Before the CapitalOne Orange Bowl kicked off yesterday we wrote: “Tonight’s matchup between traditional powerhouses Michigan and Florida State continues this rich tradition. A national championship isn’t on the line (last year was the Orange’s turn to host a semifinal), but the Orange is still one of the most widely anticipated bowls of the season.”
That turned out to be an understatement. The game was an instant classic and has forced us to evaluate whether it belonged on our list of 10 best Orange Bowls ever.
Making the Top 10 is a tall order because the Orange Bowl is one of the premier bowls in the country. It is part of the College Football Playoff, hosting a national semifinal every third year. Before that it was part of the Bowl Championship Series and, previous to that, the Bowl Coalition and Bowl Alliance. In olden times (before the early 1990s) it simply was one of the four “major” bowls played every New Year’s Day.
It’s also a financial bonanza for South Florida. A 2013 study found that the Orange Bowl Festival earlier that year generated a $298.1 million economic impact for the region. That’s very close to the $333 million impact from the February 2010 Super Bowl that also was played at Hard Rock (then known as Sun Life) Stadium.
The study, by Conventions Sports & Leisure International, said Orange Bowl events drew nearly 400,000 unique visitors, more than half from outside South Florida. The report also said game-related events created more than 225,000 room nights at area hotels.
That’s a mighty impact for a game with humble beginnings. Along with the Sugar and Sun bowls, the Orange is the second-oldest bowl game (behind the Rose). Born at the height of the Great Depression as a civic-boosting event that also would raise money for charity, it played its first three games (1935-37) in tiny Miami Field, forerunner to the venerable Orange Bowl Stadium.
The winners of those first Orange Bowls – Bucknell, Catholic and Duquesne – wouldn’t even be eligible to play there today because none compete at college football’s highest level anymore. By 1938, the game had moved into the Orange Bowl Stadium, was pairing big-time, traditional powers and producing national champions.
So, with that background in mind, did we revise our Top 10 list? Did last night’s game make the cut? Read on:
10. 1954 – #4 Oklahoma 7, #1 Maryland 0
This made the list primarily because it was the first time a team ranked No. 1 in the AP poll fell in the Orange Bowl. Back then, polls weren’t taken after the bowl games so Maryland is still considered the 1953 national champ. Most Oklahomans would beg to differ.
9. 1975 – #9 Notre Dame 13, #2 Alabama 11
A highly anticipated rematch of the previous year’s thrilling national title game, only Alabama had championship aspirations this time around. Once again, those dreams were spoiled by the Irish in Ara Parseghian’s last game as Notre Dame’s coach.
8. 1995 #1 Nebraska 24, #3 Miami 17
After thrice failing to beat the Hurricanes in the Orange Bowl (more on that later), the Cornhuskers finally topped Miami and won the first national title of Tom Osborne’s storied Nebraska career. For a time, it looked like the Miami curse would get the ‘Huskers again. Trailing by 10 in the third quarter. Osborne reinserted his injured star quarterback Tommie Frazier, and the tide began to turn. Nebraska finally took the lead for good with just 2:46 remaining in the game.
7. 1969 – #3 Penn State 15, #6 Kansas 14
Joe Paterno was in his third year at the helm of the Penn State program, and this game solidified the Nittany Lions as a national powerhouse. It almost didn’t happen, though. Trailing much of the fourth quarter, Penn State scored to cut the lead to 14-13 late in the game, but their two-point conversion attempt appeared to fall short. One problem: Kansas had 12 men on the field. Given a second chance, Penn State converted, won the game and finished No. 2 in the nation.
6. 2016 – #11 Florida State 33, #6 Michigan 32
You bet it made the list. The Seminoles dominated the first two and one-half quarters but Michigan closed to within five as the fourth quarter started. Michigan shrugged off an FSU TD early in the quarter and responded by scoring two of their own to lead 30-27 with 1:57 left. Florida State had a wild return on the ensuing kickoff, setting up the go-ahead touchdown to make it 33-30. Michigan blocked the extra point and ran it back the other way for two. The madness ended as FSU intercepted a last-ditch Michigan pass with less than 15 seconds remaining.
5. 1988 – #2 Miami 20, #1 Oklahoma 14
Jimmy Johnson won his only national championship at Miami in an epic battle between the Hurricanes’ pro-style offense and Oklahoma’s wishbone. It also marked a changing of the guard in college football. With wide-open passing offenses soon all the rage, it was the last time a team running the ‘bone would play in a title game.
4. 1968 – #3 Oklahoma 26, #2 Tennessee 24
A gem sometimes overlooked, this game saw wild momentum swings (Oklahoma at various points had leads of 19-7 and 26-14). The Volunteers mounted a furious fourth-quarter rally that appeared on the verge of paying off. Stopping the Sooners and future Heisman Trophy winner Steve Owens on fourth down late in the game, Tennessee maneuvered quickly into field-goal position. The 43-yard attempt sailed wide right with just seconds to go, securing the Oklahoma victory.
3. 1994 – #1 Florida State 18, #2 Nebraska 16
Everyone thought Nebraska didn’t belong and that Bobby Bowden would easily win his first national championship. No one told the ‘Huskers they were supposed to roll over, and the lead changed hands twice in the last 1:16. Even after FSU went ahead 18-16 with 21 seconds left, Nebraska got back into field-goal position, but the 45-yard attempt went wide left. Though it lost the contest, Nebraska rode the momentum from its near victory to claim the next two national championships.
2. 1965 – #5 Texas 21, #1 Alabama 17
Before the word “Broadway” appeared ahead of his name, Joe Namath was a star quarterback at Alabama who had a tumultuous relationship with Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. The matchup of the No. 1 team and the previous year’s national champs in the first-ever prime time bowl game didn’t disappoint. Texas pulled off the stunning upset by stopping Namath with a fourth quarter goal-line stand. Namath would get redemption four years later when he returned to the stadium for Super Bowl III and led his New York Jets to one of sports’ all-time biggest upsets over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts.
1. 1984 – #5 Miami 31, #1 Nebraska 30
Was there any other choice? Easily the best Orange Bowl ever and arguably the greatest bowl game of all time. When the game kicked off that Jan. 2 night, a series of upsets earlier in the day had created a scenario in which the Hurricanes could conceivably win the national title if they beat Nebraska. That was a very tall order considering the 1983 Cornhusker team was being called the greatest of all time and appeared unbeatable. Miami ignored the ‘Husker hype and jumped out to a 17-0 lead. Nebraska tied it in the third quarter, but Miami put together two long scoring drives and went up 31-17. When it scored a touchdown in the waning seconds to close to 31-30, Nebraska eschewed the safe extra point and went for two. Miami stopped the ‘Huskers, won the national title and established itself as one of college football’s elite programs.
Nebraska’s Osborne would have to wait another 11 years before finally securing his first title – at the Orange Bowl, of course.