How Florida State and Ohio State Met in the 1998 Sugar Bowl

“They’ve been good forever.”

Peyton Manning, a hometown product, entered the 1997 season as the most renowned quarterback in college football. 

His team, the Tennessee Volunteers, was formidable, but was not seen as the SEC champion.  Defending champion Florida held that distinction. 

That changed as the season went along.  The Gators did defeat the Vols, but lost later games to LSU and Georgia.  Tennessee overcame its only loss to win the SEC East, then nipped Auburn 30-29 in the SEC championship game.

The problem for the Sugar Bowl was that the Vols inched to No. 3 in the polls.  No. 1 Michigan was ticketed for the Rose Bowl, but the Orange Bowl, with its pick in the Alliance, grabbed Tennessee to play No. 2-ranked Nebraska.

The Sugar Bowl also was hoping to land a Big Ten team, three of which were hovering in the Top 10 most of the season, with Penn State a prime candidate.  A 49-14 defeat to Michigan State removed the Nittany Lions from the picture.  So on selection day the Sugar, using the third and fourth picks, took fourth-ranked Florida State (10-1) – the third time in four years the Seminoles would ring in the New Year in New Orleans – and ninth-ranked Ohio State (9-2).

There were some mild criticisms of the Sugar Bowl for not taking No. 6 UCLA, higher than Ohio State but with a reputation of not bringing many fans.  “We looked at what we call the Five Rs,” said Paul Hoolahan, the game’s executive director, “record, rankings, (TV) ratings, reward (for the athletes), and (potential) revenue.  In some form or fashion all of these factors were discussed.  Ohio State fit the bill.”

It really was a very good matchup.  Florida State was felt by many to be the best team in college football, done in only by a narrow, last minute defeat to Florida. The Ohio State team, anchored by sophomore All-American linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer, was solid but very, very young with only four seniors in the Buckeyes’ starting 22.  A case could have been made that this could have been a preview of the national championship game of 1999.  The Seminoles averaged 452 yards and 39 points a game; the Buckeyes averaged 412 yards and 31.7 points.

“This could be a heck of a game,” said FSU coach Bobby Bowden.  “You know, Ohio State has the name.  We’ve been pretty good lately, but they’ve been good forever.”

 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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