The proliferation of bowl games—seven of the current lineup of 12 are post-World War II babies, and six of those were conceived after 1959—has made for a continuing, albeit low-yield, plaint that bowls serve no purpose but to extend the season. Well, let's hear it for extending the season. Nothing wrong with that. College football is just getting interesting when it ups and relinquishes most of December to the pros. Better to have imaginative bowl committees drumming up matches which, if not made in heaven, at least suffice in Houston and El Paso. Consider these meaty extenders to the current holiday season:
—Notre Dame, only 8-3 this year but always worth another look, is playing Penn State for the first time since 1928 in the Gator Bowl (Jacksonville). If you thought you would never see Notre Dame in less than a "major" bowl, remember that the Irish got a taste of honey (i.e., large cashier's checks) when it broke tradition to go bowling in 1970 and has become addicted. Besides, it got to pick its opponent, and this season Penn State is a four-time loser.
—Alabama is playing UCLA for the first time, in the Liberty (Memphis). This marks Alabama's 30th bowl appearance, a record. And 18th straight bowl game, a record. And 23rd bowl for Coach Bear Bryant, a record. Many people believe Bryant invented bowl games so he could go to them. He did not pick UCLA, which has a 9-1-1 record and is nine slots higher than Alabama in the rankings. Probably an oversight.
—Wyoming, co-champion of the Western Athletic Conference after a turnabout from 2-9 to 8-3, which included winning five games by a total of 15 points, is playing heavily favored Oklahoma in the Fiesta (Tempe. Ariz.). This is interesting because of what happened to heavily favored Nebraska at the same intersection when it played the WAC's Arizona State last year.
The four Jan. 1 bowls—Sugar, Rose, Orange and Cotton—purport to prove something, but what?
Well, the Cotton is going to prove that you can't return to paradise cum laude by beating on Richmond, Villanova and Virginia, because those were numbered among unbeaten Maryland's more or less feckless victims. The Terrapins, bowling for the first time in a "major" in 21 years, are ranked an unsteady fourth, and no matter what they do to Houston in Dallas, they will not get a nod for the national championship when the roll is called up yonder in the AP and UPI offices. Pittsburgh-Georgia in the Sugar will decide that, maybe in conjunction with USC-Michigan in the Rose.
Houston is in the Cotton, proving with Wyoming and the others that this was indeed a year of dramatic turnarounds—teams rising up from moribund states as the logical result of the NCAA's rule (now four years old) restricting football scholarships to 30 a year and allowing freshmen to play. Thus the talent was parceled around, and programs took off. Houston was particularly remarkable: from 2-8 to 9-2 it went, winning the co-championship of the Southwest Conference in its very first try. And if it is true that the equalizing measures resulted in there being no super team this fall, again, what's wrong with that?
The Orange Bowl, matching Colorado (8-3) and Ohio State (8-2-1), a ho-hummer by that bowl's usual high standards, nevertheless demonstrates a number of things, including: 1) that conference bowl tie-ups are highly combustible; 2) that logic is still anathema to the NCAA in its bowl-selection policies; and 3) that a reappraisal of ABC's position as perennial telecaster of college football is probably in order.
To elaborate: the Orange's two-year-old tie-up with the Big Eight came to late-blooming grief when a five-team race in that best of all leagues developed. The Big Eight asked the Orange Bowl for a formula to free teams for other bowls' consideration when the NCAA's capricious Nov. 20 selection date came around. The formula for picking the Big Eight representative to the Orange Bowl was complex but hardly foolproof. It all but eliminated Oklahoma immediately. Thus, on Nov. 27, when the eighth-ranked Sooners beat Nebraska, the Orange Bowl was left with Colorado, a co-champion but 12th-ranked. Ohio State, 11th, was chosen over UCLA to sell more tickets and bring more American Express cards to Miami. An all-Western pairing of Colorado-UCLA was not deemed desirable.
The point—argued here before—is that none of this would have happened if the NCAA had reconsidered the premature bowl selection date—anything earlier than the last week of the season being premature. Why it feels it must continue this practice is anybody's guess. The old argument that the minor bowls need the time to promote is belied every year, as witness the Astro-Bluebonnet's pleasure in grabbing Nebraska on Nov. 27.
This year, when the frantic milling was over and the season played to conclusion, two four-time losers were in bowls, and attractive teams like Iowa State (8-3), Cincinnati (8-3). San Diego State (10-1) and Cinderella Rutgers (11-0) were shut out.
ABC's part in this may be more insidious. Holding rights to both the regular-season games and the Sugar Bowl, it becomes, at bowl time, both an ally and a competitor. Various cans of worms are thus opened. In its regular scheduling, for example. ABC asked just before the season began that the Nebraska-Oklahoma game be moved from Nov. 20 to Nov. 26. It may have seemed harmless at the time, but in the end it helped sabotage the Orange Bowl and NBC.
