Before Congress begins BCS Hearings, they need to consider past injustices in college football
by Marty Mule’
Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
(At left) Nebraska’s Turner Gill throws one of the most infamous passes in Cornhusker Football history in the 1984 Orange Bowl versus Miami. Nebraska lost 31-30 and the Hurricane dynasty was born.
All of a sudden, college football has become a hot political item, giving politicos a forum to grandstand for their constituents.
So now we have Congressional and Senate hearings on tap to address the nation’s crisis issue of the day: whether the BCS championship game can be called the National Championship Game.
The admittedly imperfect formula of pairing the top two teams of any given season for the title is based on computer calculations coupled with the human evaluations of former coaches, administrators and select media.
And yes, there has been controversy since the system was put in place in 1998.
Controversies will crop up routinely until there is a playoff – but one which includes enough teams to make it meaningful. Picking two teams after the bowls is just as subjective as what we have now – or what the BCS evolved from.
So what should we do? Go back to the old days?
What is lost in the current hubbub is that there was just as much injustice in what we had before – media opinion on who was No. 1. The outcries just weren’t as loud, or as politically expedient. But the votes were terribly inconsistent – and probably more unjust than today.
How quickly we forget.
For perspective’s sake, here are some maddening examples showing how “definitive’’ the pre-BCS system was:
- In 1964, No. 1 Alabama lost to Texas in the Orange Bowl. In those days, when the final poll closed after the regular season, the Crimson Tide retained its title. The next year, when the Associated Press decided to suspend its polling until after the bowl season, a series of upsets occurred in the postseason games. The top three ranked teams all entered the postseason undefeated, but lost their respective bowl games. Alabama, ranked fourth with an 8-1-1 record, upended Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, vaulting the Tide to No. 1. This happened despite the fact each of the aforementioned three undefeated teams finished with one loss – and better records than Bama even with their postseason loss!
- Turnabout is fair play, however. In the 1978 Sugar Bowl, third-ranked Alabama handily defeated No. 9 Ohio State 35-6. Logic would dictate that Bama’s victory coupled with defeats of No. 1 Texas and second-ranked Oklahoma in other bowls would have cleared the way for another Crimson Tide (11-1-0) national championship. Besides, the Crimson Tide’s only loss was a 31-24 setback at Nebraska in the second week of the season. The Tide also owned a 21-20 victory over then-No. 1 USC in Los Angeles. But fifth-ranked Notre Dame (11-1-0), who knocked off the Longhorns 38-10 in the Cotton Bowl, leap-frogged Alabama in the final vote for the title. The biggest question of that season is, “what exactly had Bama done wrong?”
- It’s nothing new. Fifty years ago, the LSU Tigers went 11-0-0 and finished No. 1 in the AP poll. But that didn’t seem to convince everyone. Iowa, with an 8-1-1 record, was named national champions by the Football Writers of America. The Hawkeyes, who tied Air Force 13-13 and lost to Ohio State 38-28 at home, beat No. 16 ranked California 38-12 in the Rose Bowl. And in the final AP poll, 6-4 Notre Dame, a team that lost to Army, Purdue, Pitt and Iowa, actually received first place votes in the final poll.
- In 1983 it was Auburn who was victimized by the system. The Tigers finished the year ranked third in the final poll behind No. 1 Miami and second-ranked Nebraska. That season, the Plainsmen played a murderous schedule that included nine bowl teams. Auburn’s opponents won a cumulative 70 percent of its games and that schedule still ranks among the top five in the history of the NCAA.
Pat Dye’s Tigers beat Michigan 9-7 in the Sugar Bowl capping off an 11-1-0 record. In the meantime, a coming of age Miami team was racking up wins against the likes Houston, Duke, Louisville, Cincinnati and East Carolina. The Hurricanes only loss was a 28-3 setback at Florida in the season opener. But by the time Howard Schnellenberger’s Canes beat Florida State 17-16 at Tallahassee in the season finale, the voters took notice. The Hurricanes rose to fifth before playing Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
Georgia opened the door for all the contenders by beating previously No. 1-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl. The Hurricanes had been lobbying for a No. 1 vote should they win the Orange Bowl.
In a game that became the opening act of Miami’s rise to national dominance, a gusty call by Nebraska coach Tom Osborne would be the difference. Having scored on the final play of the game, Nebraska trailed 31-30 with the extra point looming. A tie would give the Huskers the national title, but Osborne elected to go for the win. And when Turner Gill’s two-point conversion pass was tipped away, Miami celebrated the one-point victory and a national championship.
The Hurricanes leaped from fifth to No. 1.
Though they both had the same 11-1 record, Miami’s loss was to Florida, 28-3, the worst smudge on the resume’ of any team to be named national champion. Auburn’s was to Texas, by any measure a top five opponent. It should also be noted, Auburn beat Florida 28-21.
But in the end, 1983 played out - Miami, Nebraska and Auburn.
- It doesn’t always – or even often – pay to test good teams against one another. A year after Auburn was left wondering what if, Brigham Young University played spoiler in 1984. The Cougars played a pitty-pat schedule in which two teams finished with a winning record. BYU finished No. 1 after edging a 6-5 Michigan team in the Holiday Bowl. An 11-1 Washington team, which won the Pac-10 title, finished second.
The point stands: the technology of today trumps the human frailty of the past almost every time.
Still, there was one team in the mid-20th Century that really took the concept of “One Team, One Vote” to heart.
Notre Dame, in the midst of the remarkable Frank Leahy era in which the Irish were No. 1 in three of four seasons from 1946-49, were jarred by a sudden mini-uprising. The Irish were No. 1 after the final vote of the 1947 regular season. But Notre Dame, as was school policy at the time, did not participate in bowl games.
The Irish completed their 9-0-0 season with a 38-7 victory over Southern Cal capping off what looked like another national title.
But when second-ranked Michigan (10-0-0) beat the same Trojans 49-0 in the Rose Bowl, things changed dramatically. Incensed by what he saw as an injustice against his home-state school, Detroit Free Press sports editor Lyall Smith obtained the list of AP voters and contacted them on his own and asked them to vote again. Smith pointed out that USC was the third common opponent of Notre Dame and Michigan and the Wolverines owned more convincing wins in all three games.
The Wolverines won in a landslide.
In ruling, the AP decreed of the unsanctioned post-bowl ballot that it “should not supersede the vote after the regular season.” In other words, Notre Dame was still its official national champion.
The Wolverines weren’t buying it. They liked this mid-stream change of the rules that favored them. To this day Michigan claims the ’47 Associated Press title, even though Notre Dame remains listed by the AP as its champion of that year.
That would have been the time to find a political football to kick around.
It’s pretty easy to say, Michigan nor Notre Dame would have had a problem playing in what we today call, er, BCS’ National Championship Game?
Marty Mule’ can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.