The 1991 NCAA Division I-A football season ended with a split champion for the second consecutive season. Both the Miami Hurricanes and the Washington Huskies finished the season undefeated (12-0) and with the top ranking in a nationally recognized poll. Under the conference-bowl selection alignments of the time, the Hurricanes and Huskies could not meet in a decisive title game because A) Washington was slotted into the Rose Bowl as the Pac-10 champions and B) the other spot in the Rose Bowl was automatically given to the Big 10 champions, in this case Michigan. The Rose Bowl's selection terms also thwarted potential title matchups of undefeated teams in 1994 and 1997; since the 1998 BCS realignment, several Pac-10 and Big 10 teams have been able to play in a BCS title game instead of being forced to play a non-title contender in the Rose Bowl; these include the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2002, 2006 and 2007, the USC Trojans in 2004 and 2005 and the Oregon Ducks in 2010.
The Hurricanes closed the 1991 season with a 22-0 shutout over #11 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, but their season was defined by a dramatic November victory over then-#1 ranked and perennial rival Florida State. That game ended with the FSU place kicker missing a field goal, wide right, which would become a theme in the Miami-FSU rivalry; this game later took on the moniker "Wide Right I." Nebraska lost to both national champions in 1991 and finished at 9-2-1, ranked fifteenth in the AP poll.
The Washington Huskies posted a 15-point victory at #9 Nebraska in September, a 7-point win at #7 California in October, and consecutive Pac-10 and Rose Bowl championships. Washington defended its Rose Bowl title with a 20-point victory in the 1992 Rose Bowl over #4 Michigan, the Big Ten champions with Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard. The Wolverines scored a late touchdown to very slightly close the final gap to 34-14, and finished at 10-2, ranked sixth in both polls.
The Florida Gators captured their first official SEC title in school history (they had previously won the 1984 SEC title, but it was later vacated) in dominating fashion. Alabama finished second in the SEC in 1991 with an 11-1 record, but were annihilated 35-0 by the Gators, led by head coach Steve Spurrier. Florida's luck ran out in the Sugar Bowl, as #18 Notre Dame powered their way to a 39-28 win.
Independent Florida State joined the ACC in 1991; known primarily as a basketball conference, the ACC would never be the same for football. Dominant from the moment they joined, Florida State went undefeated in conference play for years and won the conference title for the remainder of the 1990s. The Seminoles would begin ACC football play in 1992.
The Big East Conference began sponsoring football during the 1991 season after adding Miami and other independent teams. Conference play, however, was not fully integrated and official standings were not kept until 1992.
The NCAA adopted the following rule changes for the 1991 season:
Repealing a rule change from 1959, the width of the goal posts were shortened from 23 feet, 4 inches to 18 feet, 6 inches, matching the NFL width. The hashmarks did not change from their position of 53 feet, 4 inches apart, causing drastically difficult angles for field-goal attempts.
Offensive holding, illegal use of hands, and clipping penalties committed behind the line of scrimmage will be enforced from the spot of the foul, rescinding a 1982 rule that enforced those penalties from the previous spot.
When kickoffs and free kicks go out of bounds untouched in the field of play, the receivers have the option to put the ball in play 30 yards from the spot of the kick, in addition to the two other options (putting the ball in play at the out-of-bounds spot or re-kick after a five-yard penalty).
When a fumble occurs anywhere in the field of play on fourth down, only the fumbling player can recover and/or advance the fumble. If a teammate recovers the fumble, the ball is dead at the spot of the fumble, unless the recovery was made behind the spot of the fumble, in which case the ball is dead at the spot of recovery. This mirrors the NFL's "Stabler fumble rule" adopted in 1979 after the "Holy Roller" game.
After numerous taunting incidents in the 1991 Cotton Bowl, unsportsmanlike conduct (15 yard) penalties will be enforced for any taunting acts (such as finger-pointing, baiting an opponent verbally, etc.) and individual celebrations in the field of play.
Teams attempting the "fumblerooski" must inform the referee of their intentions before the play. If a team fails to do this, they are penalized five yards.
In the pre-season poll, Florida State was ranked #1 with 54 of the 59 votes cast, Michigan was 2nd, and Miami 3rd. As of the September 10th poll, Florida State remained the overwhelming choice for #1 and Miami reached #2. Those two Sunshine State teams would continue to be 1 and 2 as their November 16 meeting approached. On November 16th in Tallahassee, the long-awaited #1 & #2 showdown had the 10-0 Seminoles hosting the 8-0 Hurricanes. Visiting Miami won, 17-16 to take the top spot. In the Pacific Northwest, Washington won its Apple Cup game by 35 points on November 23 and finished the regular season at 11-0; the Huskies took over the #2 spot in the final two polls of the regular season.