What may be worse is ABC's implied involvement—and possible duplicity—in the Sugar Bowl's team selection, which was made more obvious this year because the Sugar pulled out the plum in top-ranked Pittsburgh and its marvelous Heisman Trophy winner. Tony Dorsett. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Sugar Bowl getting Pittsburgh. It is a deserving bowl, and New Orleans is a good place to go for oysters, and though it cannot match the Orange's or Cotton's $1 million payoff to competing teams, $750,000 sure ain't hay.
But maybe it can, too, match the others. With a little help from its friends at ABC, all things become possible. Near the end of the regular season, Pitt, apparently Orange Bowl-bound, was suddenly presented an ABC regional telecast—worth $190,000—for its game with five-time loser West Virginia. One Miami newspaper, hardly a disinterested observer—called the West Virginia telecast "an outright bribe."
A couple of days after the game a survey taken by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed that the majority of the 22 Pitt players questioned wanted to go to the Orange (Dorsett said he preferred "a good time on the beach—doesn't Miami have a beach?"). When the actual vote was taken, the Sugar was selected.
Did ABC intercede? Well, if Pittsburgh, sans the graduated Dorsett, gets two or three regular-season television dates ($500,000-plus) next year, as the Miami News said it was told would happen by an unnamed ABC official, one would have to think so. Who knows? Certainly no ABC executive has made a public confession. It could be that coercion was not necessary, the implication of the "possibilities" being enough.
Whatever, the situation spawns bad feelings and is not healthy. The solution, which seems as simple as moving the bowl selection date back a week—and may be just as hard to effect—is to give NBC and CBS a shot at the college games on a rotating basis and to allow bidding each year only between those two networks that do not have the package at the time. This would prevent one network from dominating and from making "arrangements." And, if nothing else, it would spare us all of those insipid halftime interviews ABC loves to inflict on coaches, which they obviously loathe.
By whatever route it took, the Sugar Bowl has, in Pittsburgh (11-0) vs. Georgia (10-1), the bowl season's most important game. Fortuitous would be another description—certainly it is a better test for Pitt than, say, Houston or Colorado would have been.
Having done everything required of it in the regular season—routing Notre Dame in its first game and Penn State in its last, never once scoring fewer than three touchdowns and seven times holding the opposition to one touchdown or less—Pittsburgh arrives at this point deserving to be No. 1. In this, Johnny Majors' last of an amazing four years there before going home to coach Tennessee, a Pittsburgh Sugar Bowl triumph over the Southeastern Conference champion would assuredly cap the national championship. No further proof necessary.
But what if Georgia wins? It has been assumed all along that such a mishap would toss the question of who's No. 1 to the USC-Michigan matchup in the Rose Bowl, where the year's other glamour running backs, USC's Ricky Bell and Michigan's Rob Lytle, are expected to shine. Both teams currently rank higher than Georgia—Michigan is No. 2, USC 3, Georgia 5 by AP, 4 by UPI.
But if you were a Georgia man you would petition for a harder look at the evidence. You would say forget the polls for now. You would argue that the Bulldogs played the toughest schedule of any of the top five teams, and in a tougher league. That they defeated more winning teams (five to USC's four and Michigan's and Maryland's three and Pitt's two), and that the combined record of their opposition was 59-59-3, compared to USC's 58-63-1, Michigan's 54-65-2, Maryland's 52-64-5 and Pitt's 52-66-2.
How much better was the SEC than the Big Ten or the Pac-8? If you were a Georgia man and properly indignant, you would point out that SEC teams won 33 games and lost only 14 outside the league, a .702 average compared with the Big Ten's 14-14-2 (.500) and the Pac-8's 16-16-1 (.500). You would argue that the Big Ten and Pac-8 were two-team races. You would dismiss Maryland on the same grounds, adding that the Terrapins did not even play North Carolina, the second-best team in their own Atlantic Coast Conference.
For sure, Pittsburgh has bitten off a considerably larger piece than it may have thought it had on Nov. 20. The irrepressible Bulldogs of Vince Dooley routed Alabama 21-0 in midseason and then, as Bryant himself predicted, "got better." They are a salty blend of guts and guile, a minor image of Majors' Panthers, well balanced on offense, tenacious and disciplined on defense, not particularly big but very physical, and absolutely impossible to discourage.
