How Ohio State and Texas A&M Met in the 1999 Sugar Bowl
“Why not us?”

The buzzer ending the Florida State-Ohio State game, the final Sugar Bowl of the three-year Bowl Alliance, also sounded the start of a new postseason system.

The Conference Commissioners Association began putting together a more intricate – and complete – ranking to determine a true national championship just a year into the Bowl Alliance setup.  This wasn’t possible until the Rose Bowl agreed in 1997 to join forces with the participants of the Bowl Alliance, meaning the other major bowls, in a format to be called the Bowl Championship Series.

Because of the high marks received by the bowls (Sugar, Fiesta and Orange) sanctioned originally by the Alliance, and after each underwent another interview process, all were again entered into a rotation.  They were joined by the Rose, which freed up the best teams in the Pac-10 and Big Ten, making as close as possible, without a playoff system, a true national championship pairing. 

One of the major changes was the concession by the Commissioners that each bowl would again tie-up with the champion of its natural conference, as they did before the Alliance, placing, say, the winner of the SEC back in the Sugar, unless that team was involved in the No. 1 vs. No. 2 game.  That change would ease the possibility of weak match-ups with little national or local interest.

Under the new format, polls, computer rankings, strength of schedule and, obviously, the won-loss records were components in determining the top two teams. 

The ranking system consisted of the Associated Press, and USA Today/ESPN polls, a combination of the computer rankings compiled by Jeff Sagarin and published in USA Today, the Seattle Times and the New York Times. 

It was a formula that kept fans guessing who would play for No. 1 in the Fiesta Bowl (the first title site in the rotation) throughout the ’98 season.  The Sugar drew the BCS’ second spot, which meant New Orleans would host the first – or the last, depending on how you looked at it – title game of the millennium, that football showcase scheduled for January 4, 2000. 

The preseason and near-universal favorite for the championship was Ohio State, a team manned by such standouts as linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer, guard Rob Murphy, receivers David Boston and Dee Miller, and cornerback Antoine Winfield. 

The Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 for most of the season – until losing a 17-point lead and absorbing a 28-24 defeat to four-touchdown underdog Michigan State on Nov. 7.

Texas A&M clawed and scratched its way into the national limelight, defeating No. 2-ranked Nebraska (28-21) during the regular season, then upsetting No. 1-ranked Kansas State (36-33) in double overtime in the Big 12 championship game. 

Undefeated Tennessee, the SEC champion, made it to the Fiesta against 11-1 Florida State, and the third-ranked Buckeyes (10-1) and eighth-ranked Aggies (11-2) were ticketed to New Orleans – with visions of a possible share of the national championship still dancing in Ohio State’s head.  (It’s notable that the Sugar Bowl selection committee never seriously considered hometown team Tulane, unbeaten for the first time since 1925, because of the Green Wave’s weak strength of schedule.)

John Cooper, the Buckeye coach, made the argument that should his team, a 12-point favorite, win convincingly, and should second-ranked FSU defeat the Vols in an unimpressive game, the nation’s three highest-rated teams (Tennessee, Florida State , and Ohio State) would all have one less and the Buckeyes had a case that they were as good or better than anyone.  The BCS championship would, of course, automatically go to the winner of the Tennessee-FSU game, as the system was designed, but Cooper seemed to be trying to impress the AP voters.

“If Tennessee lost and there would be three teams with a loss, I’m not one to take handouts, but why not us as champions?”  Cooper mused.  “Until that door is completely shut, anything’s possible.”

A&M, naturally, didn’t take well to Ohio State’s looking past the Aggies and to the polls.

“We’ve been the underdog all season long,” Kyle Lednicky, A&M’s long snapper, retorted.  “We were almost a three-touch-down underdog against Kansas State.  We proved everybody wrong, and we plan to do it again.”

Story excerpted from the book "Sugar Bowl Classic: A History" by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

 

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