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The Climb, Part XIII: Number One Comment Count

Dr. Sap January 8th, 2018 at 10:13 AM

[Ed-Seth: This being the 20th anniversary of the 1997 National Championship, Michigan historian Dr. Sap is taking us game-by-game through it. Previously: Those Who Stayed (Colorado); The Hit (Baylor); The Stop (Notre Dame); The Captain’s Down (Indiana); Vengeance (Northwestern), Gut Check (Iowa), Six Picks (Michigan State), The Trap (Minnesota), Judgment (Penn State), The Crucible (Wisconsin) No Flags (Ohio State), The GOAT (Heisman)]


Materials: Box Score, a TON of articles


On December 10, 1997, three days before the Heisman ceremony, an event occurred that mattered more to many football coaches than any outcome of any game that season: Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne announced his retirement. His #2 Huskers had finished the season undefeated, thanks notably to the “kick six” that saved an embarrassing loss to Missouri, whom they’d beat in overtime.

This was the last year of the bowl system that predated the BCS. Under that system four of the big conferences—the ACC, the SEC, the Big XII, and the Big East—had tried to organize a quasi-championship game by agreeing to put their best two teams in a rotation of the Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta Bowls. Noticeably absent from this agreement was the Big Ten and the Pac Ten, who were happy enough to send their champions to the “The Granddaddy of Them All,” thank you very much. This caused a lot of resentment: Not only had national championships been split too many times over the years because of the bowl alignments that didn’t match the best teams, but the Rose Bowl had cachet, history, and viewership that the rest of the games did not, and it didn’t seem right that two conferences could hog them all.

By Osborne’s retirement, this had finally been hashed out, and the BCS system would go into effect the following season. And once #2 Florida State was knocked off by Florida, a lot people wished Michigan could play Nebraska instead of Washington State.

Michigan was going to the Rose Bowl to face Ryan Leaf and the 10-1 Pac Ten champions of Washington State, who were just #8. While it was WSU’s first appearance in the Rose Bowl in almost 70 years, they weren’t exactly backing into this game. Even though some writers were saying that UCLA was the best team out west, WAZZU silenced their critics with upset victories over the Bruins as well as USC. The Cougars had the #2 offense in the country, and liked to spread the field by going five-wide, a matchup nightmare in an era when teams rarely had to play more than two cornerbacks in a game.

All things considered Michigan probably would have preferred to play the Huskers. Because Woodson didn’t need safety help the Wolverines would have been free to send a safety aggressively after the pitchman, and the Michigan interior defensive line would have been a steep upgrade over any competition Nebraska had yet faced. If you had to design the absolute worst possible matchup for the 1997 Huskers, the 1997 Wolverines wouldn’t be far off from the result.

Number 3 Tennessee, whom Nebraska would face because of the Bowl Alliance, was on the other hand a highly favorable matchup. Favorable and ominous in two respects: (1) The Cornhuskers would play a Top 5 opponent and (2) the Volunteers were overrated in ’97 thanks in part to their darling, senior QB who couldn’t win the big game (or the Heisman—tell your friends!). A Big Red victory seemed to be a sure thing. The question was just how big would the margin of victory be?

Towards the end of December, talk had started circulating that if Michigan barely beat Washington State and Nebraska throttled Tennessee there just might be a split in the voting for the National Championship. But folks back here in the Midwest wondered just how that could be possible? UM had a 69-1 margin (presumably Graham Couch) of 1st place votes over Nebraska in the AP (writers) Poll heading into the Rose Bowl and a 58-4 margin in the Coaches’. Even if the Wolverines struggled to defeat the Cougars, historically no #1 team that won its bowl game had ever dropped in one of the two major polls.

If you weren’t a coach with a grudge about the Heisman vote or the Husker quarterback’s mom or something there was no plausible reason to give Nebraska’s collection of favorable bounces versus mediocre competition the same respect as Michigan, who sat 11-0 versus one of the toughest schedules in the history of the game, and a hypothetical victory over YET ANOTHER top 10 team shouldn’t change that. And yet.

[After THE JUMP: A Leaf on the wind]




A word must be said about the Wazzu quarterback, since his pro career made his name synonymous with another word: “bust.” But before you can throw away brilliant expectations you have to set them that high in the first place, and going into the Rose Bowl, Leaf was pushing building quite a tower to fall from. Leaf in 1997 would throw for just short of 4,000 yards at 10 yards per attempt, and 34 touchdowns. He was the Pac Ten player of the year, a first-team All-American, and finished third in the Heisman voting behind Manning. For all of 1998 fans would debate which of these two quarterbacks would have the best pro career. Leaf would go #2 overall in the draft. But first he would have to face a defensive roster whose average NFL career would be longer than his own star-crossed future in the league.

