NCAA FOOTBALL TOP MOMENTS – #5: The 1994 Orange Bowl Produced A Classic

Sliding in at #5 on our list is the 1993 Orange Bowl, which decided the national championship at the end of a spectacular college football season. It was played between preseason favorite Florida State and perennial powerhouse Nebraska, and it was an absolute classic, featuring elite defense, no lead of more than eight points, and a spectacular finish. 

Florida State entered the year as the preseason #1 in the AP Poll, and the Seminoles justified the ranking with their level of play in the early stages of the season. They slaughtered Kansas and Duke, 42-0 and 45-7, to start the year. After that, Florida State took on consecutive ranked opponents and hardly broke a sweat, dismantling #17 Clemson 57-0, and travelling to #13 North Carolina and emerged with a 33-7 victory. After a 51-0 drubbing of Georgia Tech, the Seminoles had a glistening 5-0 record, having given up just two touchdowns. They hosted #3 Miami the following week in a huge rivalry contest, but the Hurricanes simply could not match their in-state rivals, as Florida State cruised once more, winning 28-10. They then massacred #15 Virginia by 26 points before dismantling another pair of unranked opponents. 

That led the Seminoles into the Game of the Century against #2 Notre Dame. It was by far their toughest test of the season to date, as the Irish jumped all over the Seminoles, leading 24-7 in the fourth quarter. Florida State cut it to 31-24, but they could not complete the comeback, suffering a loss that seemingly destroyed their national championship hopes. However, the following week, Notre Dame suffered an upset loss to Boston College, and Florida State throttled NC State, returning the Seminoles to the #1 ranking. They finished up their season with a 33-21 rivalry victory over Florida, clinching a spot in the Orange Bowl, which would decide the national championship. 

Meanwhile, Nebraska had been a perennial power under head coach Tom Osborne, accumulating a 195-46-3 record over 20 seasons. Despite his stunningly consistent success, Osborne had not yet won a national title with the Cornhuskers, getting as high as #2, but never climbing the last step. In ‘93, Nebraska started the year at #8, and they slapped 76 points on the scoreboard in their opening victory over North Texas, then another 50 on Texas Tech. They were held to 14 points at UCLA, but they held on for a 14-13 victory in Pasadena. They followed it up with victories over Colorado State, Oklahoma State, a ranked Kansas State team, and Missouri. 

The Cornhuskers, sitting at 7-0 and #6 in the country, travelled to Colorado for their toughest contest of the regular season, taking on the #20 Buffaloes and holding off a late surge from the hosts to win 21-17. Nebraska may have breathed too big a sigh of relief, and they nearly suffered a shocker at Kansas the following week, scraping by 21-20. After that the Cornhuskers put up 49 points on Iowa State and then held #16 Oklahoma to seven to complete an undefeated regular season. While they didn’t win with the same style as Florida State did for most of the year, the results were still there, as they ended the year 11-0 and advanced to the Orange Bowl to fight for the national championship. 

The game took place on January 1, 1994, a year after the same two teams had competed in the Orange Bowl, albeit with far less on the line. The Seminoles had won that one, 27-14, and they entered this contest as massive favorites, with some lines rising as high as 17 ½ points. However, the game was anything but a blowout. Both teams featured spectacular offenses, and the Seminoles were considered to have the better defense, but both defensive units rose to the occasion. 81,536 roaring fans flocked to Miami for the contest, and despite the Seminoles having a massive home-field advantage, neither team notched a point in the first quarter. In what was an indication of things to come, Florida State kicker Scott Bentley booted a field goal for the first points of the game in the second quarter. Bentley added another field goal, but it was only after Nebraska quarterback Tommy Frazier delivered a 25-yard touchdown pass, sending the Cornhuskers to the locker room up 7-6 in a defensive duel. 

Florida State would regain the lead in the third quarter when running back William Floyd bullied into the end zone from a yard out, but the ensuing 2-point conversion failed, keeping the lead at 12-7. Bentley drilled yet another field goal to increase the lead to eight, but the game was hardly over as the two teams played into the fourth quarter.

Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips cut into the advantage, sprinting for a 12-yard touchdown run, but the attempted game-tying conversion was short, and Nebraska remained down by two points. They then held the Seminoles in check, and drove deep into Florida State territory. The Cornhuskers got to the 10-yard line, but they could not advance further. Byron Bennett nailed a 27-yarder, and Nebraska led 16-15, with 1:16 remaining. However, Heisman winner and FSU quarterback Charlie Ward engineered a fantastic drive that culminated in Bentley kicking one more field goal with 21 seconds left. It would be the game-winner, but not without a dose of drama first. 

An excessive celebration penalty on FSU plus a good kickoff return allowed Nebraska to set up shop on their own 43-yard line, albeit with very little time to work with. Frazier connected with tight end Trumane Bell for 29 yards, but the clock hit zero, supposedly ending the game. Florida State doused head coach Bobby Bowden in gatorade and rushed the field, but the referees conferred and determined that Bell was down with a second left on the clock. Controversy raged, but Nebraska setup for a 45-yard field goal. What almost became one of the most controversial finishes in history ended with a horrific field goal attempt, hooked well to the left, sending the Seminoles into raucous celebration for the second time, and putting an end to a classic. 

The Aftermath

The national championship was not only a classic contest, it featured a lot of NFL talent on the field. Nebraska had 21 players from their 1993 roster eventually play in the NFL, while the Seminoles had 14, including 6 draft picks in the ‘94 draft, led by first-round pick Floyd. Ironically, Ward, Florida State’s best player, did not play in the NFL, but that’s not because he didn’t have the opportunity. Ward was drafted in football, basketball, and baseball. He declared he would only pursue the NFL if he was a first round pick, but he was not selected there, and so he pursued a career with the New York Knicks, who took him in the first round of that year’s NBA Draft. He played ten years in the NBA. 

Both teams won titles in the near future, with Nebraska going undefeated in 1994 and completing the task by beating Miami in the Orange Bowl for the national championship. Florida State returned to the top of the football world in 1999 and again in 2013. This past season was the first time since 1976 that the Seminoles were unranked the entire year.