The difference between the two teams, says Dooley, is that Pittsburgh has Superman. He means Dorsett. It is not likely that Georgia, being restricted by the rules to playing 11 men at a time, will present this splendid athlete anything he has not seen defensively, although Dorsett's associates on offense may be surprised by the intensity with which the Bulldogs go about their work. Georgia plays what is, basically, an eight-man line: two tackles, two ends and four linebackers, with a rover, Bill Krug, who is exceedingly active and makes more big plays than any defensive player Dooley ever had.
It is likely that Krug's ability—or inability—to get to Dorsett will be a factor, but so will be the eight-man line, which can be a suffocating thing for a runner. Duke held Dorsett to 45 yards in the first half with a similar ploy, but when it looked up. Pitt Quarterback Matt Cavanaugh had thrown five touchdown passes. Penn State had early success with an eight, but Dorsett kept hunting and pecking and. suddenly appearing at fullback in an I formation (Pitt runs the veer 70% of the time), broke the game open in the second half.
The advantage to Georgia is that it plays this defense all the time, believes in it and, against veer-type option attacks, swarms to the run and consistently takes the pass away. Its linebackers play all manner of stunting games, and Georgia's three deep backs are seldom caught out of position.
Unfortunately, stopping Dorsett also depends on Georgia's offense. Dooley is up on his Superman (Georgia has "held" Dorsett to 101 and 104 yards in two previous meetings in 1973 and '75). "Against Dorsett," he says, "you can't afford to leave the defense on the field too long. It will get tired, but Dorsett won't. It's not that he gets stronger, it's that he does not get tired. It's absolutely incredible. He carries 30 times a game, and not only doesn't get hurt but doesn't get tired." To keep his defense fresh, and to win, Dooley says Georgia must control the ball, as it did 70% of the time in victories over Florida and Alabama.
There are other questions. How well will the Bulldogs get to Pitt's smallish linebackers? If All-America Middle Guard Al Romano is neutralized, will Quarterback Ray Goff be able to option off the Pittsburgh ends? And, if he gets strong reaction to the outside, will the counter-dives work? It should be remembered, too, that though Goff is not a bad passer, he has not had to throw much. It would probably be best for Georgia if he continued not to have to.
What would be best for Georgia if it upset Pittsburgh would be to have the Rose Bowl game blacked out (ABC could probably arrange it), because the Rose comes on after the Sugar and Cotton, and pollsters' memories are short. Alabama won a national championship one year by wowing the late viewers in the Orange Bowl after upsets had scrambled the other bowls during the day. It could happen in Pasadena.
In that eventuality, one could build an overwhelming case for USC, because it may overwhelm Michigan. The Trojans have enormous talent (size, speed—the works) and, in John Robinson's first year as head coach, they have given Quarterback Vince Evans things to do besides spoon-feed the ball to Tailback Ricky Bell. What is worse for Michigan, Bell is healthy after some late-season miseries and is perfectly amenable to busting up people from the fullback position whenever Robinson wants him and the freshman prodigy Charles White in the game at the same time.
Michigan routed Ohio State because Ohio State could not pass. USC can pass, either with Evans or Rob Hertel. It also can defend against the pass. Rick Leach, the Michigan quarterback, is in a league that has not yet granted suffrage to quarterbacks (only heretic Purdue sends passing quarterbacks to the pros). Leach is a fine athlete but an ordinary passer. The Lytle-Bell running match should be entertaining, but USC, whose bowl batting average is the best of any team with 10 or more appearances (15-6), has built a better mousetrap.
Now that you have absorbed all that technical stuff, forget it. Since bowls became a party to the postseason national championship polls in 1965, upsets have been epidemic. A man with a sporting bent could have made a bundle betting underdogs. If he had taken the points in the last 12 Rose, Orange, Sugar, Cotton and Gator bowls, he would have won 38 out of 59 times—64%.
In the Rose Bowl over that period, the favorite has not only failed to make the spread eight out of 12 times, but it has also lost six times. In the Gator, nine of 11 underdogs beat the spread—and seven won the game.
Last year Ohio State (a 14-point favorite) lost to UCLA 23-10 in the Rose Bowl; Alabama (12 points) beat Penn State but only by 13-6 in the Sugar; Texas A&M (6 points) lost to USC in the Liberty; Nebraska (13½ points) lost to Arizona State in the Fiesta; Kansas (3 points) lost to Pitt in the Sun; Florida (7 points) lost to Maryland in the Gator; North Carolina State (2½ points) lost to West Virginia in the Peach. The year before, nine of 10 favorites failed to make the spread.
This is not to encourage betting on underdogs, be they Bull or any other breed (Pitt is favored by 3, Michigan by 6 in the early line). This is not to encourage betting at all. This is to say, however, that all things considered, if you were Pittsburgh at this late date you might feel, well, extended.