When the 2014 NCAA football season kicked off, much of the talk was about how this season will end: Of the 125 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, just four will compete in the College Football Playoff that determines a national champion.
That historic decision brought to an end the Bowl Championship Series that, for the last 16 years, pitted the top two teams in a championship game based on a combination of human polls and computer rankings. At last, fans and commentators say, matchups that once seemed mythical have a shot at becoming reality, and the excitement of football can be paired with the drama of a tournament.
After the regular season is concluded and the conference championship games are played, the 13-person College Football Playoff Selection Committee – chaired in its inaugural year by Jeff Long, athletics director at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville – will choose the four teams in the tournament. Six bowl games – this year the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, and the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans – will be incorporated on a rotating basis and serve as the sites for the national semifinals.
This year those games will be played on New Year’s Day, with the winners advancing to play in the championship game Jan. 12 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington,Texas.
To those who follow only FBS college football and have clamored for such a system, the introduction of a four-team tournament must seem like a dream come true.
But elsewhere in NCAA football, playoffs have long been a way of life. The first Division II and Division III football playoffs took place in 1973.The first tournament in Division I-AA – now known as the Football Championship Subdivision – was in 1978.
In the years to come, the College Football Playoff will produce memories that will be replayed and repeated, over and over. But the FCS, Division II and Division III already have those lasting memories.The accoutrements of tournament football – selection committees, brackets, the moment when a champion is crowned on the field – aren’t anything new for the other levels of NCAA football.
So welcome to the party, FBS. But before you join the fun, let’s reflect on the standout moments, thrilling matchups and memorable games that made up the first 41 years of NCAA football championships.
1999 Division II Championship Game
Northwest Missouri State 58, Carson-Newman 52
Former ESPN broadcaster Bill Curry worked only one Division II Football Championship game, but it left a lasting impression.
“At that moment, I remember clearly saying, ‘This is the best game I’ve ever seen,’” said Curry, who played for Vince Lombardi and Don Shula during his NFL career before going on to become the head coach at Georgia Tech, the University of Alabama, the University of Kentucky and Georgia State University. “I meant that in terms of players on both teams playing their hearts out every single play all day. Then, you add that it went to four overtimes.”
Northwest Missouri State University found itself down 24-7 at halftime and still trailed 44-29 with less than three minutes remaining in regulation before rallying to win the 1999 national title.
Bearcats quarterback Travis Miles started the comeback by marching his team 74 yards in six plays. The 54-second drive ended with a 7-yard scoring pass to J.R. Hill to make the score 44-36.
After Carson-Newman University recovered the onside kick and made a first down, all appeared lost for Northwest Missouri State. But the Bearcats still had all their timeouts and managed to finally stop Carson-Newman’s bruising running attack, which accounted for 419 yards in the game, on fourth-and-short.
Northwest Missouri State then took over at its own 26-yard line with 51 seconds remaining and no timeouts. Miles, who had to leave the field after the first play when he had the wind knocked out of him, took the Bearcats down the field in 41 seconds, culminating with a 34-yard touchdown pass to Hill with 10 seconds remaining. Miles then hit Ryan George on a fade pattern on the two-point conversion to tie the game.
In the first overtime, Carson-Newman fumbled, meaning the Bearcats needed only a field goal to end the rollercoaster game. But their 36-yard attempt went wide left.
“Even though we missed that field goal, there was a feeling there,” said former Northwest Missouri State coach Mel Tjeerdsma. “It felt like we were going to win some way, somehow.”
Neither team scored in the second overtime as both missed field goal attempts. Both teams then scored touchdowns and converted two-point conversions in the third overtime to make the score 52-52. Hill, who had seven catches for 120 yards, caught a 13-yard scoring pass from Miles in the final OT. The two-point try failed, leaving an opening for Carson-Newman.
But on the ensuing possession, Northwest Missouri State safety Ryan Miller recovered a fumble to end the game and set off a wild celebration.
“We had come from so far back, and in my mind I thought, ‘If we don’t win it, our kids have shown us a great comeback,’” Tjeerdsma recalled. “I was proud of what they had done. It was icing on the cake to win it.”
Division III Championship
Wisconsin-Whitewater vs. Mount Union (2005-11, 2013)
If you talk to those involved with the University of Wisconsin- Whitewater and University of Mount Union football programs, the word “rivalry” seems to be akin to four-letter words that shouldn’t be uttered publicly.
The two pre-eminent Division III football powers have made a habit of meeting in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl in Salem, Virginia, on a regular basis. The Warhawks and Purple Raiders met an NCAArecord seven straight times from 2005 to 2011, with the NCAA trophy at stake each time.
Normally, Game 7s are equated to pro baseball, basketball and ice hockey playoffs. Wisconsin-Whitewater and Mount Union have made this a football term, too.
What makes the matchups so compelling is that the Warhawks won four (2007, 2009-11), and the Purple Raiders took home the title in 2005, ‘06 and ‘08.
