Much of the 1991 college football season looked like it was finally ready to be Bobby Bowden’s time. Florida State was dominating its schedule. But it wasn’t until mid-November that Miami made their visit to Tallahassee. And in a thrilling game, it was a narrowly missed field goal—Wide Right, as T-shirts would eventually say, that cost the Seminoles the game and vaulted the Hurricanes to a share of another national championship.
The Washington Huskies were in the second year of what would be three seasons of dominating the Pac-10, and this was the best team produced by their highly respected head coach, Don James. Washington ran the table and gained momentum with the voters down the stretch. After a Rose Bowl demolition of fourth-ranked Michigan, the Huskies were rewarded with the other half of the 1991 national championship.
Michigan began the season with one of the most memorable plays in college football history—wide receiver Desmond Howard making an outstretched catch on fourth down to beat Notre Dame. Although the Wolverines would lose to Florida State soon after that, this was still an excellent Michigan team that easily outpaced the rest of the Big Ten.
Penn State hadn’t made a serious run at the top of the polls since their national title year of 1986. A tough October loss at Miami took the Lions out of the national championship equation fairly early, but that was their only defeat in a season that saw Joe Paterno’s program finish #3 in the final polls.
The University of Florida had never won the SEC championship prior to 1991. The arrival of Steve Spurrier was turning the program into one that had to be respected and this ’91 season was a breakthrough. The Gators handed Alabama their only loss and knocked off Florida State in the season finale. Florida won the SEC and was ranked #3 in the country before a Sugar Bowl loss. And conference runner-up Alabama? The Tide finished in the top five and set the stage for their own national title run a year later.
For a three-loss team, Notre Dame managed to have their footprints all over this season. The Irish rebounded from the crushing loss to Michigan, got back into national contention by November and then lost another heartbreaker to Tennessee. After getting blown out at Penn State, Notre Dame’s Sugar Bowl invite seemed to symbolize everything wrong with the bowl selection process. But the Irish came through in upsetting Florida and set themselves up to return to the national elite a year later.
These eight teams–Miami, Washington, Florida State, Michigan, Penn State, Florida, Alabama and Notre Dame–did the most to shape how we view and remember the 1991 college football season. The links below take you to articles about their seasons. Their key players, big games and significant moments are remembered. The articles are a great way to experience the ’91 season all over again, through the eyes of its best teams.