As bad as the San Diego Chargers would be for Leaf, Wazzu under Mike Price was perfect for him. Price was the NCAA’s resident goofball, running his five-wide passing spread with as much irreverent gusto as he did everything else. John Niyo of The Detroit News captured Price while in Los Angeles for bowl week:

    "I'm not always as dignified and reverent as I should be. But (football) is a game. It's supposed to be fun. And that's what we've tried to make it every single year we've coached."
    The players have responded.
    "Everything I am is because of him," quarterback Ryan Leaf said of Price.
    "He's the ideal coach," lineman Jason McEndoo said.
    Price has endeared himself to his Cougars with his comedy, but also with his compassion. During Price's time at Washington State, the team has become a home for wayward athletes. Price has utilized walk-ons, Prop 48 players, even a convicted felon who has become a model citizen, thanks, in part, to Price.
    Said McEndoo: "He believes in the second chance. ... Some work out, some don't. ... But he's going to help you out until you step on his foot."



For Michigan twenty years ago, the National Title and Summit was not just a formality, it was their destiny to win it all and sit atop of the College Football World.

The hype and hoopla leading up to the game was classic and Washington State’s QB Ryan Leaf decided to poke the bear prior to the Rose Bowl. Leaf said that he would not shy away from throwing to Charles Woodson’s side of the field.

Woodson, never one to back down, looked forward to the opportunity.

"That's what I play for," said the junior Heisman Trophy Winner. "It's a good challenge. But I really don't know what Ryan is going to do. Whatever happens, I'll be ready for it, and our defense will be ready for it. But it's going to be a test for us."

The confident Cougar QB liked what his five wide receivers could do.

"I don't think there's any way you can stop them," Leaf said matter-of-factly, "Somebody's always going to be open."

The Washington pass-catchers even came up with a nickname for themselves – The Fab Five.

Woodson played it cool and paid respect to Washington State's highly regarded receiving corps when he said, "They're good receivers. They make plays after they catch the ball."

Then he made his jab, telling reporters "I only know of one 'Fab Five,' and that was Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson, Jimmy King and Jalen Rose."

Oh it was on!!

Cougars receiver Shawn McWashington caught wind of that comment, and called Woodson's bluff.

"I heard he didn't know who we were," said McWashington, a senior flanker. "But I looked him in the eye when I saw him the other night at the Lakers game, and he didn't need any introduction. I'm sure he's well aware of who we are, and what we're gonna do to 'em."

Michigan decided to end the hyperbole and silenced all the talk by releasing video of Woodson making another MSU-like-one-handed-interception in practice just days before the Rose Bowl tilt with Washington State.



When January 1st rolled around, Pasadena greeted the teams and fans to perfect weather.

Emotional leader & Co-Captain Eric Mayes suited up for this game.

Washington State won the coin toss and elected to receive thinking and wanting to score first, but Michigan’s D-Coordinator, Jim Herrmann had other plans. He wanted to dial up pressure and blitzes from all over the field. The Wolverines harassed and hit Leaf and forced him to make some early throws when his receivers weren’t open or ready for the ball.

When the Fab Five were open, they dropped some balls early in the game. They weren’t looking exactly fabulous to start the contest.

As Michigan prepared to take their first offensive snap of the game, the Cougars were penalized one timeout for an equipment infraction. Evidently, one of the Washington State defensive players, Ray Jackson, had been warned in the pre-game warm-up by the referee about having his pant legs too high and not having his knees covered up. When the game started, Jackson still had not corrected his equipment, so the Cougars got dinged one timeout for the oversight. To say WSU Coach Mike Price was livid would be an understatement.

When Michigan had the ball in the first quarter, the Cougar D-Line made it difficult to establish the running game. It was an eery similarity to many a Rose Bowl game where the vaunted Michigan running attacks of yesteryear found feet of clay in Pasadena.

This was a big, strong defensive front that would prove to be the toughest group Jon Jansen and company would face all year. I just kept thinking to myself back then, “Why does Michigan always seem to get into these games with great teams that no one has ever heard of?”

Much like his maize and blue QB counterparts before him, Brian Griese started slowly in this Rose Bowl Game. He made a very uncharacteristic low-percentage pass that was intercepted at the Washington State 37-yard line on the first UM possession. While it was for all intents and purposes a punt, it led to 7 points after Leaf hit Kevin McKenzie for a 15-yard TD pass. 

What I found interesting was that after Leaf threw his TD pass, he ran straight for the bench, pumping his fist in celebration, then he grabbed his ballcap and sat down. No celebrating with his receiver who caught the ball or the O-Line that blocked for him and gave him all that time to throw. Odd and not very team-oriented, was what I thought back then.

That’s how the 1st quarter ended – with Washington State up, 7-0, looking good and Michigan struggling to move the ball.

In the second quarter, Leaf had the Cougars marching toward another touchdown when lightening struck not once, but twice. Michael Black, the senior running back for WSU, injured his right calf muscle late in the first quarter and was ruled out for the rest of the game.

"I swung out of the backfield, and I could feel it rip," said Black, who led the Cougars with 1,157 yards rushing in 1997. "It felt like I'd broken my leg. I just couldn't run after that.”

It was a big loss for the Cougars, who not only relied on Black's quick, slashing running ability, but also missed (and needed) his leadership on the field.

Was it karma for all those injuries Michigan had suffered in previous Rose Bowls? Guys like OT Rich Strenger and QB Steve Smith who got injured in the 1983 Rose Bowl? Maybe.

"You take our best offensive player out of the game—and that's what he is—and it makes it hard to move the ball," said Leaf after the game.

The Cougars QB was now forced to pass almost exclusively. Jim Herrmann and Charles Woodson knew and saw that. Herrmann would now replace LB Sam Sword with another DB and Woodson was just waiting for Leaf to throw his way.

Woodson got his wish later in the 2nd quarter when Leaf rolled to his left and saw not one but two Washington State receivers in the endzone. As Leaf’s eyes got as big as saucers, he lofted a wobbly pass that was either too high for the receiver near the front of the endzone or too short for the receiver at the back of the endzone. For the Heisman winner, it was just right.

As the crowd erupted in celebration, Woodson gathered himself, got up and pointed to the heavens as if he was acknowledging the super-human effort it just took to pull off that incredible interception.

Photo courtesy: Julian H. Gonzalez / Detroit Free Press

In that instant, Woodson had woken up the fans and once again his entire team and coaching staff.

Later in the 2nd quarter, Michigan decided to throw the ball deep and test the Cougars secondary. That’s when Brian Griese hit Tai Streets for a 53-yard TD pass and all of a sudden, players not named Charles Woodson were making plays on offense.

With the score tied at 7-7 at the half, there was hope—sort of. Yes, Michigan was 0-5 on 3rd downs and had only gained 22 yards rushing the ball, but you just had this sense that if Michigan could keep completing passes downfield they might loosen up the Washington State defense just enough to get the running game going. If that happened, you knew the defense was going to stay strong and close out this game and this season. Maybe.

In the 3rd quarter, a Michigan punt pinned Washington State down at their own 1-yard line. It looked like the Wolverines would get great field position but Leaf directed the Cougars on a 99-yard scoring drive that culminated with a 14-yard TD reverse by wide receiver Michael Tims. Just when the collective maize and blue hearts had all sunk, James Hall blocked the extra point attempt and now things didn’t look so bad, only being down 13-7.

On the ensuing drive, Mike DeBord finally listened to me, and decided it was time to throw deep and back off the Cougar defense. Tai Streets, whose broken and dislocated fingers were now healed, hauled in a 58-yard touchdown strike from Brian Griese. Kraig Baker’s extra point gave the Wolverines a 14-13 lead and just like that, the game had a decided maize and blue complexion. Things were looking up!

As the Michigan offense started to assert itself and wear down the Cougar D in the 4th quarter, DeBord masterfully called for the patented Griese-to-Jerame Tuman-waggle play. The play covered 23 yards and hit paydirt one last time to give the Wolverines a commanding 21-13 lead. Oh and by the way, on each of his three TD passes, Griese ran to the endzone each time to celebrate with his teammates. Just sayin’…

After a 48-yard field goal by Washington State cut the Wolverine lead to 21-16, Michigan got the ball with 7:25 remaining in the 4th quarter. With a chance to ice the game and finish off the season in grand style, the Wolverines ran 16 plays, converted four third-downs, and took 6:56 off the clock. It was Michigan’s best drive of the season. It was also epic and utterly terrifying:

hodor hodor hodor

Now Lloyd Carr had a decision to make: kick a 47-yard field goal and go up by 8 points, or pin the Cougars deep and let the defense win the game, and the National Championship for you?

With Brian Griese kneeling for the placement, kicker Kay Feely came in a pooch-punted down to the WSU 7-yard line with 29 seconds remaining in the game. With the #1 defense in the country wearing maize and blue, it was the right decision to make.

True to UM’s horrible luck in the Rose Bowl, Ryan Leaf connected with Nian Taylor for a 46-yard gain only after Taylor had clearly pushed Woodson out of the way. As the play unfolded in front of him, the side-judge pulled the flag out of his pocket, moved it to his other hand and then didn’t throw it.

After a Hook-and-Lateral play got the ball down to the UM 16-yard line, Washington State hurriedly ran to the line of scrimmage to snap/spike the ball with just 2 seconds showing on the clock.

All I could think of was, “Is this really happening? Hadn’t we as Michigan fans been victimized enough? Wasn’t Charles White’s Phantom Touchdown in 1979 enough? Will the first National Championship opportunity in 50 years be taken away by a call that never was made?”

Then Leaf spiked the ball, the clocked showed double zeroes and confusion and chaos ensued.



"I'd hate to be the guy that had to make that call," Leaf said diplomatically after the game. "It's a tough position to be in, it was so loud, there was so much confusion. I don't think the official who set the ball down heard the whistle to start the clock, so he didn't get out of the way in time."

Mike Price made it clear that he wasn't happy about the call afterward.

"It doesn't take two seconds to snap the ball and down it," Price said. "I mean, I thought we had two seconds—you know, 'one Mississippi, two Mississippi,' but I guess not."

Bruce Fitzpatrick, a professor at El Camino College who had been the official timer at the Rose Bowl since 1978, recalled the two-second frenzy at the end of the 1998 Rose Bowl as "one of those hairline things you see every once in a while in football."

Fitzpatrick, who was tethered to an on-field position on the south 25-yard-line on the east side of the stadium—the Washington State side opposite the press box—said that, while all the action was going away from him toward the north end zone, he was "fixated" on referee Dick Burleson, who was making the signals that allowed Fitzpatrick to start and stop the clock.

"It looked to me like Washington State knew exactly what to do once the first down was made and the clock was stopped to move the chains," Fitzpatrick said. "They hurried down the field to get in position, because they knew that the referee would start the clock again when the chains were set.

"I watched closely. I was fixated on Burleson. That is my job. Once the chains were set and the ball was placed, Washington State seemed ready. Burleson was in his position in the backfield, to the right of the quarterback, and when he gave the signal the quarterback couldn't see him without turning to look over his shoulder. So maybe they lost a split second there.

"When I saw the signal, I started the clock. After the snap and the spike, Burleson didn't signal for the clock to stop. He made kind of a gesture that said to me that it was all over. So I never pushed the button to stop it.

"But in my considered opinion, and that's all this is, is an opinion, had the quarterback just tapped the center on the butt and got a quick snap, I think he would have made it (in time to run one last play)."

Fitzpatrick, part of a game-management team directed by Kevin Ash and a crew from USC that has handled the Rose Bowl for many years, said that the officials handled everything well.

"The ref was absolutely correct in what he did," Fitzpatrick said. "I spent time with him and the crew the day before the game, and he was very careful and very professional about telling all the people involved with timing exactly what he wanted."

Fitzpatrick said that there was a further indication that the now infamous final two seconds of the 1998 Rose Bowl were managed correctly by all -- except perhaps Washington State.

"There is a backup timer on the field right with me, a man named Bob Knouse," Fitzpatrick said. "He does the entire game with a hand-held clock, just in case the scoreboard clock goes down. That happened twice this year in other games in the Rose Bowl.

"When it ended…like it did with those last two seconds, I turned to Bob and asked if he had run out of time on his clock. He said, 'Yes, it's over.' "



Michigan’s Frank Beckmann said it best when he bellowed on the radio, “Michigan has finally realized its destiny and won the National Championship!!!”

As the celebration continued on the field, Brian Griese was voted the MVP of the game. He finished the game completing 18 of 30 passes for 251 yards with 3 TDs and 1 INT. It was a storybook ending to not only a magical season but an unheard of journey for the former walk-on QB from Florida.

"A lot of people think Brian Griese can't throw the ball deep, and he proved he can," Coach Lloyd Carr said. "He has been underrated all season, and there's no way I would trade Brian Griese for anyone."

Griese proved late in the game why his coaches and teammates praised his poise all season.

"Brian Griese in the second half is what Brian Griese has done all season," said Mike DeBord, U-M's offensive coordinator.

On the podium, as Lloyd Carr accepted the Rose Bowl Championship Trophy, Woodson exclaimed, “We did it baby!”

They certainly had!

In closing, I will leave you with Brian Griese’s comments after the game:

"I will cherish this day, this game, this university for the rest of my life. You have opportunities in your life, and the people who stand out are the people who make the most of their opportunities. We had an opportunity today. In the past 50 years, no Michigan football team had won a national championship, and this was an opportunity for us. There's no way I could comprehend what we've done. It's something I guess will hit you after a while."

After the game, The Victors never sounded better:



With Nebraska triumphing over Tennessee as expected, it was now up to the pollsters. In Ann Arbor, ironically, concern was more about the fickle AP than the coaches. Writers might be tempted to forget a season’s worth of football in the face of a close outcome to a Top 10 team versus a blowout in a #2 vs. #3 game, but surely the professionals would stand with Michigan when there was absolutely no football case to be made for Nebraska. In truth, most sportswriters take their jobs far more seriously than they’re given credit for, and a high number of college football coaches would absolutely use a final poll vote to settle petty grievances, or give a friend a retirement gift.

Here's how the top five voting of each poll shook out after the Bowl games were played (one AP writer split his ballot between the top two):

AP (Writers) Poll

    1. Michigan: 12-0; 1,731 ½ Points (51 ½ 1st Place Votes)
    2. Nebraska: 13-0; 1,698 ½ Points (18 ½ 1st Place Votes)
    3. Florida State: 11-1; 1,599 Points
    4. Florida: 10-2; 1,455 Points
    5. UCLA: 10-2; 1,413 Points

USA Today/ESPN (Coaches) Poll

    1. Nebraska: 13-0; 1,520 Points (32 1st Place Votes)
    2. Michigan: 12-0; 1,516 Points (30 1st Place Votes)
    3. Florida State: 11-1; 1,414 Points
    4. North Carolina: 11-1; 1,292 Points
    5. UCLA: 10-2; 1,239 Points


Heading into the Bowl games, 70 writers voted in the AP poll. All except one, David Lanier of the Hattisburg (Miss.) American, had the Wolverines #1. After the bowl games, there were 17 writers that changed their minds, leaving the Wolverines on top by a 51 ½ - 18 ½ mark in first-place votes. (One writer must have voted Michigan and Nebraska both #1, thus the ½ vote.) But Lanier continued to believe, as he had all season, that the Cornhuskers were the #1 team. Nothing changed his mind after Nebraska crushed Tennessee 42-17 in Friday's Orange Bowl.


Prior to the Bowls, Michigan was #1 in the country in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll as well. There were 62 coaches that voted in that poll. What made at least 23 coaches change their mind after the Orange Bowl? Was it because Nebraska looked so impressive in their Orange Bowl victory over Tennessee? Was it because Michigan didn’t lobby for votes after the Rose Bowl? The Wolverines felt they didn’t need to. Michigan had won all their games and were Champions of the West, once again. Question was: would they be the Champions of the South and the Midwest?

Contrary to rumor, Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer voted Michigan #2. Speculation had been rampant that Fulmer, whose Volunteers lost to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, was the one coach who voted the Wolverines fourth in the coaches' poll that gave Nebraska a share of the national title.

"I absolutely did not do that," Fulmer said by phone from California where he was preparing to coach the East-West game. "That's the truth of it. Michigan is one of the best two, and I played, I thought, the best one."

Fulmer said he voted Nebraska #1, Michigan #2 and Florida State #3.

So what happened?

We know that Michigan finished with 1,516 points in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll. Michigan received 30 first-place votes, worth 750 points. If the other 32 coaches voted Michigan #2, that would have been worth 768 additional points, for a total of 1,518 -- two points more than the Wolverines' actual total. That means either one coach voted Michigan fourth or two voted Michigan third.

The coach in question did it by refusing to list Michigan on either the first or second line of his final ballot, throwing into question the credibility of every ballot cast alongside it.

How do I know for sure? It’s all in the math. In the poll, 62 coaches rank the teams from #1 to #25. A first-place vote is worth 25 points, a second-place vote is worth 24 points, and so on.

Nebraska received 1,520 points, with 32 first-place votes accounting for 800 of the total (32 x 25 = 800 points). The only way the Huskers could have received their remaining 720 points is if every one of the 30 coaches who voted Michigan #1 also voted Nebraska #2 (30 x 24 = 720 points).

Michigan received a total of 1,516 points. Multiply 30 first-place votes by 25 and you get 750 points. Now, if all 32 coaches who voted Nebraska #1 turned around and voted Michigan #2, that would have given the Wolverines another 768 points, or a total of 1,518. So the two points less they actually received means one coach either dropped them to #4, or two coaches put them third.

Earlier in the 1997 season, it was considered almost funny when Penn State coach Joe Paterno revealed a few days after losing to Michigan that a staff member mistakenly cast his ballot without putting the Wolverines at #1. After the Bowl games, my guess is that some coach did it on purpose. There was nothing “funny” about this ballot.

When asked back in 1998, Ohio State Coach John Cooper was livid about accusations that he was the one who voted Michigan lower than second in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll.

"I can tell you right flat that John Cooper did not vote Michigan #3 or #4," said Cooper.

"I put (Michigan and Nebraska) both first, and I made Florida State #3. There, I put my vote on the table."

Ok. So if it wasn’t Coop, who was it?? Unfortunately, I have not been able to find that out.  ☹

I do know these facts:

  1. Nebraska trailed Central Florida, in Lincoln, at the half before squeaking out a 38-24 victory. Central Florida finished 5-6.

  2. Nebraska barely hung on to beat Colorado, 27-24, in Boulder. Colorado finished 5-6.

  3. Nebraska needed the “Kick-Six” play to defeat Missouri in overtime. Missouri finished 7-5.

  4. Michigan defeated six ranked teams -- at the time each game was played -- to Nebraska's three.

  5. Michigan crushed #2 Penn State by a bigger margin than Nebraska defeated #3 Tennessee or #2 Washington.


Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne: "I'm really pleased for the University of Michigan, strangely enough. I have respect for both polls. It's just sad we're still dealing with polls. You wish there was just one, or a playoff."

Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr: "We're delighted to be honored by the Associated Press as National Champions, and that's all I really want to say. Obviously, Nebraska has a great football team. But I also think we've played a tremendous schedule. I'm not a playoff proponent. I don't think there's any way in our sport you can do (a playoff) and determine a true national champion. I know there's a lot of people who want to see that happen, but I think there will always be controversy."

Tennessee's Phil Fulmer said he would vote Nebraska #1 in the coaches' poll.

Washington State Coach Mike Price: "Michigan's the best team in the nation. I'm voting for them No. 1."

Mike Lopresti, Gannett News Service: "This vote is for Michigan. The Big Ten was still as good as the Big 12. Probably better. Nebraska needed divine intervention, and overtime, to survive against Missouri. That could almost be counted as half a loss. Michigan never had a game like that, never needed such astounding luck. It is a difference. If a team is to be judged by looking at its season as a whole -- which rankings are supposed to do -- Missouri must be a factor.”

John Adams, The Knoxville News-Sentinel: "If you still think Michigan is #1, you didn't see what hit Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. It was big and red and hell-bent on proving that Michigan was the second-best team in the country. Michigan State beat Penn State worse than Michigan did. Ohio State was no match for Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. Yes, Michigan held on to beat Washington State in the Rose Bowl, but Nebraska overwhelmed a better opponent in the Orange Bowl."

Nebraska tackle Jason Peter challenged Michigan to a game the following Saturday in the backyard of his New Jersey residence. "If you guys want to go there," he told the media, "no problem."

Nebraska safety Eric Warfield: "We proved we've got the best team by far. We couldn't show it any better.”

Nebraska's Sheldon Jackson: "I believe in my heart we're the better team. We'll play them any place, any time. We'll play them in Ann Arbor right now."

Michigan safety Marcus Ray: "We earned it. We held onto the #1 spot, something Nebraska didn't do, something Florida couldn't do, something Penn State couldn't do."

Michigan co-captain Jon Jansen: "It doesn't matter anymore. We're very happy with our season. We felt we played the toughest schedule in the country and we won all our games. We couldn't have done any more than we did. ... We think we're the best team, but we'll never know how a game against Nebraska would turn out."



In addition to winning the AP Writers Poll National Championship Trophy in 1997, Michigan also was awarded The National Football Foundation Hall of Fame’s MacArthur Bowl for the nation's most outstanding football team in 1997. The Wolverines also received the Grantland Rice Trophy from the Football Writers Association of America, signifying college football's national champion for 1997. As Eric Mayes said, “There are three of the four National Championship trophies here today. You do the math!”



January 8th, 2018 at 10:30 AM ^

…were very prescient:  “I don't think there's any way in our sport you can do (a playoff) and determine a true national champion. I know there's a lot of people who want to see that happen, but I think there will always be controversy.”

I think controversy regarding the football NC will always exist.


