It is a scramble that could be settled in a number of ways. The whole thing should come under the heading of collective madness. When the 1970 college football season has ended and a No. 1 team has been officially (if mythically) elected—for better or worse, depending on your geography—we can be certain of the following: Ara Parseghian will again have turned down the coaching job of a Bethlehem manger, Darrell Royal, being a Texas-style saint, will still be walking on chili—or maybe the Pedernales—and Jack the Ripper will still be in charge of Woody Hayes' charisma.
Meanwhile, admirers of those three gentlemen, meaning the people of Notre Dame, Texas and Ohio State, will continue to be the most generous and understanding group of enthusiasts since the cheerleaders of the Third Reich. We may be sure the followers of the teams that are outvoted in the end will insist it was a pure case of the AP, the UPI and the Football Writers Association of America being infiltrated by members of the-Gay Liberation Front or the Soviet Presidium.
So it goes in any season that manages to have two or more illustrious giants in contention for this thing called No. 1 (see cover), which of course is the national championship. One of the fascinating and at the same time irritating things about college football is that it remains the only sport mankind has ever devised where a political election, rather than a contest on the field, is required to determine the national winner.
Through the years there have been some wonderfully outrageous arguments about who's No. 1, which is only slightly less important to a university than receiving a $9 billion endowment. But before our very eyes this season there is developing perhaps the grandest, most vicious argument of all time.
What the 1970 season has going, in case you haven't heard, is a three-way, life-or-death, down-to-the-last-vote struggle between those three immortal coaches—Woody, Darrell and Ara—and their Teams of the Universe. It is the Rex Kern-Jack Tatum-Once-Team-of-the Decade-Run-Up-the-Points-If-They-Can Buckeyes vs. the Steve Worster-Wishbone Triple-Longest-Win-Streak-Defending-National-Champion Long-horns vs. the Theismann-Rhymes-with-Heisman-Total-Offense-Don't-Forget-We're-Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
There is indeed madness in Columbus, Austin and South Bend. Listen to the fans:
Says a Buckeye: "Our defense is better than ever and our backs are more explosive. Kill Michigan."
Says a Longhorn: "We're so much better than last year I've got a lump in my throat. Woo, Woo, Woo."
Says a Fighting Irish: "It's the best team Ara's had. I know we can beat Ohio State and Texas. It's Nebraska in the Orange Bowl that worries me."
When last heard from, the weekly wire-service polls (46 AP writers and broadcasters in one, 35 UPI coaches in the other) were agreeing again. They each had Texas No. 1. For the first five weeks they also agreed: Ohio State was No. 1 even though Texas, the defender, hadn't lost. Then for one curious week, they split. The AP had Texas and the UPI had Ohio State. Notre Dame? Well, the Irish have slowly climbed up to second, as of Monday, in plain view of a growling Woody Hayes, while the fans of all three are yowling, and the coaches try to get their boys up for some of the dead bodies left on their schedules.
Not that Ohio State, Texas and Notre Dame don't have some football to play before they can finish undefeated and untied and go off to bowl games to meet somebody other than each other. All three must conclude the season with their toughest—and most emotional—game of the year.
On Nov. 21 Ohio State gets Michigan, the team that rudely stung the Buckeyes 24-12 last year. Michigan is just as undefeated and untied as the Big Three, but it seems to have an inferior campaign manager. The Wolverines are No. 5 (AP) and No. 6 (UPI), and restless. Then on Nov. 28 Notre Dame goes to USC to meet the team that it tied 14-14 in 1969 (and 21-21 in 1968, for that matter). Finally, on Dec. 5 Texas receives Arkansas in a retake of that game President Nixon liked so well, a game Texas somehow won 15-14.
As it happens, these games involve old, bloody rivals, and one has to say that there is almost as good a chance that Ohio State, Texas and Notre Dame will lose as win. If they all lose, then No. 1 really won't be settled until after the bowls, as it might not, anyhow. But if they are all three the superteams their fans believe them to be, they'll find a way to win, somehow or other, as No. 1 Texas did a year ago. And what we will then have at the end of the season will be Texas and Notre Dame at 10-0 and Ohio State at 9-0 and all three, no doubt, dominating the national statistics as they have been right along (opposite).
Then the bowls—and the opportunity for more outrage. The postseason situation is this: if Ohio State beats Michigan, it must go to the Rose Bowl—and probably meet Stanford. Texas must be the Cotton Bowl host if it defeats Arkansas. Notre Dame can go anywhere but the Rose. Thus, there is the possibility that two of the Big Three could meet, this being a Cotton Bowl rematch between Texas and Notre Dame. Both teams were younger in that one but are still much the same as when Texas won, on another minor miracle, 21-17.
