1990 Georgia Tech Football: College Football’s Great Cinderella Story

Georgia Tech football was in desolation when Bobby Ross arrived in 1987, with only two bowl appearances in the last seventeen years. Even after a seven-win season in 1989, there was little inkling that the 1990 Georgia Tech football was about to become one of college football’s great stories.

The talent in the lineup didn’t overwhelm, either then or in retrospect. William Bell was the leading rusher, with nearly 900 yards. The players most regarded in the NFL were linebacker Calvin Tiggle and offensive guard Jim Lavin and neither went higher than the seventh round in the draft. The best player was defensive back Ken Swilling, a first-team All-American. He also went in the seventh round of the NFL draft. 

What they did do was play excellent team defense, ranking 10th in the nation and points allowed. And quarterback Shawn Jones could make big plays, averaging 8.2 yards-per-attempt. The offense ranked 17th nationally in scoring.

Georgia Tech quietly climbed the ladder through the end of October. They didn’t crack the polls until October 6 and were ranked #16 at the end of the month. They had a 21-19 win over a good Clemson team and beat then-25th-ranked South Carolina. But the Yellow Jackets also tied North Carolina..

It was a good season that seemed a logical building block on 1989. Then they went to Virginia on November 3.

The Cavaliers were ranked #1 in the country with an explosive wide receiver in Herman Moore. Virginia moved the ball up and down the field, gaining 519 yards of total offense while Moore caught nine balls for 234 yards. The Cavs had two-TD leads on two different occasions.

Georgia Tech persisted and as the clock neared the two-minute mark, had seized a 38-35 lead. Virginia drove to the one-yard line. An illegal motion penalty set them back and Tiggle, who finished the game with 18 tackles, broke up a pass in the end zone. The Cavs, in the pre-overtime era of college football, settled for a tying field goal.

The Yellow Jackers would be seen as moral victors with a tie, but they were going for it and this story could never have reached its magical ending with a second tie for the season. Bell picked up 13 yards and fortuitously covered his own fumble. Jones fired a 15-yard pass to Greg Lester. And with five seconds left, a 37-yard field goal by Scott Sisson completed the 41-38 upset.

Georgia Tech moved to #7 in the polls and closed the year with wins over Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Georgia. None of the wins were noteworthy—Virginia Tech wasn’t yet a winning program and Georgia had a bad year. But in the chaos that was 1990 college football, the wins moved the Yellow Jackets to #2 on the polls for New Year’s Day.

The ACC champs were contractually bound to the Citrus Bowl (today’s Capital One Bowl) and they played #19 Nebraska. It wasn’t an ideal setting to stake a national championship claim, especially with Georgia Tech’s 10-0-1 record leaving them as the nation’s last undefeated team. But at least it provided the Yellow Jackets with a common opponent and frame of reference for comparison to top-ranked Colorado, who was 9-1-1.

Georgia Tech wasted no time staking its claim. They opened the game with a 70-yard touchdown drive. The defense set the tone in the first quarter, holding Nebraska to 34 yards and the lead was extended to 21-0 before anyone could settle in. The final was 45-21.

Colorado needed to lose to Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. When Irish punt returner Raghib Ismail returned a punt for a touchdown in the closing minute, it appeared that would happen. But a clipping penalty—a call that controversial, close and correct—negated the score and the Buffs survived 10-9.

Dropping a #1 team in the polls after a major bowl win seemed unthinkable and the AP writers vote stayed with Colorado. but Georgia Tech managed to prevail in the UPI coaches’ poll by a single point They went into the history books with a share of the national championship.

It still has to be said though, that the 1990 Georgia Tech football team should not have had to share the title, never needed to sweat out the Orange Bowl and never needed Ismail’s return—nullified though it was, it’s not unfair to assume to it caused at least one voter to flip and provide the Yellow Jackets a margin of victory with the coaches.

Georgia Tech was a full game better than Colorado in the standings. While the Buffaloes had played a better schedule, the Yellow Jackets had matched what Colorado achieved in November by dominating Nebraska. Colorado also narrowly escaped lowly Missouri, needing a controversial “fifth down” to do it.

Voters don’t have to be bound by W-L record when teams have played different schedules, but I also believe the 11-0-1 team should get every benefit of the doubt over the 10-1-1 team. Colorado’s case is not strong enough to overturn that benefit and Georgia Tech should have been the undisputed national champions in 1990,