Part 15 of a series: Over the next few weeks, I will be reviewing each of the 16 seasons since the Bowl Championship Series came into existence in 1998. Here is a look back at who got lucky, who got robbed, what could've been, what should've been and other controversies of the day. The series will appear throughout December and January.
Make no mistake, the BCS era did not destroy the Notre Dame brand.
Still the biggest name in college football, Notre Dame just signed the richest college apparel deal with Under Armour, worth $90 million over 10 years. Its exclusive TV contract with NBC will be running for 35 years when the current agreement expires in 2025. And in the fiscal year ending in June 2013, the school made about $20 million in revenue from its athletics programs, all of it from football.
But the championship trophy case under the watchful eyes of Touchdown Jesus remains unreplenished since 1988, when Notre Dame last won a national championship in football. And as the BCS era ended after the 2013 season, the Irish not only got a goose egg in terms of titles, but they didn't even have a single BCS bowl win to show for it.
Notre Dame had its last shot at BCS glory in the 2012 season, when third-year head coach Brian Kelly put together a talented roster that managed to negotiate a brutal regular-season schedule unscathed. But as further evidence that their football gravitas has seriously waned in the age of power conferences, the Irish needed all kinds of help to finally make it to the BCS title game.
What's the Most Underachieving Program in BCS Era?
Though they remained undefeated, for most of the second half of the season, the Irish were behind three other teams in the BCS standings, seemingly consigned to yet another BCS bowl and not a place in the BCS title game. But in a span of two weeks, that all changed.
First, Alabama lost to Texas A&M as America was formally introduced to the powers of Johnny Football. (Amazingly, the Tide dropped only three spots to No. 4 after the loss—now, that's gravitas.) Then, on the following Saturday, both Oregon and Kansas State fell in games they were heavily favored, opening the door for the Irish to ascend to No. 1.
Also, on that same day, USC's four-year starting quarterback, Matt Barkley, was knocked out by UCLA on a brutal hit, rendering him unavailable for the following week's game against Notre Dame. The Irish took full advantage as their defense, led by Heisman runner-up Manti Te'o, throttled the Trojans with a 22-13 victory, securing their first shot at a BCS championship.
But as we learned later, Te'o's fake girlfriend saga started to unravel in the intervening 50-plus days between the USC game and the BCS title game against Alabama. With their star linebacker a non-factor, the Irish were thoroughly outclassed as the Tide rolled to their second consecutive BCS title.
Notre Dame's bid to return to glory fell well short, as it finished the BCS era 0-4 in BCS bowl games. The Irish were the only program that came up winless among teams with at least three BCS bowl appearances, and they lost those four games by a staggering aggregate score of 158-57, never coming closer than two touchdowns in any of the losses.
Final BCS standings: 1. Notre Dame, 2. Alabama, 3. Florida, 4. Oregon, 5. Kansas State.
Likely four-team playoff: Notre Dame vs. Kansas State; Alabama vs. Stanford.
Despite having superior computer rankings, Florida and Oregon would've been left out because the three teams other than Notre Dame were all conference champions.
Another free pass for 'Bama: For the second year in a row, the Tide lost a game in November and never dropped out of the top four and returned to the top two within two weeks. Whereas the loss in 2011 was to No. 1 LSU, the 2012 loss was to two-loss Texas A&M, ranked outside of the top 10, at home.
Alabama was the beneficiary of an overwhelming media narrative of the SEC's superiority. With conference teams routinely taking up half of the top 10, any losses within the SEC would not be punished in the polls the same way as did teams from other conferences. Oregon lost in overtime to Stanford for its only loss of the season but would never get the same reprieve.
Did NIU Prove It Belonged in BCS Bowl Game?
Did Northern Illinois Belong?: For the first time, a non-AQ team qualified for a BCS bowl berth despite not going undefeated. Northern Illinois had an early-season loss to Iowa but then ran the table and won the MAC title. Still, the Huskies were a long shot to make a BCS bowl a week before the end of the season. At No. 21, they were five spots short of the top 16 qualifying threshold.
Then, a series of upsets, particularly Nebraska's blowout loss in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, opened the door for NIU, which finished at No. 15 in the final BCS standings. While a number of pundits derided their inclusion, the Huskies were ranked ahead of both the Big Ten and Big East (Louisville) champions.
NIU faced Florida State in the Orange Bowl, keeping the game close until two fourth-quarter FSU touchdowns made the final score 31-10. It was only the second loss by a non-AQ team against a BCS opponent, but the deceiving score would prove to have a negative impact on the Huskies the very next season.
|BCS Champ*||#2 Alabama 42, #1 Notre Dame 14||80,120||15.1|
|Rose Bowl||#6 Stanford 20, Wisconsin 14||93,359||9.4|
|Fiesta Bowl||#4 Oregon 35, #5 Kansas State 17||70,242||7.4|
|Sugar Bowl||#21 Louisville 33, #3 Florida 23||54,178||6.2|
|Orange Bowl||#12 Florida St. 31, #15 N. Illinois 10||72,073||6.1|
* Hosted by Orange Bowl
Final analysis: Alabama became the first team to win consecutive BCS titles, even though it lost a game in each of those two seasons. But the narrative has now been firmly shaped and only reinforced by the Tide's rout of the Irish.
It was the seventh consecutive BCS title for an SEC team, which now had nine BCS titles (in 15 years) without losing a game against non-SEC opponents. The Tide's dynasty also appeared to be working toward its zenith, with senior quarterback AJ McCarron returning for an unprecedented three-peat.
The end of the BCS era, though, was now in sight as a new postseason format came into focus. The crystal ball, the BCS standings and a way of life for college football were about to have one swan song season before being packed off to make way for the brilliantly named College Football Playoff.
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