January 8th, 2018 at 10:55 AM ^

am not a fan of the College Football Playoff.  There is still too much subjectivity to the determinations, but it is recognized as completely legitimate for the sole reason that there are "brackets" involved.   The Playoff is again a half-measure.  I would have preferred just a plus-1 to the BCS system or just scraping the whole thing and letting voters go at it again.  The NC game tonight does not even register to me, really.  Some of that has to do with regional bias and that my team is not in it, but another part of it is that to me college football ended last Monday.  It is college basketball season now.


January 8th, 2018 at 1:03 PM ^

You guys aren't thinking big enough.


Bowls used to have meaning.  In Schembechler's first 6 years as coach we only went to two bowl games and finished top 10 every season.


With nearly 40 bowls they aren't as special as they once were.  Even in 1997 there were only 20 bowl games so you could argue they were still "special" then.


Since bowl games aren't special anymore, and sorry but the tournament of roses has sold out to the "BCS Properties LLC" which owns the college football playoff, we need to get the NCAA to come up with a playoff.


I say make it 16 teams each conference champion gets an autobid(regular season integrity is maintained) and conferences are free to determine their champion anyway they want, with a championship game or just by using tie breakers after the regular season to give their teams a break.  Then take the next 6 best teams.  


10 Autobids: UCF, Clemson, Ohio St, Oklahoma, FAU, Toledo, Boise St, Southern Cal, Georgia, App St or Troy (The Sun Belt would have to produce a champion somehow I don't care how they do it).

6 At Large (Going off of the final CFP poll): Alabama(11-1), Wisconsin(12-1), Auburn(10-3), Penn St(10-2), Miami(10-2), Washington(10-2).


First 4 missing the playoff: Stanford(9-4), Notre Dame(9-3), TCU(10-3), Michigan St(9-3)  


Here is how I approximated the seeding using the CFP poll as guide.  I like the idea of first round being on campus. 


1 Clemson vs 16 (App St/Troy Sun Belt please give us a single champion)

8 Southern California vs 9 Penn St

5 OSU vs 12 UCF

4 Alabama vs 13 Boise St

3 Georgia vs 14 FAU

6 Wisconsin vs 11 Washington

7 Auburn vs 10 Miami

2 Oklahoma vs 15 Toledo






January 8th, 2018 at 3:32 PM ^

The reason it works in the lower divisions is becuase they play fewer season games (10 in D3, 11 in D2) and there are no conference championship games. That's two weeks worth of games removed so they can fit in a tourney at the end and still have it wrapped up by the first week of January. 

The conference championship games are not going away. Too much money involved and too big of conferences. 

That means needing to cut the regular season games to 10. In a league like the B1G where they play 9 conference games, that means only one non-conference game to fill out the schedule. Schools are not going to give up two home games a year to make the playoffs happen. It does not work financialy. 


January 9th, 2018 at 11:38 AM ^

Bump the conference championships to thanksgiving weekend.  Then a 16 team playoff would take 4 weeks.  Give them the first week of december off to arrange logistics and then the finals would be the 2nd weekend of january.


I'm ok with 2 fbs teams playing 16 games, and 4 teams playing 15 games or more with the rest playing 14 or less.


With a 16 team playoff I could see teams deciding to forfeit or at least sit starters in conference championships games if they are in the top 8 as they'd likely make the at large pool win or lose.


I did an analysis a few weeks back and every single conference championship game participant ended up being ranked higher than 16 in the final cfp poll going back to 2014.  Obviously if all G5 conferences get autobids that gets tricky.


January 8th, 2018 at 3:08 PM ^

The egregious pass interference call forever angers me. It was clear and obvious and the ref pulled his flag. How he changed his mind I will never know.

I have often wondered if that call allowed enough confusion over the spike that it may have cost us the split. Many voters saw a close controversial ending that never should have happened.

And fucking Nebraska won on a kicked ball.

And fuck Winey Scott Frost.

And any coach slottting Michigan lower than 2nd should have lost his privileges.


January 8th, 2018 at 10:36 AM ^

write up.

FYI, the hook and lateral took to just inside the Michigan 27 yard like, not the 16.  It would have been pretty close a full Hail Mary on the next play to score.  Not like a Colorado Hail Mary, but basically just a chuck it and hope against like 6 d-backs.


January 8th, 2018 at 10:43 AM ^

You have to wonder how immature, petty and sad one has to be in order to so obviously attempt to sabotage all the hard work a bunch of 18 to 22 year olds put in to a game.

Did not realize that Fulmer was not that person. Interesting.


January 8th, 2018 at 11:09 AM ^

Fantastic. That was my (5th year) senior year which made it all extra special.

