983.  Yet the hype for the 1998 game was all about the Rams and their bid to assume the mantle as the best team in the state of Colorado.

CSU could well have already made that claim after the 1997 season.  The Rams had gone 11-2 in 1997 (ironically, losing only to in-state foes CU and Air Force), capturing the WAC Conference title for the third time in four years.  The Rams finished the season on a nine-game winning streak and a best-ever final ranking of No. 17.  With the WAC appearing to be weak in 1998, there was talk in Fort Collins of a national championship run.  After all, 10 starters returned from the WAC’s best defensive unit, and the offense featured two 1,000-yard rushers by the names of Damon Washington and Kevin McDougal.

Best in the state of Colorado?  CSU, of course.  But ….

One of the Rams’ two losses in 1997 had come at the hands of the 5-6 Colorado Buffaloes.  For CSU to finally steal the state and national spotlight from their neighbors to the south, the Rams would have to win one on the field.  The Rams had the reeling Buffs at home for 1998, so all appeared in place for the unseating of the Buffs as Colorado state champs.

But something happened on the way to the victory celebration at Hughes Stadium.

Money and exposure intervened.

Mile High Mania

The lure of the 76,000-seat Mile High Stadium proved too strong for the CSU Athletic Department, as the Rams agreed to move their home opener against the Buffs to Denver for the first-ever “Rocky Mountain Showdown”.  In giving up home field advantage, CSU saw the commercial advantage of selling more than twice as many tickets as could be sold at the 30,000-seat Hughes Stadium in Fort Collins.  In addition, the Rams, who held national championship aspirations, needed to generate as much publicity and hype for their run as possible.

The move was a huge commercial success.  When student tickets became available two weeks before the game, 5,000 Ram fans stood in long lines in Fort Collins for a chance to purchase a ducat.  Advance sales for the Buffs were also strong, and both schools sold out their allotment of seats.  It was the perfect set-up for promoters: CU had dominated the series, but was vulnerable; CSU was riding high and was predicted to do great things, but had to remove the Buff albatross from around its neck before it could move to the next level on the national stage.

The hysteria in Fort Collins was further enhanced in the week leading up to the showdown.  CSU opened the season against Michigan State in the Black Coaches Association Football Classic.  The Rams fell behind the 23rd-ranked Spartans 16-0 before rallying for a 23-16 win.  A come-from-behind win, against a ranked Big Ten opponent, and on the road, no less, only served to further enhance the sentiment that this was the Rams year to kick some Buffalo butt.

And do it on national television, in front of the largest crowd to ever witness a college football game in the state of Colorado.

The set-up was perfect for the Rams of CSU.

Quarterback Controversy

For their part, the Buffs stayed quiet.  Not giving the opposition “bulletin board” material is always part of a coach’s strategy, but in the Buffs’ case, there was little to say.  Uncertainly loomed over the fall camp, and tensions were only heightened when head coach Rick Neuheisel announced two weeks before the CSU game that junior college transfer Mike Moschetti would be his starting quarterback.  Junior quarterback Jeremy Weisinger, heir-apparent to John Hessler at the conclusion of the 1997 season, quit the team and withdrew from school.  With Neuheisel’s permission, Weisinger transferred to Texas A&M.  Sophomore Adam Bledsoe would now be CU’s back-up quarterback.

While Neuheisel’s choice of Moschetti as his starter was not unexpected, the departure of Weisinger made the Buffs’ circumstances all the more precarious.  “Mike gives us our best chance to be successful,” said Neuheisel before the season opener.  “He’s been a steadfast learner and he has the potential to continue to learn.”  With all of the heat Neuheisel had been taking over the off-season, giving the ball to a quarterback who had never played a down in Division 1-A seemed to some an act of desperation.

It would be left for the players on the field to silence Neuheisel’s critics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *