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Tulane, Tennessee, the BCS and the championship that never was

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UCF wasn’t the first to be slighted by the NCAA... not by a long shot.

Tommy Bowden

The beginning of January is a whirlwind for football fans. The hustle and bustle of college’s national championship and the New Year’s bowl games combined with the start of the NFL playoffs makes it easy to get lost in the shuffle if your team isn’t one of the lucky few still on the gridiron. Last winter was no exception when the nation’s eyes turned toward Alabama and Georgia in the championship. Two SEC rivals pitted against each other with one essentially having homefield advantage in the coronation game had fans nationwide eager to tune in.

As the season culminated in a thrilling overtime bout in Atlanta, though, college football followers, regardless of team or alma mater, found themselves thinking twice about how the NCAA handles its postseason thanks to an outspoken program that refused to go quietly after being left on the wrong end of the selection committee’s final verdict.

One of sports’ trendiest stories last year (and this year) was the utter domination of the UCF Knights and their run to a national championship*. The asterisk of course must be added but many, including myself, loved that the bold bunch from Orlando did what the NCAA wouldn’t; recognize the nation’s only perfect record with a title. The rings were made. The T-shirts were printed. If you had spent the fall of 2017 living under a rock and came out in January, you would have thought Central Florida had won it all because they refused to behave any other way.

Knight Fever was all the rage at the beginning of 2018 much to the annoyance of fans of the upper crust FBS teams. It was a topic of much debate throughout the sports world. Sure, the Tide or the Bulldogs probably would have dispatched UCF with relative ease but we can’t say for sure. Especially since the Knights, who topped an Auburn team in the Peach Bowl that had beaten both national title participants, never got the proper chance to put their money where their mouth was. Thanks to the NCAA elite, it is left entirely to speculation.

It should be noted that last year’s Knights team, while wildly entertaining and not the least bit shy about their opinion of the playoff field, was not the first unbeaten team to be brushed aside by the committee… not by a long shot. College football’s selection processes have been riddled with error long before the Playoff took center stage five years ago. As this season winds down and the final game inches near, let’s take a look back at another Cinderella that strung together a title-caliber season but, because of a flawed system, was left asking “what if?” when the smoke cleared.

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In 1998 New Orleans hummed with the hope of a promising football season for the first time in what I imagine felt like ages. When it came to football, the city hadn’t had much cheer for. The NFL’s Saints were nothing to be excited about as they hadn’t so much as sniffed the playoffs since ’92. The “Ain’ts” had only reached professional football’s postseason four times in their history by this point and all four times they were booted in the opening round. Needless to say, it wasn’t the black and gold garnering attention down on Bourbon Street.

No, it was Tulane University that had the Big Easy abuzz because head coach Tommy Bowden’s first year with the Green Wave had been one of excitement and encouragement. In 1997 the Wave compiled a 7-4 record but they didn’t just win those seven games with their new coach. They dominated them. 41-0, 56-0, 44-10… those were just a few score lines.

Tulane’s offense in ’97 ranked 14th in the country and was returning ten starters on that side of the ball. At the time, the Green Wave were led by senior quarterback Shaun King. King was the 1997 C-USA offensive player of the year and was looking to close out his college career on a high note. He was joined by running back Toney Converse who was gearing up for his second year with Tulane. The two would end up re-writing the school’s record books by seasons end.

Shaun King
Shaun King led the Green Wave in 1998 and had one of the best individual seasons in school history.

Defensively the Wave were nothing to scoff at either. After allowing 20 points per game the year prior, they too were poised to raise hell with eight returning starters.

This was a veteran team that felt to be on the cusp of breaking through to the next level. So when the New Orleans Times-Picayune boldly presented that the prospect of an unbeaten season for Tulane could be right around the corner in the spring of 1998, the town was ecstatic. The idea of little ole Tulane making national waves was certainly a new one.

What was also new in 1998 was college football’s attempt to address an increasingly ugly problem that had reached its boiling point in the mid ‘90s. After BYU tore through the 1996 campaign and went 12-1 in regular season play (14-1 overall and 8-0 in the WAC) they felt slighted when they were left out of championship consideration and let people know about it.