I could list dozens of memories from that season. But one that sticks out is the day we arrived at the Rose Bowl NYE day to trade our vouchers for a game ticket we walked by a group of Wazzou female students. I’ll never forget one asked another “are we playing Michigan or Michigan State?”. I took that as a slap in the face and was also dumbfounded as I assumed everyone knew the difference between a school with the most wins ever, best fight song, biggest stadium, best uniforms, #1 ranking, and Heisman winner....and MSU.

Other Andrew

January 8th, 2018 at 5:41 PM ^

(B, I still vivdly remember you pointing out the ref with the OPI flag in his hand later that day. I couldn't believe it.)

When friends told me I had to go, I was easily convinced. Six months after graduation meant student-tickets were not feasible, and I tried every available avenue to get them to no avail. I made the trip anyway.

Long story short, I unkowingly ended up a with an (after a brief examination obviously) fake ticket and hardly any remaining money. But I was able to use it to enter the stadium, duck security, and bounce from open seat to open seat until I finally found one where the person did not return.

So it was a triumphant day all around. Great write-up, Sap. This season hasn't worked out so well, but it's a good excuse to remember the best one we've had. Thanks so much for this series.


January 8th, 2018 at 11:45 AM ^

At the time, I thought WSU and Leaf could argue they got hosed, and was frankly impressed with Leaf and his mature response regarding the 2 seconds and the end of game... anyone else may have went apeshit and bitched... but he didn't... and after that, I thought he'd be a better pro than Manning... and oddly enough, despite Leaf's very mature reaction and good sportsmanship to the end of that game, he turned out to be sublimely immature, and melted down in the pros...   it still seems so queer, how polar opposite those two things were...

Wolverine 73

January 8th, 2018 at 11:47 AM ^

I had forgotten some of those details, but not the incredible luck Nebraska needed to win the Missouri game. I agree with the writer who said that’s in effect a half loss. Add to that the blatant offensive PI against Woodson that was not called and made the Rose Bowl seem closer than it was, and I could never comprehend how anyone could have voted for Nebraska. Except for the Tennessee coach who was still upset his choke artist didn’t get the Heisman. And the guys who wanted to give Osbourne a farewell present.

Who was the MSU coach at the time? Wonder if he dropped Michigan to fourth?

Roy G. Biv

January 8th, 2018 at 11:49 AM ^

The most enduring image emblazoned in my mind from that game was the blatant OPI with the ref taking his flag out, then putting it back.  The young kids miffed with officials nowadays never had to live with Rose Bowls from the 70s and 80s.  Getting boned on the biggest stage hurts . . . a lot.  The OPI, Charles White's fumble, and punt return TD phantom hold all deserve a special place in hell.

Cosmic Blue

January 8th, 2018 at 11:49 AM ^

Wait... he didnt cost us the coaches poll? I've been saying F--- that guy for years because of that.

Also, based on the voting details you showed, even if whoever had voted us 4th, put us 2nd, we still would have been down 2 votes.... so why do i remember this being such a huge deal?


January 8th, 2018 at 12:53 PM ^

People thought if one coach viewed Michigan as not the #1 or #2 team in the country, then the whole poll isn't worth the light of day? That it was obviously a coaches conspiracy? Idk for sure. 

Personally I'm glad they split. Two undefeated teams, two power conferences, didn't get to settle it on the field. Every single AP voter and coach should have voted Michigan #1, Nebraska #1, Florida St. #3. 

Other Andrew

January 8th, 2018 at 5:44 PM ^

I had always heard it was Fulmer, and didn't realize he denied it, not that he's the most honest man in football of course.

But yes, even if the coach who voted M 4th had voted them 2nd, the end result would not have changed. It was just unbelivable and infuriating that someone would do that.

Gulo Gulo Luscus

January 8th, 2018 at 2:30 PM ^

Excellent finish to this series. Thank you, Dr. Sap!

One minor note - the "kick six" term works but that now belongs to Auburn's incredible returned FG to beat Alabamain the 2013 Iron Bowl. The Nebraska play has gone down in history as the "flea kicker." For those who may not be familiar with these legendary college football plays: at at


January 9th, 2018 at 12:18 PM ^

Awesome.  I remember every minute of it.

People don't realize how innovative and scary the WSU offense was at the time with 5 recievers and an empty backfield.  That was unheard of at the time.  SI had a multi-page write up analysis of it before the game, just to explain it to people.

Holding that offense - which was regularly hanging 40+ points on teams - to 16 points was one of the most underrated performances of all time.