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On This Date in Sports January 1, 1991: Shared Glory

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For the first time in 11 years, there is a split National Champion, as Colorado is voted number one in the AP poll, while Georgia Tech claims the UPI Coaches’ Poll. It was a wild season that saw the top spot change several times. The Yellow Jackets, who posted an 11-0-1 record for Bobby Ross, defeated Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl 45-21. Colorado edged Notre Dame 10-9 in the Orange Bowl, benefiting from a controversial clipping penalty that took a Rocket Ismail punt return off the board. 

It was the golden era of Colorado Football under the leadership of Bill McCartney. After an unbeaten season in 1989, the Buffaloes ranked #1 were upended by Notre Dame 21-6. The Irish had hoped to claim a share of the National Championship but settled for #2 due to a loss to Miami, who won their third National title. Colorado stumbled early, as they played Tennessee to a 31-31 tie to start the season.  After surviving a scare against Stanford in their home opener, the Buffaloes were beaten by Illinois 23-22 and dropped to #22 as they held a record of 1-1-1. Colorado’s season began to turnaround on October 6th when they benefited from a fifth down to beat Missouri 33-31. The Buffaloes trampled over their remaining opponents, reaching #1 as the season ended with a record of 10-1-1.  

Georgia Tech was not on the national radar as 1990 began. They were coming off their first winning season since 1985 but did not play in a bowl game as the ACC was not considered a power football conference at the time. The Yellow Jackets took the momentum from a strong finish in 1989 and won their first five games to enter the rankings for the first time in five years. After playing North Carolina to a 13-13 tie, Georgia Tech made the nation take notice with a 41-38 win over #1 Virginia in Charlottesville on November 3rd. The Jackets avoided a letdown, beating Virginia Tech 6-3 a week later. Georgia Tech climbed to #2 in the rankings with a 10-0-1 regular season and played in the Citrus Bowl, then tied into the ACC Champions. 

Despite their rankings and their unbeaten season, Georgia Tech was a two-point underdog as they faced #19 Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. Georgia Tech jumped out to a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter. The Huskers had no answers for Shawn Jones, the sophomore quarterback for Georgia Tech who set the tone early with a 46-yard run that set up the game’s first score. Nebraska scored twice in the second quarter, as the Yellow Jackets held a 24-14 lead at the half. After trading touchdowns in the third quarter, the Yellow Jackets pulled away in the fourth quarter with a pair of touchdowns from William Bell. Shawn Jones was named MVP, passing for 277 yards with two touchdowns and a touchdown run. 

While Georgia Tech was a nice story, all eyes on the National Championship revolved around the Orange Bowl as Colorado was ranked first in both polls, while Notre Dame, after a 9-2 season, was ranked fifth. Hoping to avoid another letdown against the Irish, the Buffaloes keyed their defense on stopping Raghib “Rocket” Ismail. The game was a defensive struggle as Colorado scored the first points of the game in the second quarter with a 22-yard field goal by Jim Harper. Notre Dame answered with a two-yard touchdown run by Ricky Watters. Colorado blocked the PAT attempt by Craig Hentrich. The block ended a streak of 73 straight successful extra points from Hentrich. Hentrich hit a 24-yard field goal in the third quarter. However, as the Irish did in the second quarter, the Buffaloes answered a field goal with a touchdown as Eric Bieniemy scored from the one. Defense continued to rule the day as neither team scored again. Late in the fourth quarter, the Irish appeared to have broken Colorado’s heats again as Rocket Ismail blasted into the end zone on a 92-yard punt return with 43 seconds left. However, the Buffaloes were lifted to victory by the officials again as a phantom clipping penalty wiped out the return allowing them to hold on to a 10-9 win. 

Colorado expected to be the consensus National Champions, as they were ranked first in both polls before the bowl. The AP voted for Colorado as expected, but the UPI coaches’ poll had Georgia Tech ranked number one, beating the Buffaloes by one vote to claim a share of the National Championship.