By JIM ENGSTER | President, Tiger Rag Magazine
A few generations ago, pollsters decided the national champion of college football before bowl games were played. If LSU had lost to Clemson in the 1959 Sugar Bowl, Paul Dietzel’s Tigers would have still been the national champions of 1958 because of the standing of LSU at No. 1 in the pre-bowl rankings of the Associated Press and United Press International. LSU prevailed 7-0 to erase any doubt about who was No. 1 in the 1958 season.
Alabama benefitted more than once from national championships being awarded prior to the post-season results. In 1964, No. 1 Alabama lost to Texas in the Orange Bowl while No. 2 Arkansas beat Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl to finish undefeated and untied with the distinction of beating Texas to win the Southwest Conference championship. Alabama was recognized as the NCAA victor because the Tide was ranked first going into the bowls. This was a travesty considering that Arkansas topped the Texas team of Darrell Royal that beat Bear Bryant and Joe Namath.
Nine years later, Alabama claimed another UPI national title by going undefeated and being ranked No. 1 in the regular season. But Alabama lost 24-23 in the Sugar Bowl to unbeaten Notre Dame. Despite the obvious declaration that Arkansas was the true national champion in 1964 and Notre Dame won the crown on the field in 1973, these questionable crowns represent two of the six NCAA titles claimed by Alabama in the Bryant Era. When it came to national titles, the legendary coach with the hounds-tooth hat was a shoplifter.
The same challenge of naming a national champion before the post-season is apparent in selecting the Heisman Trophy winner before bowls are played. There is no way that Louisville’s Lamar Jackson would receive the Heisman honor for 2016 if votes were tallied today. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson would clobber Jackson in the balloting if the competition included post-season accomplishments and setbacks.
Watson delivered a brilliant performance on the national championship game stage while Jackson was throttled by LSU in a lesser bowl game.
Watson leaves Clemson with a national title, but without a Heisman. In two games against Alabama for all the marbles, Watson passed for 825 yards, including 420 yards in the 35-31 triumph over the Tide on Jan. 9 to give Clemson its first NCAA football trophy in 36 years. Watson will be remembered as the best player to never win a Heisman.
The last time Clemson captured the championship was in the 1981 season when the Tigers went 12-0 but barely survived a 13-5 decision over Tulane early in the season. By year’s end, Clemson was pounding foes, including an 82-24 demolition of Wake Forest. The quarterback for Clemson in the 1981 campaign was a six-foot, 183-pounder named Homer Jordan. He left the college game with career numbers of 15 touchdowns and 27 interceptions.
The improbable Clemson season of 35 years ago culminated with a 22-15 win over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. The hottest assistant coach in America became Tigers’ offensive coordinator Nelson Stokley, the 37-year-old pride of Crowley, La., former LSU quarterback and future coach of U-L Lafayette.
In 1981, a coach with same initials as Stokley, Nick Saban, was a diamond in the rough as a 30-year coach of defensive backs at Ohio State. It took Saban time, but he has dominated his world for years, and the turning point was on Jan. 9, 2012 when Alabama beat LSU 21-0, and Saban collected his third BCS title. If Les Miles had won, the BCS derby would have been even between Saban and Miles at 2-2. Instead, Saban took the lead and now owns five championships to one for Miles, who is shopping for jobs that would have been insulting for him to even consider a few years ago.
On the fifth anniversary of his greatest triumph, Saban watched his troops lose to Clemson in this year’s title tilt at Tampa. Alabama was 14-0 entering the game, and it looked like Saban would equal Bear Bryant in total national championships. Instead, Alabama was upset, and we will soon learn if the defeat to another group of Tigers marks the beginning of the end of Saban’s reign as the preeminent leader of the college coaching fraternity.
Players on one team should not have the same number
LSU linebacker Duke Riley sparkled in the 29-9 Citrus Bowl devastation of Louisville, but there is no way Riley should have worn No. 4. That number belongs to running back Nick Brossette, not Riley. This policy of having two players on the same team in the same game with an identical number should stop.
There should be an NCAA ban on players on offense and defense wearing the same number. It is confusing and detracts from who is who on the field. A number is a special and important designation for an athlete. Owning it on a given team is a privilege that should not be shared. There are ample numbers to fill a college unit.
If there are more than 99 players on a roster, this is too many. In the case of Riley, he had a number (40) that he had worn for 49 games. It was nice that he wanted to salute his slain friend and mentor from John Curtis High School, Joe McKnight, but there are other ways to do this without making a travesty of the numerical process. Making a case against road rage would be far more substantial tribute to McKnight, who died senselessly, than wearing a number that belongs to a teammate.
This has become so ridiculous that LSU kicker Jack Gonsoulin wore two different numbers in the Citrus Bowl. The NCAA does prohibit two players on the field for the same team simultaneously with the same number, but that’s not sufficient. Alabama’s 2016 roster was populated with players with the same number. In fact, a trio was assigned No. 19 for the Crimson Tide. As meticulous as Coach Saban is about his own appearance, he should realize how silly this number charade looks for him and his players. It is an affront to the game.