After a one-year hiatus in 2012 — when Mount Union defeated the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota) in the finals — the two teams met again in last year’s Stagg Bowl, which Wisconsin-Whitewater won 52-14.
“I don’t know if it’s the right word, but I kind of look at us as allies,” said Wisconsin-Whitewater coach Lance Leipold, who entered the 2014 season 94-6. “We are in the same company. They are the best Division III football program in NCAA history. For us to be able to do what we’ve done and have some success is very fulfilling. I’m always cautious about using the word rival, because it isn’t a given that we’re going to meet.”
Leipold’s praise for Mount Union is well-deserved.
Former Mount Union coach Larry Kehres retired after winning the 2012 national title, which marked the 11th time he led the Purple Raiders to a Stagg Bowl victory. In 27 seasons, Kehres posted a record of 332-24-3 (.929). Mount Union put together 21 undefeated regular seasons under Kehres, whose son Vince is in his second season leading the program. Mount Union has also advanced to the semifinals of the Division III football playoffs every year since 1995.
Before the two teams met in the 2011 championship game, Kehres told the Associated Press: “Whitewater is the team that Mount Union fans talk about and have seen. The Mount Union fans, the best team that they’ve seen is Whitewater. So Whitewater has moved into the position of being the team that is the standard-bearer for, ‘What’s the best team like?’ Well, it’s like Whitewater’s team.”
The competition is fierce, but the respect runs deeper.
2000 Division II Championship Game
When you start the season 0-2 like the Bloomsburg Huskies and you fund an entire football team with the equivalent of only eight athletic grant-in-aid scholarships, you might not expect your season to end in the Division II Football Championship.
Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania was able to overcome the early losses to Carson-Newman University and Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania and go on a 12-game winning streak that ended with a 63-34 loss to Delta State University in the 2000 finals.
While the season didn’t end on a high note, it still is well-remembered in eastern Pennsylvania. The most surprising victory turned out to be the Huskies’ last one of the season, when they traveled to the University of California, Davis, and posted a 58-48 semifinal victory.
“That game is still the highlight of my career,” said Tom McGuire, the sports information, athletic marketing and promotions director at Bloomsburg. “We could have flown home without an airplane after that game.”
UC Davis was a fully funded Division II program (the equivalent of 36 athletic grant-in-aid scholarships) and had a record-setting quarterback in J.T. O’Sullivan, who threw for more than 10,000 yards in college and went on to play in the NFL from 2002 to 2010.
Bloomsburg trailed 48-29 entering the fourth quarter before rallying for 29 unanswered points and outgaining UC Davis 176-63 in the game’s final 15 minutes.
“I still have the Davis Enterprise newspaper,” McGuire said. “The headline says, ‘Bloom and Doom.’ It was a great run. It was one for the record books for us.”
1985 FCS (Division I-AA) Championship Game
Georgia Southern 44, Furman 42
Georgia Southern University quarterback Tracy Ham was such a prolific player that during his playing days the team’s offense was nicknamed “The Ham-bone.”
The triple-option offense was a nightmare for opposing defenses, and Ham went on to become the first player in the NCAA to pass for 5,000 and rush for 3,000 yards. His finest moment came in the 1985 Division I-AA Football Championship game when he led the Eagles to a 44-42 victory over Furman University in the Tacoma Dome.
Ham rallied the Eagles from a 22-point deficit, during which Georgia Southern scored 38 points in the game’s final 22 minutes.
While Georgia Southern was successful running the triple option, its offense was also versatile enough that it had some elements of the Run-n- Shoot, where four receivers are on the field.
With Ham at the controls, the Eagles started their comeback.
“Our offense was all about counting the defenders on one side of the ball and creating angles,” said Ham, who had 419 passing yards and 90 yards rushing in the game. “You looked to see where you could get more people at the point of attack than the defense could. It was a lot of fun.”
Ham consistently found mismatches in the passing game, but Furman still led 42-38 with 1:32 left on the clock. The Eagles’ last drive started with a penalty. Still, Ham was able to drive his team 82 yards.
One of his biggest completions came on a fourth-and-11 play when he connected with freshman receiver Tony Belser for a 17-yard gain. Georgia Southern was out of timeouts and 13 yards away from the winning score with 25 seconds to play.
After two incompletions, Ham fired a pass past three defenders to receiver Frankie Johnson, who made the game-winning catch near the back of the end zone with 10 seconds remaining.“He wasn’t open, but (then-offensive coordinator and current Georgia Tech head coach) Paul Johnson had gotten on me pretty good about missing that play earlier in the game,” Ham said. “Frankie Johnson just made a spectacular catch.”
Division III National Champions (1983-86)
Augustana (Illinois) Vikings
While there have been some amazing runs by football programs in the NCAA playoffs, the only team to capture four straight championships is Augustana College (Illinois).
The Vikings won the title from 1983 to 1986, meaning the seniors on the final championship run went 49-0-1 in their careers. Defensive tackle Lynn Thomsen, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997, was the only player to start all 50 games.
Former Vikings coach Bob Reade said the team never talked about the unbeaten streak, which ended at 60 games with a 38-36 playoff loss to the University of Dayton in 1987.
