Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden was already one of the all-time greats of the sport, with a string of major bowl appearances and national top 5 finishes that went back to 1987. He’d won a disputed national championship in 1993. Only one thing was missing—to not only win a national title, but to do it with an undefeated season. The 1999 college football season was keynoted by the Seminoles doing exactly that, with a wire-to-wire run at the top of the polls.
Wide receiver Peter Warrick keyed an explosive offense. FSU had All-Americans in the trenches on both sides of the ball, Jason Whitaker on offense and Corey Simon on defense. Chris Weinke was behind center and the ‘Noles even had the nation’s best kicker in Sebastian Janikowski.
Florida State met its first early test against 10th-ranked Georgia Tech on September 11, winning a 41-35 decision over All-American quarterback Joe Hamilton. The Seminoles blew out N.C. State and won their October battle with archrival Miami, then a non-conference game.
With the ACC title in hand, the biggest showdown came on November 20 against #3 Florida. When Florida State won 30-23, they punched their ticket to the Sugar Bowl, who was hosting the 1 vs. 2 game for the national championship in this 1999 season.
Virginia Tech had been a program on the rise for several years under head coach Frank Beamer. With an electric freshman quarterback named Michael Vick, the Hokies were aiming to take the next step. Vick led an offense that scored more points than anyone in the country. The lefthanded quarterback threw to Andre Davis. He had a terrific running back in Shyrone Stith. The defense, overseen by the great coordinator Bud Foster, was led by Lombardi Award-winning tackle Corey Moore.
The Hokies, then playing in the old Big East Football Conference, met their biggest tests decisively. They destroyed Syracuse 62-0 and Miami 43-10. A Black Friday victory over ranked Boston College, 38-14, sealed the undefeated season, the #2 ranking, and a spot alongside Florida State in New Orleans.
For much of the season, Penn State had appeared destined for the Sugar Bowl. The Nittany Lions had a terrific linebacking combo, with Butkus Award winner Lavar Arrington and All-American Brandon Short. Ranked third in the preseason polls, Penn State made an early statement when they hammed fourth-ranked Arizona 41-7 in the opener. A dramatic 27-23 win at Miami came later in September. The Lions beat Ohio State, and Drew Brees’ Purdue team in October. Penn State turned the corner into November unbeaten and ranked #2.
There were more than a few challengers in the Big Ten though. Wisconsin had won the Rose Bowl in 1998. Ron Dayne had a monster season and won the Heisman Trophy, running behind a physical line led by All-American tackle Chris McIntosh. Jamar Fletcher, a ballhawking defensive back, intercepted seven passes to the lead the second-stingiest D in the nation.
An upset loss to Cincinnati, followed by a tough defeat to Michigan, took the Badgers out of the national championship picture. But Barry Alvarez’s team bounced back with a blowout win over Ohio State, another win over a good Minnesota team led by Thorpe Award winner Tyrone Carter, and a 40-10 pummeling of an eventual Top 10 team in Michigan State.
Michigan was another contender. Their senior quarterback wasn’t highly regarded, but Tom Brady ended up doing okay in the pros. Anthony Thomas rushed for over 1,200 yards. Michigan beat Notre Dame, along with Wisconsin in the early going, before a loss to Michigan State tripped them up. Another conference loss in October took the Wolverines out of the national titie picture, but they were very much in the major bowl hunt come November.
There were big games down the stretch, but no one was prepared for what happened to Penn State. The Nittany Lions lost a 24-23 heartbreaker to Minnesota, another 31-27 crusher to Michigan, and then fell to Michigan State, 35-28. In the blink of an eye, Penn State fell from national championship hopeful to minor bowl participant.
Wisconsin finished strong and took home an outright conference championship. They were headed back to the Rose Bowl. Michigan got an Orange Bowl invite.
Any discussion of the national picture in this era had to include Nebraska and 1999 was no different. The Cornhuskers opened the season ranked #3 in the polls. They had an All-American defensive back in Mike Brown. Even though a close 24-20 loss to Texas in October damaged their national title hopes, the Cornhuskers came back strong and won the Big 12, avenging their only loss by beating Texas 22-6 in the conference championship game. Nebraska came down the stretch as the prime alternative to Virginia Tech for the Sugar Bowl. When the Hokies finished the job, the Cornhuskers still got a Fiesta Bowl invite.
The SEC didn’t have a great team, but there were at least three good ones. Tennessee opened the season ranked #2, with a defense keyed by All-American linebacker Raynoch Thompson. Florida was #5, and Steve Spurrier’s offense was one of the most explosive of the era. Alabama had a great running back in Shaun Alexander, who ran for nearly 1,400 yards behind Outland Trophy-winning offensive tackle Chris Samuels.
Florida got a big 23-21 win over Tennessee in September. Alabama, ranked #18, was upset by Louisiana Tech the same day and seemed to disappear from the radar. But the Tide won a 40-39 thriller over the Gators in early October. The Volunteers bounced back with their own big win over Alabama. When all was said and done, it was Alabama and Florida in the SEC Championship Game. The Tide delivered a 34-7 beatdown and earned the Orange Bowl spot opposite Michigan. Florida slipped out of the major bowl picture, while Tennessee went on to the Fiesta Bowl to play Nebraska.
A surprise team in Stanford filled out the major bowl card. Arizona’s early loss to Penn State foreshadowed a year where no Pac-10 team made a national impact. So, even though Stanford lost 69-17 at Texas to open the year, and then later fell to San Jose State, the Cardinal still went 7-1 through the league and captured the Rose Bowl bid. The individual highlight came from All-American receiver Troy Walters, who caught 74 passes for over 1,400 yards.
On the bowl undercard, Marshall, led by quarterback Chad Pennington, played their way into the final Top 10 by beating BYU 21-3. Michigan State and Florida met in the Citrus and played a classic game. The Spartans won 37-34. It foreshadowed the NCAA basketball final that these same two schools would play in three short months, a game also won by Michigan State.
Nebraska capped off its season in strong fashion, beating Tennessee 31-21 in the Fiesta Bowl. Wisconsin became the only Big Ten team in history to win consecutive Rose Bowls when they knocked off Stanford 17-9. And in a dramatic Orange Bowl, Michigan completed a good run for the Big Ten by nipping Alabama 35-34. The Wolverines, along with the Badgers, each finished in the national top 5.
That set the table for New Orleans. For three quarters, it was a brilliant game. Virginia Tech led 29-28. But the fourth quarter was all about FSU and Peter Warrick. The Seminoles took over, scored 18 unanswered points, and won 46-29. For the second time, Bobby Bowden was a national champion. And for the first time, there was no doubt about it.