ATLANTA -- Who said it was going to be easy?
A regular season filled with controversy and confusion over the Bowl Championship Series came to a proper conclusion yesterday, with some controversy surrounding the outcome of at least two of yesterday's games involving unbeaten teams and plenty of confusion that finally seemed to be sorted out late last night.
It began with second-ranked (in the BCS) UCLA's shocking 49-45 defeat to unranked Miami at the Orange Bowl and continued with third-ranked Kansas State's hard-to-believe 36-33 overtime loss to No. 8 Texas A&M in the Big 12 championship game at the TWA Dome in St. Louis.
It finally ended when top-ranked Tennessee, seemingly on the brink of defeat, came back with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat No. 23 Mississippi State, 24-14, in the Southeastern Conference championship game here at the Georgia Dome.
The victory helped the Volunteers complete their first 12-0 season in school history and gave the Fiesta Bowl at least one sure participant for the Jan. 4 national championship game. The other -- most likely fourth-ranked, once-beaten Florida State, will be determined today.
"Nobody can mess it up now, can they?" Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said after Kansas State's loss. "I mean nobody behind us can go ahead of us, right?"
Only the folks in charge of the Bowl Championship Series, and their computers, know for sure.
But when asked last night whether fifth-ranked, once-beaten Ohio State still had a chance, Fiesta Bowl executive director John Junker said, "I'd look a little further south than Columbus."
The controversy yesterday wasn't caused by any computers, but by what appeared to be human error. Two questionable officiating calls allowed both the Hurricanes and Aggies to win their respective games.
Miami's go-ahead touchdown came after it was ruled that UCLA receiver Brad Melsby had fumbled after a 30-yard catch, though replays showed his knee had hit the ground before the ball was stripped loose. Replays showed that Texas A&M tailback Sirr Parker didn't quite make it to the end zone on what turned out to be the game-clinching 32-yard TD.
It appeared that Mississippi State would finish off the trifecta of .. upsets last night when return specialist Kevin Prentiss took a punt and raced 83 yards to help put the Bulldogs ahead, 14-10, with 8: 43 left in the game. But the Tennessee offense woke up from a night-long slumber to score two touchdowns in 28 seconds.
"We had to take care of business," said quarterback Tee Martin, who had been off-target much of the night and under siege from a strong Mississippi State pass rush. "We knew what happened to UCLA and Kansas State and it made us focus a little more. We didn't want to be another victim."
The victory by the Volunteeers ended an exhausting day for Junker, who certainly wanted at least one unbeaten team coming to Tempe, Ariz. Starting his day in Miami, Junker left the Orange Bowl midway through the second half as UCLA was about to turn a 21-17 halftime deficit into a 38-21 lead.
By the time he arrived at the airport, the lead was down to three, 45-42.
Somewhere between Miami and Atlanta, Junker contacted his office, and in turn provided play-by-play for those on the private plane.
"That's a final?" he asked as both the clock, and the Bruins' national championship hopes, expired.
"You're positive?" he said. "Read it to me again. Miami 49-45. Oh man, slow my heart."
By the time Junker reached the press box at the Georgia Dome, Texas A&M was mounting its comeback against Kansas State. Junker was clearly rooting for the Wildcats to pull it out, going as far as to yell at the television screen, "Get in" as Everett Burnett was tackled at the 2-yard line on Michael Bishop's Hail Mary pass at the end of regulation.
At halftime of the SEC championship game, Junker seemed exhausted.
Would he root for the Volunteers, ensuring a true national championship game?
"I decided I'm not going to root for anybody," he said. "Every time I root, something strange happens."
But some other strange thing happened.
After a season of controversy, and one final day of confusion, the BCS formula had worked.
The top two teams in the country will be headed for Tempe.
Pub Date: 12/06/98