1991 was a year when people that had gotten close to a championship, but not yet sealed the deal, finally broke through. Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski won his first ring, as did Chicago Bulls’ star Michael Jordan. Through much of the 1991 college football season, it seemed certain that Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden would join them.
Florida State, led by quarterback Casey Weldon and a cornerback in Terrell Buckley, who could dominate a game from his position, looked ready to validate their preseason #1 ranking. They opened with an easy win over BYU, then went on the road to Michigan.
The Wolverines were ranked third in the country and led by an electrifying wide receiver and punt returner named Desmond Howard. But the combination of home field and Howard meant nothing, as Florida State blew to a 51-31 win.
Even though Michigan suffered early elimination from the national title race, they still had a big year and no one was better than Howard. He would go on to win the Heisman Trophy and make two plays that are a part of college football lore.
Michigan was clinging to a 17-14 lead in their traditional September game with Notre Dame. The Wolverines were driving and facing a fourth-and-one just inside the ND red zone. Rather than kick a field goal and risk giving the Irish a chance to drive for the win in the fourth quarter, Michigan head coach Gary Moeller decided to go for it.
Howard ran his route straight up the right sideline. The ball was overthrown toward the goal line, but put in a place where Howard was the only one who could make a play on it. He completely outstretched, pulled it in and got the touchdown pass. The race for the Heisman Trophy might as well have ended on that day.
By the time the season-ending finale with Ohio State had arrived, Howard all but secured the Heisman and Michigan had formally clinched the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl bid. The game itself was mediocre—the Buckeyes were an average team and the Wolverines won 31-3. The big play was Howard bringing a punt return back for a touchdown. To make his point, he stopped in the end zone and “struck a pose”, pulling up his leg and outstretching his arm to look like the Heisman Trophy. It’s a pose that continues to be mimicked to this day.
Howard eventually became a Super Bowl MVP for the Green Bay Packers in 1996, and a good ESPN college football studio analyst. But he never performed better—either on the field or for the camera—then in 1991.
Into November of the 1991 college football season, no one was performing better than Florida State. The Seminoles kept churning out wins, including a 46-14 thrashing of tenth-ranked Syracuse, but Miami was still lurking. The Hurricanes were undefeated themselves, having beaten Penn State 26-20 and playing outstanding defense. Miami would be ranked #2 when they visited FSU for a mid-November game.
Florida State led 16-7 in the third quarter, but Miami got a field goal and then drove for the go-ahead touchdown with three minutes to play. The Seminoles came driving down the field for the field goal that could all but secure a national title, given the unlikelihood either team would lose the rest of the way. FSU lined up on the last play for a 35-yard-try…The kick was up…it looked true…and it missed wide right, by the narrowest of margins. The crowd fell silent. Once again, the Seminoles had just missed.
Miami went on to beat Nebraska 22-0 in the Orange Bowl and win a share of the national title. Washington had been unbeaten and the Husky case began to get some attention. When they hammered Michigan, 34-14, in the Rose Bowl, it was enough to get Washington their own share of the national championship.
And Florida State? With all realistic hope of a title cut off, FSU lost again to archrival Florida, and then turned in a mediocre Cotton Bowl showing in a 10-2 win over Texas A&M. Once again, the Seminoles were watching their rivals celebrate while they waited until next year.