Photo credit: Colorado athletics
In a new series called “National Title Games That Never Were”, we’ll be looking back on hypothetical national championship games of the past that never took place for one reason or another.
In 1990, Colorado and Georgia Tech ended up splitting the national championship. Despite being No. 1 and No. 2 on the final week of the season, the bowl system at the time sent the teams to different locations.
The Buffaloes ended up holding off Notre Dame in a controversial Orange Bowl, 10-9. The ACC champion Yellow Jackets, on the other hand, blasted Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl, 45-21.
During the 1990 season, a BCS may have actually led to the match-up. Here’s an assessment of the contest and how it may have played out:
In 1990, Colorado finished the regular season with a record of 10-1-1. Led by Bill McCartney, the Buffaloes overcame a tie with Tennessee and loss to Illinois in the first three weeks to win their final nine games of the regular season.
Colorado reeled off four wins over ranked opponents. Along the way, there were plenty of close calls. The Buffaloes collected four wins by seven points or less, including a controversial 33-31 victory over Missouri in a contest where the winning touchdown was scored on “fifth down”.
Offensively, the Buffaloes relied heavily on the ground attack. Senior running back Eric Bieniemy was a Consensus All-American and ranked third nationally with 1,628 yards rushing and 16 rushing touchdowns. Quarterback Darian Hagan led the offensive attack, but wasn’t revered for his ability as a passer.
Still, Hagan had a trio of future NFL receivers to throw to in Charles Johnson, Mike Pritchard and Rico Smith. Up front, guard Joe Garten was an All-American.
The Colorado defense hit its stride late. After a 33-31 victory over Missouri, the Buffaloes allowed just 14 points per game over their final seven contests. All-American linebacker Alfred Williams anchored the defense, but there was plenty of NFL talent. Joel Steed, Chad Brown, Greg Biekert, Ted Johnson and Deon Figures all enjoyed prosperous NFL careers.
Georgia Tech was unranked to start the 1990 season, but would go undefeated. Like Colorado, the Yellow Jackets faced plenty of resistance. Four of its 11 wins came by eight points or less. Georgia Tech also scored late to force a 13-13 tie with North Carolina.
During the course of the season, Georgia Tech knocked off three ranked opponents. The most notable was a 41-38 victory at No. 1 Virginia, thanks to a late field goal by kicker Scott Sisson.
The offensive philosophy for Bobby Ross’ team was similar to Colorado’s. With Ralph Friedgen as coordinator, the Yellow Jackets had five different players rush for at least 200 yards. William Bell led the team with nearly 900 yards rushing, 1,050 yards from scrimmage and seven total touchdowns. Quarterback Shawn Jones was slightly more polished than Hagan as a passer.
Defensively, Georgia Tech held seven of its 11 regular-season opponents to fewer than 20 points. Outside linebacker Marco Coleman provided the pass rush while Consensus All-American safety Ken Swilling was the face of the defense. Swilling led the Yellow Jackets with five interceptions. As a team, Georgia Tech picked off 24 passes in 1990. Georgia Tech ranked 10th nationally in scoring defense.
During the 1990 season, Colorado and Georgia Tech shared just one common opponent. That was Nebraska.
The Buffaloes beat the Cornhuskers 27-12 in Lincoln to essentially cement a Big 8 title in early November. Colorado actually trailed 12-0 entering the final quarter before busting the game open with four Bieniemy touchdowns in the final quarter.
Georgia Tech wound up blasting Nebraska in the aforementioned Citrus Bowl. The Yellow Jackets raced to a 21-0 lead before pulling away with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns in the 45-21 victory.
Who Would’ve Won and Why
A hypothetical national championship between Colorado and Georgia Tech would’ve have ultimately come down to which team ran the ball better and made fewer mistakes. Both teams were used to playing close games in 1990, but Colorado enjoyed a little more luck.
The Buffaloes were gifted a fifth down against Missouri and ended up beating Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl with the help of a controversial call that negated a Raghib Ismail touchdown. Let’s also not forget that the Yellow Jackets had a clutch kicker in Scott Sisson.
Ultimately, Ross’ Georgia Tech team would have forced Darian Hagan to win the game with his arm. In the Citrus Bowl, the Yellow Jackets managed to do the same against Nebraska as the Cornhuskers averaged just more than three yards per carry.
After a mixed season, the Yellow Jackets’ offense steamrolled opponents at the end of the year. With the exception of a 6-3 win over Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech put up at least 40 points in four of its final five games. When it comes to passing, Shawn Jones also gets the edge over Hagan.
Hypothetical Final: Georgia Tech 27, Colorado 20
Hypothetical Box Score
GT: Scott Sisson 36 FG, 9:31
GT: Shawn Jones 3 run (Sisson kick), 2:11
COL: Eric Bieniemy 6 run (Jim Harper kick), 10:27
GT: Sisson 29 FG, 3:59.
COL: Harper 33 FG, :00.
COL: Mike Pritchard 21 pass from Hagan, 10:03
COL: Harper 28 FG, 3:31.
GT: Emmett Merchant 31 pass from Jones (Sisson kick), 13:56
GT: William Bell 2 run (Sisson kick), 8:11
First Downs: Colorado 14, Georgia Tech 20
Rushing Yards: Colorado 156, Georgia Tech 161
Passing Yards: Colorado 143, Georgia Tech 219
Total Yards: Colorado 299, Georgia Tech 380
Turnovers: Colorado 3, Georgia Tech 2
Passing: Hagan (COL): 11-24-2, 143 yards, TD; Jones (GT): 14-25-1, 219 yards, TD
Rushing: Bieniemy (COL): 23-93, TD; Bell (GT): 16-84, TD
Receiving: Pritchard (COL): 3-65, TD; Merchant (GT): 4-99, TD
Defense: Chad Brown (COL): 8 tackles, sack, FF; Ken Swilling (GT): 3 tackles, INT