Despite the Cougars finishing at No. 5 in the national rankings, they knew before the Bowl Alliance’s official selection reveal that they wouldn’t be invited to one of the Alliance’s major bowl games in the Sugar, Fiesta or Orange Bowls. BYU Head coach LaVell Edwards told the Washington Post “If you really look at it, the [WAC] is the only major conference that wasn’t included when the Alliance was formed. And if you’re having a party and you weren’t invited to begin with, it doesn’t make sense to reach out to us now”.

WAC commissioner Karl Benson voiced his displeasure about BYU being left on the outside looking in. Yes, they had been invited to that year’s Cotton Bowl, an invitation they readily accepted, but Benson was concerned that the school, and the conference, had been placed at a disadvantage by being snubbed from the Alliance. He claimed that the conference would suffer in terms of recruiting. If athletes who wanted to compete for a national title saw that these WAC programs essentially had no hope of reaching one, why would they want to consider playing for them?

“I think there’s a lot of holes in the whole process,” Edwards said, “it’s clear that being highly ranked doesn’t get it done.”

The Alliance’s rebuttal got straight to the heart of the issue. “Nobody knows how many people [BYU] would bring to a major bowl because they haven’t been there before,” remarked ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan. It certainly appears that the Alliance didn’t want to risk a flop on the part of the Cougars not bringing a contingency with them to one of the bowl games and because of that concern, BYU was never given a chance.

An interesting tidbit; that year’s WAC championship game between the Cougars and the Wyoming Cowboys drew higher national television ratings than the SEC title game featuring Alabama and the eventual national champion Florida Gators. So, if fan attendance and viewership (aka money) was really the primary concern, it certainly seems as though BYU could have held their own in that department.

Enough people must have heeded the complaints in ‘96 because two years later, the NCAA placed a grand new system into play that would supposedly put those mishaps to bed. The BCS was introduced to the college football landscape replacing the Bowl Alliance. This novel method would attempt to bypass human error and function on a set of formulas and algorithms to determine a team’s rightful place in the national rankings. The AP and Coaches polls would still exist but the BCS would release its own rankings much like the College Football Playoff does now. It would take into account a team’s supposed strength of schedule to formulate an overall composite ranking.

Under the new formula, a mid-major program like Tulane had the chance to compete in one of the designated bowl games if it could break into the BCS’s top six by season’s end. However unlikely it may have seemed, it was possible.

Tommy Bowden and the Green Wave had their minds on other things to start the 1998 season, though. The team’s opening victory at Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium had not come easy despite scoring 52 points. The first half featured a dominant performance by Tulane’s offense. King and company compiled over 250 yards by intermission and led 31-6 when the teams retired to the locker rooms. Things appeared to be smooth sailing in Cincy but as the Bearcats soon showed, there was an alarming quality that existed in this Tulane team; one that could threaten to derail their season at any given game.

Tommy Bowden
Tommy Bowden is one of only three Tulane coaches to record a 10-win season.

Early in the fourth quarter the Wave had built a commanding 52-14 lead but then the tables started to turn. Tulane began to take their foot off the gas and Cincinnati made them pay. Bearcats quarterback Deontey Kenner connected with Jason Collins-Baker for a scoring strike that was followed by blocked kick resulting in another touchdown. Just like that Cincy had swung 14 points back in their favor and added more when DeJuan Gossett intercepted King on the ensuing drive and took it 91 yards to the house.

Tulane still escaped with the win but their inability to effectively close out what should have been a beatdown was unsettling.

Those concerns only grew the following week in Dallas when the Wave squared off with SMU. In similar fashion, Tulane had propelled out to a 31-0 advantage right out of halftime thanks to another impressive King touchdown pass; this one from 36 yards out to receiver P.J. Franklin. With a freshman quarterback in Josh McCown leading the Mustangs who were trailing by more than three scores, this game should have been out of reach but because of the Green Wave’s knack for getting lax in the closing period, it wasn’t.

McCown hit Albert Johnson twice for long scoring plays in the second half (75 and 60 yards respectively) and running back Rodnick Phillips broke the chalk to cut the deficit to a mere ten points. If the game had been perhaps even five minutes longer, SMU may have caught up. Regardless, the Wave held on for the 31-21 victory. For the first time in 23 years Tulane had started a season 2-0 but if that pesky habit of letting up in the closing stages wasn’t fixed, they certainly wouldn’t run the table.

There were bigger problems than the team blowing large leads to worry about in New Orleans though. Hurricane Georges, a massive tropical storm, appeared to be headed right for the city pushing football to the backburner of most people’s minds. Despite the threats of the storm, Navy arrived a week later and Tulane’s home opener at the Superdome commenced as planned.

Against the Midshipmen, Bowden’s team experienced their first deficit of the year when Navy’s Irv Dingle found the end zone to draw first blood. Plying from behind was new territory for the usually-smothering Green Wave. King and the offense stayed the course, however, and built an eight-point halftime lead; hardly enough of an edge that they could afford duplicating their second-half woes of the games past.

In the third quarter, King hit Franklin on a long 78-yard scoring play that upped the Wave’s lead to 12 after a Navy field goal. The Green Wave’s opportunistic defense created two turnovers and finally was able to put a game on ice and leave no doubt. Tulane would come out on top 42-24.

The victory was bittersweet, though, as the team found out following the win that King had broken his wrist during the game. They were fortunate that it had occurred on King’s non-throwing arm but still knew an injury of that nature could hinder the quarterback for the remainder of the season.

Again, however, the tribulations of football were pushed aside in the wake of the impending storm that was bearing down on New Orleans. Students at Tulane University were evacuated from campus and, like they would do seven years later, residents found shelter in the Superdome while mother nature was taking its course on the city.

Hurricane Georges ended up missing the heart of the city itself but still would cause widespread destruction throughout Louisiana. When all was said and done, the storm did over $30 million in damage to the state.

With all that was going on outside the gridiron, Tulane was left with abnormal week of preparation to say the least, something they could ill-afford with the defending C-USA champion Southern Miss Golden Eagles coming to town. The Golden Eagles were the class of the conference at the time and were not about to let the Green Wave knock them off their perch without a fight. Earlier that year, Southern Miss had appeared in the preseason AP rankings and were favored by most to win the conference title again.

Bowden’s Green Wave were the up-and-coming challenger but they didn’t know if they would have their superstar in Shaun King for the all-important matchup. His wrist was still a concern and backup Jeff Curtis had been preparing for the possible start. Between the ominous threat of the hurricane and the uncertainty surrounding King, it’s safe to say the team experienced a strenuous amount of adversity in the week leading up to Southern Miss.

It was a game-time decision by Bowden and offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez but King was given the nod. Tulane knew it would need all the firepower it could muster up to defeat the Golden Eagles and that presumption rang true from the get go.

Shaun King
A broken wrist didn’t keep Shaun King from shining in 1998.

Neither offense was able to produce anything early on and it was beginning to appear that it would be one of the defenses that would make the game-defining play. Fortunately for Tulane, it would end up being theirs. Safety Alphonso Roundtree made a house call on a 59-yard interception return to give the Green Wave a 7-0 advantage late in the first period. By halftime Tulane would make it 14-0 on a touchdown run by Jamaican Dartez.

The Wave D that had been punishing in the first half got downright brutal in the second. They surrendered only one score; an 18-yard Lee Roberts-to-Todd Pinkston touchdown. King would throw a touchdown pass of his own and Tulane would go on to win 21-7. In all, the defense forced six turnovers and left Roberts with four interceptions to think about during the trip back to Mississippi.

“This was a special game,” King said following the victory. And it was. The on-field performance, though, was only part of what impressed those paying attention to the now 4-0 club in New Orleans. Not even a week prior, they had been evacuated from campus, uprooted from normalcy and forced to prepare for one of their toughest opponents of the season with all that swirling in their minds. To win with all that going on? Yeah, this team was something else.

Tulane got a much-needed bye week following the Southern Miss game and used it to prepare for another home test in the Louisville Cardinals. The first ever BCS rankings were to be released in a few weeks and the Green Wave knew they needed to put up big time numbers if they were to make a splash.

By this point, the team was already ranked in the AP and Coaches polls coming in at 24th in both. In the end, though, it wouldn’t matter what these two censuses had to say. They needed to be looked at favorably in the eyes of the BCS. The first step? Take care of business against Louisville. The Cardinals were the first ranked team Tulane played during the season. In fact, they were the first such opponent the Wave would play dating all the way back to 1979.

Louisville’s Chris Redman made it apparent right off the bat that if Tulane were to win this game, it would not come easy. The junior quarterback gave the Cards a 7-0 lead at the end of one. It only took the Green Wave one play in the second quarter, however, to knot things back up. Dartez found his way into the end zone and just like that it was 7 all.

