Last Saturday couldn't have gone much differently for Florida State and Notre Dame. The Seminoles cruised past Wake Forest, 59-3, to move to 9-0 and remain in control of their national title destiny. The Irish saw most of their season goals go by the wayside in an ugly 28-21 loss to 4-4 Pittsburgh to fall to 7-3. Two teams who started the season ranked just one spot apart in the USA Today Coaches' Poll could not be in more different positions.
Twenty years ago Wednesday, however, the two programs came together on one of the biggest stages in college football history. That Saturday was more than just a classic game between the two best teams in the nation in 1993. It also helped turn a pregame show with a niche audience of football diehards into a national phenomenon.
After falling a missed field goal against Miami (FL) short of playing for national titles in 1991 and 1992, head coach Bobby Bowden and Florida State entered 1993 believing that this would be the Seminoles' year. After all, Florida State began the season ranked No. 1 and was led by Heisman Trophy candidate Charlie Ward.
Bowden had built the Seminoles program through strong scheduling, frequently taking road games without a return trip to Tallahassee. 1993 was no different—Florida State's third as a member of the ACC after years as an independent. In addition to eight conference games, the Seminoles would face Florida (away), Miami (home) and Notre Dame (away) as part of its non-conference schedule.
The Hurricanes had played for the national title in 1992 while Florida was the defending SEC East champion. The easiest of those three games was seemingly Florida State's first strip to South Bend in 12 years to face a Notre Dame team that, despite finishing 10-1-1 in 1992, had lost quarterback Rick Mirer and running back Jerome Bettis to the NFL. Making matters worse, prized freshman quarterback Ron Powlus was lost for the season with a broken collarbone, which left the offense in the hands of senior Kevin McDougal.
Florida State rolled through the early portion of its schedule, never coming close to relinquishing its place atop the polls. The ACC was no match for the Seminoles. Even No. 3 Miami couldn't challenge them, falling 28-10 in Tallahassee to snap a regular-season winning streak that dated back to a 1990 loss to, of all teams, Notre Dame. Florida State allowed just 58 points on its way to a 9-0 start.
Notre Dame limped past perennial punching bag Northwestern in its opener, an ominous sign given the quarterback situation and with its usual daunting schedule ahead. But something unexpected happened. The Irish won the next week at No. 3 Michigan. Then won again. Then kept winning the whole way through September and October to find themselves all the way up to No. 2 in the polls, a spot behind Florida State.
Nov. 13, 1993, was about to take on a life of its own. At that time, Florida State was what Oregon is today—the program that rose from nowhere to national prominence, and a perennial Top Five team that was still in search of that elusive national championship. The Seminoles traveling to South Bend would be the 2013 equivalent of the Ducks visiting Alabama.
Most college football seasons have their version of the "Game of the Century", but 1993 was different. This was the nouveau riche of college football against its most storied brand. This was a clash of cultures, belief, weather. This was simply bigger than the rest.
Taking notice of all of this was a 14-year-old cable sports network called ESPN, whose Saturday morning College GameDay pregame show, in its seventh season, had begun to become to college football fans what CBS' The NFL Today was to pro fans.
Chris Fowler, 31 years old, was what Brent Musburger was to The NFL Today—the pilot. Former SMU star Craig James was the former player, a la Irv Cross. Longtime coach Lee Corso played the crazy uncle, much like Jimmy The Greek. The show was just seven years old, so eventually matching the success of The NFL Today seemed attainable.
But college football was different from pro football. It was more than just what went on between the white lines. It was picturesque campuses flooded with students, fans and alumni. It was cheerleaders. It was tailgating. Sundays were games, but Saturdays were events.
Those at ESPN understood that and chose to use the showdown in South Bend as the launching point of what has become a 20-year tradition: GameDay road shows. The show had been to a few bowl games before, but never to a regular-season game on a college campus.
GameDay at the time wasn't the three-hour marathon that it is today. In 1993, it was a one-hour show running from 11:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. Not having yet become the Saturday morning institution that it is today, there was no need to plan for droves of fans to attend, so the set was placed inside Notre Dame's Joyce Center, the basketball arena located right beside Notre Dame Stadium. A few hundred people lined the corridors of the Joyce Center to witness a landmark moment in sports television history.
Corso made his first ever "headgear" prediction at the close of the show, donning a Florida State hat and calling for his alma mater to defeat Notre Dame, 31-30, the same score by which the Irish had defeated No. 1 Miami five years earlier en route to the national title.
ESPN wasn't the only television network to recognize and capitalize on the enormity of the Seminoles-Irish clash. NBC, which was in its third year broadcasting all Notre Dame home games, produced this Bob Costas-narrated introduction for its telecast (Warning: You'll have goosebumps). You'd be hard pressed to find a more moving introduction to a sporting event—certainly not in today's era, in which rapper Eminem now leads us in to the marquee game each week.
The game itself? It lived up to the hype. The six-point favorite Seminoles struck first, as Ward found Kevin Knox for a 12-yard touchdown. The second quarter belonged to the home team, as the Irish ran off 21 straight points on three rushing touchdowns to take a 14-point lead into the locker room.
Florida State fought back in the second half, cutting a three-score deficit to a single touchdown on a pass from Ward to Warrick Dunn. Notre Dame answered, as two-way star Jeff Burris put the Irish up 31-17 with Notre Dame's fourth rushing touchdown midway through the final quarter.
Ward had some magic left, again closing the Seminoles to within seven with just over two minutes to play. A quick stop and a partially blocked punt gave Florida State one last chance, but the 'Noles found themselves needing 14 yards with time remaining for just one play.
Rolling left, Ward's final heave was knocked down by Shawn Wooden. Notre Dame 31, Florida State 24. Notre Dame Stadium reached a level of pandemonium that it hadn't seen since that famous victory over Miami in the "Catholics vs. Convicts" game in 1988.
While a loss to Boston College a week later would cost Notre Dame the national title, the events of that Saturday remain a treasure chest of memories for Irish fans. They also were the start of a love affair for all college football fans with a simple pregame show.
As different as their 2013 seasons have been, Florida State and Notre Dame will be forever intertwined by a perfect storm of circumstances that made Nov. 13, 1993, a day that won't soon be forgotten in the annals of college football.