“The thing about Division III at that time was, if you didn’t go undefeated in the regular season, you didn’t go to the playoffs,” said Reade, who was 146-23-1 at Augustana from 1979 to 1994. “Every week was important, but emotionally you can’t play at the top of your game every week. We knew we couldn’t make a mistake.”
Augustana’s streak to greatness actually started with a loss in the Division III Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, where it fell 14-0 to the University of West Georgia.
The next season, the Vikings showed a no-quit attitude that included a 22-21 first-round playoff win over Adrian College, where quarterback Jay Penny scored the decisive two-point conversion with 3:01 to play. Augustana also scored two late touchdowns in the fourth quarter to defeat Union College (New York) 21-17 in the Stagg Bowl.
The 1984 Vikings surprisingly repeated as Division III national champions. The Vikings started seven sophomores and had 11 first-time starters, too. After going unscathed in the regular season, Augustana had to survive a 14-13 victory over Dayton to open the playoffs before finishing the year 12-0 with a win over Central College (Iowa).
In 1985, the Division III playoffs expanded from eight teams to 16. The extra playoff round didn’t trip up the Vikings, although they had close calls with Mount Union (21-14) in the quarterfinals and Central (Iowa) (14-7) in the semifinals.
The seniors on the 1986 team completed their unbeaten careers, but not before a scary 0-0 tie with Elmhurst College to open the season.
“We had a little complacency set in, and we got a little cocky,” said Reade, who also led J.D. Darnall High School in Geneseo, Illinois, to a 52-game unbeaten streak from 1965 to 1971. “We got what we deserved, and we were fortunate to get out with a tie as bad as we played. It woke our guys up. If you look at the scores, you can see that it was a dominant team from that point on.”
Their closest call came in the fourth game of the season, when they edged Wheaton College (Illinois) 18-17.
“When those guys come back for reunions, it’s enjoyable to listen to their comments,” said the 82-year-old Reade. “Each one of them gets up there and no one talked about championship rings. All they talked about is each other.”
1989 Division II Championship Game
Mississippi College 3, Jacksonville State 0
The last thing Mississippi College and Jacksonville State University expected when they were scheduled to play in Florence, Alabama, in the 1989 Division II Football Championship game was snow.
The teams from Clinton, Mississippi, and Jacksonville, Alabama, weren’t used to the fluffy white stuff, and the scoreboard told the story as Mississippi College edged the Gamecocks 3-0. Mississippi College had 229 yards of total offense, while Jacksonville State only managed 130 yards.
The only points came off the foot of kicker Shane Stewart, who made a 19-yard kick with 6:13 left in the third quarter. The biggest play on the 48-yard drive was a 23-yard run by tailback Fred McAfee.
Tracey Harrison, whose maiden name was McMillan, was the sports editor of the school paper, The Mississippi Collegian, and she had a great — but cold — view of the game because she had a sideline pass.
She also knew two of the participants well: Her father, Terry McMillan, was the team’s offensive coordinator, and her fiance, now her husband, was an offensive guard on the team.
“It seemed like it snowed the whole game,” said Harrison, who is director of public relations at Mississippi College. “Our guys didn’t even think they were going to get in the playoffs because we had lost to Jacksonville State (23-3) and Delta State University (17-7) in the regular season.”
Unfortunately, the victory was later vacated due to recruiting violations by Mississippi College.
FCS Championship Game (2011-2013)
North Dakota State University has put its stamp on the Football Championship Subdivision on the field, and Bison fans have made their mark by following their team in droves of green and gold.
For the last three years, Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, the site of the FCS championship game, has rocked with crowds approaching, and even surpassing, 20,000 fans, mainly to support North Dakota State, which will be seeking its fourth straight FCS title this season. Most seats were gobbled up by Bison fans as soon as they went on presale in late September.
Bison fans make the 1,000-mile trek from Fargo, North Dakota, and give the players a true championship experience. They have a lot to be excited about: As of Oct. 3, the Bison had won an FCS-record 28 straight games and beat a team from the FBS in five consecutive years.
The rest of the nation probably sees the support only on the day of the championship game. But it is a season-long way of life for the Bison. The Fargodome seats around 19,000 for football and the season tickets are capped at 13,000.
“Our single-game tickets went on sale on Aug. 1, and they were gone in 22 hours,” said Troy Goergen, senior associate athletics director of marketing and media relations at North Dakota State. “We do that all online, so you don’t see long lines around the ticket booths. But when you think about the volume of people who are sitting in front of computers and laptops to get tickets, it is staggering.
“We have an astute fan base, and they have figured out the best way to get tickets for our road games, too. The culture here is if you are not there first, you are not going to be able to get into the game.”
The athletics department also sets aside 4,000 free tickets for students each home game, and those are obtained by logging into a system with their student identification numbers. For North Dakota State’s first home game this season, which also included a visit from the ESPN College GameDay crew, the student tickets were gone in three minutes.
“Someone here figured out that 22 tickets were sold per second,” Goergen said.