Later in the half, King and the offense used their signature hurry-up attack to snag their first lead of the day. He would connect with receiver JaJuan Dawson on a 29-yard pitch-and-catch touchdown. The lead wouldn’t last long, though, as Louisville would regain the edge on the next drive. Again King and the offense refused to waiver. Closing in on halftime, Dartez gave Tulane the advantage back when he caught a dart from King and sprinted to the end zone.

Coming out of the locker room, the Wave held a narrow 21-16 lead. That lead only got slimmer when kicker Jon Hilbert tacked on three more for the Cardinals in the third. It was becoming increasingly apparent to everyone that Bowden’s defense would have to bail the team out yet again.

That concern seemed to be subdued when Tulane lined up for a field goal late in the fourth. With only 1:06 remaining, kicker Brad Palazzo seemed poised to put the game away. If he made his kick, Tulane would take a nine-point advantage. However, fans in the Superdome watched in gut-wrenching distress as Palazzo’s kick bent wide. With a mere minute left, Louisville had a chance.

Redman wasted no time leading the offense down the field. With each completed pass, the tension in the building grew. Then, when the Cards found themselves on Tulane’s two-yard line with nine ticks left, you could cut it with a knife.

On the game’s final play, Redman fired the would-be game winner to the end zone and time seemed to slow down. Fans watched in dread then in joyous celebration as Tulane’s Tim Carter stepped in front of the throw and batted it away. By the skin of their teeth, they had held on for their fifth win.

Beating Louisville had given the Wave a stranglehold on the C-USA but they had their sights set higher than a conference title. By now, Tulane was one of only seven undefeated teams across the country. The prospect of playing a truly meaningful game at season’s end was becoming a greater possibility but Bowden and the gang knew that it would only remain that way if they kept winning. And if that was to happen, they certainly couldn’t count on last-second goal line stands to get the job done every week.

Another team that had found itself in the ranks of the undefeated by this point was the Tennessee Volunteers. The Vols were winning games in staggering fashion, beating ranked opponents like No. 17 Syracuse, No. 2 Florida and No. 7 Georgia. Unlike Tulane, however, Tennessee had an innate advantage when it came to the eyes of the BCS. They played in the much more appreciated SEC; a variable that would eventually help them soar in the rankings.

Shawn Bryson
Tennessee ran through opponents much like the Wave did in 1998.

While the Vols were enjoying a week off, Tulane was preparing to travel to New Jersey to play Rutgers. This would be the Wave’s last chance to hang some big-time numbers on an opponent before the first BCS rankings were released. The Greenies did just that against the Scarlet Knights. The offense racked up a whopping 510 total yards (King was responsible for 320 of them) en route to the dominant 52-24 victory.

After the game, King’s confidence in the team was apparent. “I feel we’re number one until somebody beats us,” the quarterback claimed. Unfortunately for the Wave, the BCS didn’t necessarily agree. The inaugural rankings put Tulane at 19th and, perhaps even more insulting, behind a two-loss club in Missouri. Over in the SEC, Tennessee came in at No. 3... the perks of playing in a high-end conference was clear.

Tulane’s displeasure with the opening rankings must have been what fueled them in their matchup with Southwest Louisiana (now just Louisiana). The Wave dismantled the Ragin’ Cajuns in the team’s best offensive performance since 1925. The 72-20 thrashing all but forced fans to take notice. Bowden’s crew wasn’t just beating opponents, they were steamrolling them and that was good. The only prayer a mid-major team had to move up the BCS rankings was to score points and score a lot of them.

Heading into November and their game with Memphis, Tulane had climbed to 16th in the latest polls. That’s right, beating someone by 52 was only worth three spots in the eyes of the computers. The disrespect from the BCS was frustrating but equally frustrating was the fact that their ugly habit of letting up late in games appeared to have returned.

Against the Tigers in Memphis, Tulane built a 41-10 lead after three quarters. King had been the spark again with four passing touchdowns. His 355 total yards should have been enough to keep Memphis at bay but, thanks to another freshman quarterback, the Wave would have to seal it in the final stages.

Neil Suber led a furious Tigers rally in the fourth quarter. 165 of Suber’s 279 passing yards came in the final period and when the dust had settled, Tulane only won by 10.

