“The single-biggest change I see is the spread offense,” Holtz said. “What an equalizer that’s been. It’s why you don’t see a lot of great defenses anymore and how, all of a sudden, an Appalachian State is capable of beating Michigan. It’s opened the game up to a lot more folks.”
Yes and no.
Many of the same powerhouse programs that ruled then still hold sway today. The Southeastern Conference, fronted by Alabama, has a vise grip on the national championship, and schools like Southern California, Oklahoma, Texas and Ohio State still bubble up toward the top every few years.
Florida State won a second national championship in 1999 under Bowden, who retired four years ago, and after a few seasons on the outside, the Seminoles are squarely back in the picture for this one. Notre Dame still rakes in as much money as any program, but on the field it’s a different story. They finally made it back to No. 1 in the rankings last year for the first time since 1993, and went on to play in the title game against Alabama. But the 42-14 beating absorbed there was just one clear indicator of how far Notre Dame still has to go.
One thing that may never come back is the primacy of college football Saturday afternoons. Back in 1993, a game like Florida State-Notre Dame could make it seem like time was standing still.
Depending on whose criteria you accept, there were nine “Game(s) of the Century” in the 90-plus years before that. Some people argue the 2006 regular-season game between Michigan and Ohio State, and especially the Rose Bowl contest at the end of the 2005 season between Texas and USC for the national championship, were worthy of the same moniker for the 21st century.
What’s clear is that whether those games are deserving or not, the intensity of the argument has waned. The audience has a shorter attention span, recruiting has become a season unto itself, and with so many games on TV, the focus has been diffused. Being designated the “Game of the Week” is enough for most fans now.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever see a game of that magnitude again,” Holtz said. “What people forget, now that we try to make every game into a big deal, is that neither of us were one-year wonders. We’d been good for seven years by that point, and Bobby and them for 10 years.
“It wasn’t just No. 1 vs. No. 2, or North vs. South, like some people made it out. It was two of the best near their peak, and because of the way the college football was set up, people thought we could only meet in a bowl game, if we met at all. Plus, remember, when we played it was still mid-November.”
All these years later, when a big TV payday is the only reason established powers take scheduling risks, the timing that made Florida State-Notre Dame possible seems like the most serendipitous twist of all.
“We were originally scheduled to play Penn State, and they cancelled,” Holtz said. “So the administration came to me and said, `Who do you want to play?’ I said, `Miami,’ because it was such a great rivalry. But they said no, because those games brought out the worst in both sets of fans. They reminded me of the whole `Catholics vs. Convicts’ label people slapped on those games.
“I said, “That’s not fair, all our kids aren’t Catholics.’ But no one else thought that was funny. … Well, we’d stayed with Bobby and Ann (Bowden) on our honeymoon, because we didn’t have any money, so I finally said, `OK, let’s schedule Florida State.’
“Man,” Holtz laughed one last time, “I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”