The Alabama Crimson Tide had not won a national championship in the post-Bear Bryant era, and while they opened the 1992 college football season ranked #9, there were not tremendous expectations—at least outside Tuscaloosa—that this would be the year that changed.
Miami was the preseason #1 team in the country and had split the championship vote the previous year with Washington. The Hurricanes had won four national championships over the previous nine years and come within one play of two more.
The regular season would be dominated by debate over their merits and those of Washington. With the Huskies contractually bound to play the Big Ten champ in the Rose Bowl, the speculation was a third straight year with a split national title and second straight year with the same teams involved.
In truth, this was not a vintage Miami team. They didn’t overwhelm people with talent, and no one on the roster would be a first-round NFL draft pick. Quarterback Gino Torretta won the Heisman Trophy. TheSportsNotebook’s archive of sports history articles covers the period of 1976 to the present, and this was, at best, the worst Heisman Trophy vote of the period. At worst it was the poorest choice for a major individual award in any sport.
But the 1992 Miami football team knew how to survive and they won nailbiters against nationally ranked teams in Arizona, Florida State, Penn State and Syracuse. It was more than Washington could say—the Huskies lost to Arizona and Miami was an undisputed #1.
Alabama wasn’t overwhelming people, as their first six wins came against non-ranked opponents and moved them up to #4. And in the early 1990s, when Auburn, LSU and Arkansas weren’t very good, meant winning in the SEC didn’t mean quite the same as it would today. But the Tide too, knew how to survive. They beat Top 20 teams in Tennessee and Mississippi State.
1992 was the first year the SEC expanded into divisions and played a championship game. By this point, Alabama was already #2 and the projected opponent for Miami in the Sugar Bowl, so the Tide’s game against Steve Spurrier’s Florida could only hurt the league. The Tide and Gators were tied 21-21 when ‘Bama corner Antonio Langham intercepted a pass deep in Florida territory and returned it for a touchdown with 3:16 left.
Miami was an 8 ½ point favorite in the Sugar Bowl battle for the national championship. Alabama brought a great defense, but the offense, led by game manager Jay Barker at quarterback was not respected. The Tide had a good runner in Derrick Lassic and an excellent all-purpose talent in David Palmer, but they were not seen as a serious match for the program who defined college football at this time.
But the Alabama defense locked down Torretta in the first half, and they built a 13-3 lead. Miami was able to get a field goal right before the half. Then Torretta’s flaws and the strength of the Alabama defense came shining through early in the third quarter. An interception set up one touchdown, and then Tide safety George Teague immediately made another and brought it to the house. Suddenly it was a 27-6 game.
The play which the game is most remembered was still to come. Miami was on its own 11 when Torretta completed a pass to Lamar Thomas who broke free down the sideline. Teague ran him down, stripped the ball and Alabama recovered.
Though the play would not stand because of a defensive penalty, it had saved a touchdown, kept Miami deep in its own end and served as a symbol for how badly the Tide handled the ‘Canes. The final was 34-13 and the 1992 Alabama football team had brought the title back to Tuscaloosa.