That sort of performance wouldn’t help their BCS case and it showed in the next edition of the rankings where they held steady at 16th. 8-0 was a praise-worthy feat, especially for a club that didn’t often experience success of that magnitude. As far as the chance a title was concerned, though, time was running out and close wins weren’t going to cut it.

The next two weeks would finally result in some positive, upward movement for the Green Wave. After Tulane’s back-to-back defeats of Army and Houston respectively, the Wave would jump to 11th in the BCS rankings. A 49-35 win at West Point coupled with a 48-20 victory over the Cougars back in New Orleans was enough to influence the formulas. The jump up was nice but with only one week left until the all-decisive polls, Tulane knew that no matter what they did against Louisiana Tech, it probably wouldn’t be enough to crack the top six.

Things went about as expected in the regular season finale. The Wave again trounced their opponent, beating the Bulldogs 63-30. King threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns while Converse recorded a career day with 182 rush yards and four more scores. The team knew it was their last, desperate chance to influence the computers before the rankings that would decide their postseason fate came out and they gave it their all.

For the first time since 1931, the Wave had finished a regular season at a perfect 11-0. It was a feat worthy of celebration and Bowden didn’t take it for granted. “A lot of guys coach a long time and never go 11-0, especially at Tulane,” he said following the win. 1998’s Wave team was certainly one to be proud of and, at least for a brief second, they could bask in the light of a perfect regular season without worrying about anything going outside their locker room. They had, after all, just run the table and had won a C-USA title in stunning fashion.

When the rankings were released, it came to little surprise that Tulane had only climbed to the 10th spot. Much like it was with BYU a few years earlier, the outcome was a forgone conclusion before the reveal. Despite their best efforts... and they were damn good efforts... the Wave would be left on the outside looking in. It was all (or almost all) because of the fact that they played in a conference that was looked down upon the NCAA elite.

While the Green Wave was being awarded a berth in the Liberty Bowl, an essential consolation prize, Tennessee was given their chance at a national title. The Vols would be pitted against the Seminoles of Florida State. The ‘Noles had an 11-1 record while Tennessee was a perfect 11-0.

The Liberty Bowl against BYU came with its own set of drama for the Wave. Bowden would not be there for it as he was already meeting with Clemson with the intentions of filling their coaching vacancy. Rich Rodriguez would instead step in and coach for the bowl. With Bowden on the way out and one more game left, the Wave wanted more than anything to prove that the BCS had made a mistake.

On New Year’s Eve 1998, Tulane secured their only perfect season in school history. King rushed for a team-leading 109 yard and threw for another 276. Converse also eclipsed the 100-yard mark with 103. The Wave played nearly perfectly and handily downed the Cougars for their 12th and final win of the year. The 41-27 victory was more than just a Liberty Bowl triumph, though. It was a statement.

“We had something to prove today,” King said following the win. “I’d love to play Tennessee and I think it would be a good game.”

Four days later, the Volunteers claimed college football’s crowning achievement by beating Florida State in the first BCS championship. Tennessee and Tulane would finish as the nation’s only two undefeated schools.

University of Tennessee Volunteers
Tennessee beat Florida State 23-16 in the national championship.
Photo by Tennessee/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

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In the vast history of blunders by the NCAA, Tulane is not special... just one in a long line. What the team accomplished in ‘98, however, should not be marred by the errors of the BCS. That club is still regarded as the best in program history. No other Green Wave team has never lost a game. They were the first since 1949 to claim a conference title for the program. Their list of accomplishments is lengthy and impressive.

But think twice before looking down on UCF and their attitude toward the whole thing. They certainly aren’t the only ones to put their blood, sweat and tears into a championship-caliber season and have nothing to show for it. The innate flaw in the system, whatever it may be, the BCS or otherwise, is that there will always be speculation for those worthy teams not given the nod. Tennessee may well have beaten Tulane back in ‘98. Alabama easily could have dispatched the Knights a year ago. But the fact is we don’t know.

In the years following the Green Wave’s magical run, several teams have been wronged by the rankings and the committee. Oklahoma State was infamously left to wonder what could have been in 2007 while Alabama and LSU squared off for a title. As earlier discussed, UCF experienced the same displeasure (twice some could argue). Every year there’s always been a few teams that have a legitimate gripe; there always be as long as rankings determine a club’s fate.