The 1996 NCAA Division I-A football season ended with the Florida Gators crowned National Champions, but not as unanimously as the Bowl Alliance would have hoped.
Florida defeated Florida State in the Sugar Bowl, which was the designated National Championship that year. Florida had faced Florida State earlier in the year, when they were ranked #1 and #2, and lost. Were it not for Texas beating Nebraska, then #3, in the first ever Big 12 Championship Game, Florida wouldn't have even been in the bowl game.
And even once they were there, it wasn't certain a victory would mean a national championship. The Rose Bowl game featured #2 Arizona State and #4 Ohio State. Florida St. and Arizona St. were the only unbeatens going into bowl season, so a Rose Bowl victory would give the Sun Devils a legitimate chance on winning the title. This scenario looked plausible as Arizona State's Jake Plummer scored with 1:40 left to play in the game, making the score 17-14. But Ohio State's backup quarterback Joe Germaine marched down the field to pull out a heart stopping 20-17 win.
On the one hand, this meant the national title game the following night would produce an incontrovertible champion. On the other hand, it left doubt to whether or not Ohio State deserved a stake in the national title, as evidenced by the team's 1½ first place votes in the final AP poll. The Pac-10 and Big Ten could no longer afford to hold on to tradition while the rest of the country wanted a clear national champion. Reading the writing on the wall, they would soon join the national championship series with the other major conferences.
There was a large controversy when #5 BYU was robbed of a spot in a Bowl Alliance game, as they were snubbed in favor of lower ranked teams from Bowl Alliance conferences. This would spur Congress into action, and would eventually be a reason the BCS polls were created.
The 1996 season was also notable as it marked the end of ties in college football, as an overtime system was put into place across all of Division I-A. The 1995 season had overtime rules, but only for postseason games.
Conference USA was formed prior to the season after a merger between two conferences that had previously not sponsored football, the Metro Conference and the Great Midwest Conference. Members of the new league included SWC member Houston (from the former Southwest Conference) and five long-time independents: Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, Southern Miss, and Tulane.
C-USA was given a tie-in with the Liberty Bowl for its league champion.