The 1996 NCAA Division I-A football season ended with the Florida Gators being crowned National Champions after defeating rival Florida State in the Sugar Bowl, which was the season's designated Bowl Alliance national championship game. Florida had faced Florida State earlier in the year, when they were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, and lost 24–21. However, unranked Texas's upset of No. 3 Nebraska in the first ever Big 12 Championship Game set up the rematch of in-state rivals in New Orleans. In the Sugar Bowl, Florida's Heisman Trophy-winning senior quarterback Danny Wuerffel and head coach Steve Spurrier led the Gators to a 52–20 victory and their first national championship.
Because the Pac-10 and Big Ten Conferences were not yet part of the Bowl Alliance, their champions met in the Rose Bowl as they had for decades. In 1996, these conference champions were potential national title contenders in No. 2 Arizona State and No. 4 Ohio State. In a close Rose Bowl contest, Arizona State's Jake Plummer ran for a touchdown with 1:40 left to play to give his team the lead, but Ohio State responded with its own touchdown drive led by backup quarterback Joe Germaine and won 20–17. Ohio State finished No. 2 in the final AP poll behind No. 1 Florida, and Arizona State finished No. 4 behind Florida State. The poll results helped push the Pac-10 and Big Ten to give up their Rose Bowl tradition. Before the 1998 season, they both agreed to join an expanded Bowl Championship Series (BCS) agreement, giving their programs a chance to play in a national championship game. Another controversy that led to the creation of the BCS was that No. 5 BYU was not invited to a major bowl game but were snubbed in favor of lower ranked teams from Bowl Alliance conferences.
The 1996 season saw ongoing realignment of many conferences. One of the most notable developments was the creation of the Big 12 Conference, which consisted of programs from the old Big 8 along with four former members of the dissolved Southwest Conference, namely Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor. The Big 12 began play as a two division conference, with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State joining the South Division, breaking up the classic Nebraska–Oklahoma rivalry, but renewing the Texas-Oklahoma rivalry, known as the Red River Shootout. The first Big 12 football game featured Texas Tech and Kansas State. Kansas State won by a score of 21–14.
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. Though it has been modified slightly, the "Kansas Playoff" overtime rules have been used ever since. (The 1995 season also had overtime rules, but only for postseason games, and they were not used since none of the affected games ended regulation play in a tie.)
Four teams upgraded from Division I-AA prior to the season and one university dropped its football program. As such, the total number of Division I-A schools increased to 111.
- The Big 12 Conference began play this season after a merger between the Big 8 Conference and four members of the former Southwest Conference (Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor). The new 12-member conference was divided into two, six-team divisions.
- 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.
- The Western Athletic Conference, in turn, accepted TCU, SMU, and Rice from the SWC, UNLV and San Jose State from the Big West, and independent Tulsa. These moves pushed the WAC's membership to 16 and resulted in the creation of two divisions (Pacific and Mountain) and a league championship game.
- The Big West Conference also saw Arkansas State, Louisiana Tech, Northern Illinois, and Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana–Lafayette) depart to become independents. All four teams had joined the Big West in football only in 1993, remaining in more geographically-appropriate conferences for other sports.
- Pacific dropped their football team after the 1995 season. The Tigers had been a member of the Big West.
- Four teams upgraded from Division I-AA prior to the season: Alabama–Birmingham (UAB), Boise State, Central Florida, and Idaho.
- Boise State, Idaho, and previously independent North Texas joined the Big West, while UAB and UCF became Division I-A independents.
Bowl Alliance first and seconds
The Bowl Alliance did not include the Pacific-10 and Big 10 conferences, whose champions played in the Rose Bowl. Thus, Arizona State and Ohio State (who met in the Rose Bowl) were excluded from the Bowl Alliance championship.
Heisman Trophy voting
The Heisman Memorial Trophy Award is given to the Most Outstanding Player of the year
Danny Wuerffel, Florida, Quarterback (1363 points)