Unfortunately, the bowl pairings are made before everybody finishes the regular schedule and this sort of thing can foul up a chance to determine a clear No. 1. For example, suppose Notre Dame accepts a Cotton Bowl invitation but then loses to USC. That's good in the context of a second chance for Notre Dame, but bad for Texas and the Cotton Bowl, which would then prefer, say, a once-tied Nebraska team (if there is such a thing) to a once-beaten Notre Dame team. Or turn it around. Suppose Notre Dame takes a Cotton Bowl bid and then Texas loses to Arkansas. That's good in the same way for Texas but bad for Notre Dame, which would then prefer Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to once-beaten Arkansas in a bowl the Irish visited a year ago. And all the while Ohio State—or Michigan—doesn't have the choice of playing either Texas or Notre Dame.
Maybe for the time being we should set all of this confusion aside—a confusion, one might add, that isn't helped by the NCAA's refusal to consider a national playoff. It is far more interesting at the moment to dwell on something else: the very real prospect of Texas, Ohio State and Notre Dame winding up unblotched, even after the bowls. And in that event, who in the name of Bobby Layne, the Gipper and Chic Harley is No. 1? Or should be. Or deserves to be. Who?
The answer of course is about as easy to arrive at as a solution to the Middle East crisis.
Nevertheless, let's look at the teams separately and see what they add up to at the present. Maybe we'll only bog down deeper. We shall see.
To begin with, Ohio State. Woody's boys. What's left of the great kindergarten gang of 1968, those sophomore conquerors of Leroy Keyes and O. J. Simpson. National champions as rookies. And for eight games in 1969, the so-called Team of the Decade. Or Century. Well, there they are—seven of them still rampaging on offense and six on defense.
And through last Saturday, when they rallied themselves against Northwestern 24-10, their record showed 24 victories against only one loss in three seasons. Their scores are almost as big as ever and their yardage continues to stretch down the Burma Road, but they did lose to Michigan a year ago in a game that only meant the world. Why? Overconfident? Maybe. Peaked too soon? Maybe. Got behind and choked? Maybe. Poorly prepared? Maybe. Michigan had superior athletes? Not likely.
But how much the same is the 1970 Buckeye team? Is Rex Kern as good as ever? How about the rugged cornerback, Jack Tatum? Is the old aggressiveness there? Are they still the eager headhunters? Don't they miss Jim Otis? Aren't they again being lulled into overconfidence by a lollipop schedule?
It is true that for all of its talents, Ohio State has problems. Woody's team has played some poor halves, rather mysteriously, against some nobodies. The Bucks led Duke by only 6-3 at halftime, and they trailed both Illinois and Northwestern, which was sort of like trailing the Salvation Army. And they didn't score in the last half against Minnesota.
Moreover, they don't seem to have their old fire individually. Kern isn't as bouncy or throwing nearly so well as he once did, and Tatum isn't looking to punish people quite so gleefully. But this could be maturity, and probably is. Defensive Coach Lou McCullough swears Tatum is better. "We played him out of position too much last year," says Lou. "Let him free-lance too much. He's doing a great job, be sure of that. And Jim Stillwagon, our middle guard, is about the best I've ever seen."
Could be that Woody is bringing the Bucks along more slowly, building toward Michigan. Avoiding the peak-too-soon, which is what happened a year ago. The Bucks ravaged Purdue in what they thought was the big one, then turned flat against the Wolverines.
If the offensive line keeps doing the job (there's an ex-end and an ex-linebacker at the guards), and if John Brockington and Leo Hayden keep finding the holes, the Bucks will stay deadly on the ground. But they do miss Otis on the tough, short-yardage situations, and Kern the passer has yet to look as reliable as he was.
In sum, the Buckeyes maybe aren't as good as they used to be, but they are still one of the better squads of the last few seasons.
Down in Texas, a man can get shot on Main Street if he suggests that the Long-horns aren't what they were a year ago when they had James Street at quarterback instead of Eddie Phillips and Cotton Speyrer without a broken arm. They by golly are, Longhorns insist. Even Royal. "We definitely do some things better than a year ago," he says. "Phillips gives us a bigger, faster, better athlete at quarterback than James. And Eddie can throw better than people think. [Five for five last week.] Worster is Worster, which is the best football player in the country, and our offensive line is blowing people out the way it should."
There's nothing glamorous about the way the Horns do things off the Wishbone Triple. They simply block and run, with Phillips keeping (averaging 5.0 yards a carry), or handing to the strong, quick Worster (averaging 5.8), or pitching to the fast, shifty Jim Bertelsen (averaging 6.1). Ball control is the name of their game, and the Longhorns are averaging more rushing yards per game than any college team in history—including the record-holding 1956 Oklahoma Sooners.
