Orange matchup is gem, but is it fit for crown? Next year's Alliance will work maybe

December 30, 1997|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

MIAMI -- South Florida is filled with equal parts anxiety and expectation toward Friday's Orange Bowl.

The final game of the college football season should be a can't-miss matchup. It has a back-room seal of approval as the "Alliance National Championship," and the farewell of not one legend, but two, Nebraska coach Tom Osborne and Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning.

And it will mean diddly if Michigan blows out Washington State in the Rose Bowl, which will join the Bowl Alliance a year too late for Nebraska's liking.

The Wolverines are a resounding No. 1 in both the media and coaches polls. There's speculation that some voters might flop and throw sympathy votes Osborne's way should he go out with a 13-0 team, but he's not John Wayne, and it's not Oscar night.

The best hope for a blockbuster finish here is for Washington State to upset Michigan, no great stretch considering that the Big Ten hasn't finished off a national championship bid since 1968.

From No. 2 Nebraska to No. 3 Tennessee, and especially here, that's the outcome fans, players and coaches will be rooting for New Year's Day. A team from Michigan hasn't been the focus of this much negative energy since Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman were making the Pistons the bad boys of basketball.

It's all too familiar for major-college football, a dinosaur in the respect that it won't fall in line with the NCAA and stage a true national playoff.

"We'd love to play Michigan, and if college football was the way it was supposed to be, we would," said Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost, who then used his soapbox to put in a plug for the Cornhuskers.

"I think the voters have had some time to reflect on some things and what happened all year. They can see that Nebraska is the better team."

That kind of politicking won't be as necessary next season, the first in which the Rose will finally be a partner with three other major bowls, in what will be called the College Football Championship Series.

This is the sixth year in which the Fiesta, Orange and Sugar bowls have taken turns matching the best available teams from among four major conferences and Notre Dame. The Alliance sought to set up a national championship game, but the Rose Bowl hasn't always cooperated.

Take 1994, when Penn State went unbeaten and drew some votes away from Osborne's first national championship. Last year, Arizona State was 90 seconds from beating Ohio State and a 12-0 record, which would have ruined the Sugar Bowl's billing ** of Florida-Florida State as the national championship game.

Years of negotiation finally led the Rose to join the fold. Its inclusion improves -- but doesn't guarantee -- the prospect for a true national championship next season. What happens if there are three perfect teams, and the polls have different No. 2s? Voters would still determine who gets left out of a so-called national championship game.

The new Alliance will allow bowls to maintain their traditional relationships with conferences. If the Big Ten and Pac-10 champs aren't involved in the bowl designated as the championship, they'll go to the Rose. The SEC will still maintain ties with the Sugar, the ACC and Big East with the Orange.

The new and improved -- but still imperfect -- Bowl Alliance is a distant dream here, where there's an air of impending doom. Manning has been slow to recover from a knee injury, and has said he'll bag the senior all-star games to rest up for the scouting combine. The forecast is for colder than normal weather this week.

Most of all, there's worry about that other bowl game, 3,000 miles away on the other coast. The one that could turn this Orange Bowl into a footnote.

Title games

The rotation for the Bowl Alliance's championship game is as follows:

Year 1: Fiesta, Jan. 4, 1999

Year 2: Sugar, Jan. 3, 2000

Year 3: Orange, Jan. 3, 2001

Year 4: Rose, Jan. 3, 2002

Pub Date: 12/30/97

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