It is a ball club with 32 seniors, a team which, keeping it simple and executing superbly, has now won 26 straight. That happens to be the fourth-longest streak of the last 50 years, as any Longhorn knows.
Twenty of those games were won by Street, however, and Phillips, regardless of Royal's confidence in him, can't be judged in Street's winning class until he has beaten Arkansas, plus a bowl opponent, at least. And now he must manage it without Cotton Speyrer, who made so many big plays.
In terms of the rushing game—the roaring backs and powerful line—Texas is probably better than ever. The burying of SMU 42-15 last week—as Steve Worster scored four times—was only the latest evidence. And there can be no question that the Wishbone Triple is the best ground-eater since the old Split T. Even Ohio State and Notre Dame are using it some. Plus, it may well be that Texas and Eddie Phillips will not be put to the tests that Texas was with Street, the urgency of having to pull it out against Arkansas and Notre Dame. Phillips did throw the pass that overtook tough UCLA in the last 12 seconds. Thus, his moment of pressure may have come and gone—and it's all ice cream from here on. Until Arkansas, though, Texas can't claim No. 1 any more than Ohio State can until after Michigan.
Why Notre Dame is better than the 8-2-1 team of a year ago can be stated in two words: Joe Theismann. Joe Theismann is better. He's a coach-on-the-field, a rifle arm, a threatening runner. He's a more spectacular quarterback than either Eddie Phillips or Rex Kern and, as a collegian, he might just be more effective than Jim Plunkett or Archie Manning.
Theismann, together with his brilliant receiver Tom Gatewood—merely the nation's leader—give Notre Dame a constant weapon, the forward pass, that Ohio State and Texas frequently leave in the trunk. The result: a more balanced attack than the others have. Proof: Notre Dame leads the country in total offense, having fattened the statistics on poor Navy 56-7 over the weekend.
Parseghian has, overall, a younger team than either Texas or the Buckeyes, but whether this is good or bad can't yet be determined. Offensively, it appears to be Ara's best team. Defensively, one may never know. It caught Missouri without Joe Moore, and it catches LSU in South Bend. It doesn't ever get a look at a menacing passer. USC will be the big test, and the Trojans have already lost three and tied one.
As Ara says, it's the "skilled positions"—Theismann and Gatewood—that have made Notre Dame what it is this year. Both the offensive and defensive middles had to be replaced, the runners still aren't the breakaway types and the coach still knows the Irish are thin. Skilled positions get points, however, and that's why Notre Dame is back at the same old stand, contending strongly for No. 1.
Looking at all three teams, a couple of things seem logical. Ohio State and Texas, always sound against the run, would find it easier defensing each other than they would Notre Dame, which has the more varied attack. The Irish defense, however, might wear down against the constant crunching of Texas and the Bucks. One cannot forget that the Irish defense a year ago in the Cotton Bowl—which had Mike McCoy and Bob Olson, both gone—finally surrendered a 10-point lead to Texas, and Notre Dame lost. With a better Theismann and a better Gatewood, Notre Dame obviously might score more than 17 against Texas, or Ohio State. Enough to win? That, again, might depend on Eddie Phillips or Rex Kern, on their ability to hit the key pass under stress. Or it might depend on how much of the time the big ground machines, with the Steve Worsters and John Brockingtons, could keep the ball from Theismann and what the Irish laughingly call his "chicken arm."
Too often in the past, myths have dictated the final selection of No. 1. There is, of course, the myth that any time Notre Dame is undefeated it must be No. 1, regardless of the strength of its schedule. It is historical fact that there has never been an Irish team, unbeaten and untied, that was not No. 1. There is also the myth that any Big Ten team which goes unscathed must be No. 1, regardless of how weak the league might currently be—and the Big Ten at present is more like a Big Two with a Little Eight tagging along. Also, there is the myth that any Southwest Conference team which gets through that "crazy, razzle-dazzle" league without a loss or tie must be No. 1. That, too, is folly, for the Southwest is really a South Two, Texas and Arkansas, these days.
Nevertheless, it looks more and more like the year when a couple of somebodies have to lose out in the elections. If it doesn't happen on the field, of course. Everybody can't be No. 1, even if they all deserve it.
In that regard, Ara Parseghian has the best idea of all. "That 11th game they've approved could be used to better advantage," says Ara. "Why don't we save it until the end of the season, and then if two teams think they can beat each other, let's play."
Here, here, Ara. And now, now.