Before the final ballot, before the Jan. 1 bowls, 19 of the 60 media members who make up The Associated Press's college football poll told The Miami Herald that no matter what happened on New Year's Day, they weren't going to vote Brigham Young No. 1. One cited his own unwavering consistency: He hadn't voted the Cougars No. 1 all year and said, "and I'm not going to." Another reflected on Brigham Young's flyweight schedule and devised a mathematical formula to accommodate his bias: He would vote for unbeaten BYU only if "every other team lost twice." A third, who has never seen the Cougars in the flesh, based his convictions on a simpler prejudice: "I have no respect for BYU."
This, of course, could be considered typical of the whims of an electorate and called freedom of choice or even freedom of the press. It could also be called myopia and/or chronic dopiness. What it should not be called under any circumstance is enlightenment.
Thank god and the AP—also UPI and SI—for a majority opinion. BYU not deserving of No. 1? Stuff and nonsense. BYU not good enough to beat Oklahoma, or USC, or Washington, or Nebraska, or even black sheep Florida, probably the best of them all by season's end? Humbug. Why, BYU is probably even good enough to beat Doug Flutie.
BYU deserves to be No. 1 because it is undefeated—and no one else can make that statement—not because it stands helmet and shoulder pads above the rest. Nobody does anymore, not since parity became the principium of college football. That's what has made it fun and why trying to put a handle on the 1984 season was like trying to paint a moving car. College football has changed; the game is a brave new world where just about everybody is good enough to win the national championship.
But parity is just the overriding factor. The ultimate reason for BYU's prosperity could be titled "Passing"—with the subhead "How To Win Within The Rules As They Are Now Written." LaVell Edwards, the BYU coach, knows how. Boy, does he ever. So do Jack Bicknell at Boston College, Bobby Ross at Maryland, Bobby Bowden at FSU, Mike White at Illinois and a dozen others who are enlightened, to say nothing of Howard Schnellenberger, who carried Miami off the slag heap to the national title in 1983. (His successor at Miami, Jimmy Johnson, should have taken notes, at least on how to blend in some defense.)
Some coaches, of course, will never catch on. Michigan's Bo Schembechler, cast once again in the droll role of a sore bowl loser (12 bowl appearances, 10 losses), complained after BYU's 24-17 victory over his Wolverines in the Holiday Bowl that BYU "should be outlawed" because it is "the worst holding team in the United States of America." Eternally influenced by conservatives past and way past (one of whom, probably Jock Sutherland, once said that "passing is the coward's way out"), Schembechler wondered aloud in an angry postgame press conference how a team (BYU) could possibly throw all those passes (49, completing 35 for 371 yards) without drawing a single holding penalty. BYU's offensive line didn't block, it "tackled," said Bo.
Well, the lights are on at Schembechler's house, but nobody seems to be home. Passing is now the fastest way up in college football—the quick fix for an offense that doesn't have a unanimity of muscle, skill and depth to build along the classic lines. And passing has come sailing to the front in the 1980s because holding is exactly what every team that passes the ball is doing. Nobody calls it holding, of course, because in its present form it's mostly legal, and it's both a breathtaking advantage to offensive coordinators looking to get more receivers into pass patterns and extra time for the quarterback to throw to them.
Naturally it helps to have a Robbie Bosco at the helm if you're an Edwards, or a Flutie if you're a Bicknell, or a Bernie Kosar if you're a Schnellenberger/Johnson, but it should be remembered that not one of these superb quarterbacks was considered a top prospect in high school. None, in fact, was widely recruited. They bloomed because the time was right. The 1980 pass-blocking rule was in place ("Hopefully to stay for a while," says Bowden, who has grown weary of "the NCAA's constant tinkering"); innovative coaches were around to take advantage of that change; and swarms of skilled receivers were coming out of high school, many of them former quarterbacks. Jupiter aligned with Mars, with Pisces on the rise.
Thus do the heavens, and the polls, declare the glory of parity and passing. BYU's ascent marks the fifth straight year that the national championship has been won by a team that had never won it. Clemson did it in 1980, then Georgia, then Penn State, which was the first to pass for more yards than it gained on the ground. Then came two of the purest of passing teams, Miami in '83 and now BYU.
The statistical evidence to support the phenomenon is easily charted. In 1975 Division I teams averaged 119.6 yards a game passing. In 1979 the average had crept up to 139.3. But by 1983 it had achieved orbit—182.8 yards per game. Certainly, a greater number of talented pitchers and catchers could be credited with the advance, but more of a factor was the infusion of better passing attacks, coaches "taking advantage," a crucial point.
Edwards, chairman of the board of Passers Unlimited even before the rule changes, is the proud possessor of a 24-game winning streak, currently major-college football's longest. Every season save two since 1976 his Cougars have led the nation in passing, yet he has never had a quarterback who was heavily recruited. Not Bosco, not Steve Young in 1980 not Jim McMahon in '77, not Marc Wilson in '75, not any of them. Nor has he had a receiver who survived the cut in the pros (the Raiders' Todd Christensen was a fullback at BYU).
The current pass-blocking (holding) rule allows offensive linemen to push straight ahead or to either side with extended arms, which makes it difficult for the referee to tell whether a hand is pushing or holding. When the rule went into effect in 1980, BYU broke the 400-yard barrier with a record 409.8-yard-per-game passing average. This year the Cougars averaged 346.2 as Bosco led the free world in passing yardage with 3,875 and was second only to Flutie in passing efficiency (Kosar finished third).
If you missed the significance of all this, you were probably among those several million sportswriters who also didn't notice that BYU's win over Michigan by only seven points was a fluke—the difference could easily have been 21 points. You probably had to be there to see it: Even when Bosco was hurt and briefly replaced—his immobility upon his return forced him to take snaps mostly from the shotgun—BYU still moved the ball and, not surprisingly, continued to play good defense. The glitch that kept the score respectable for Schembechler was six turnovers by the Cougars, who were no doubt nervous about their imminent coronation.
In any case, the shame of it was that the Holiday was played early, on Dec. 21, and wasn't on network TV. Although it made the remaining bowls irrelevant as far as the disposition of No. 1, it gave coaches like Barry Switzer of Oklahoma time to try to debunk BYU's achievements and schedule. "They play in the worst conference in the country," said Switzer while insisting his 9-1-1 Sooners should be No. 1 if they could whomp Washington.
Alas, Old Barry and Old Oklahoma and its fumbling wishbone offense wilted under the harsh white light of network prime-time exposure in the Orange Bowl on New Year's night, losing 28-17 to Don James's Washington team, a nimbler blend of offense and defense. Convincing enough, certainly, to warrant the 11-1 Huskies getting the No. 2 spot in the final wire-service rankings and No. 3 in SI's. James himself is a former quarterback with every quarterback's desire to light up the sky. But, ironically, the one ingredient the Huskies lacked was a good passer—they used two quarterbacks against Oklahoma, with minimal impact. The rub in football at any level, of course, is that outstanding passers aren't easy to come by. Flutie is the first to win the Heisman Trophy in 13 years.
The very best teams still play the whole game, and if most coaches had their druthers they would play it the way Nebraska does—the strong running making the passing work, the strong defense making the whole thing work. Florida was the best team in the country this year cast in that mold. Oklahoma State seemed on the verge of being as good. Washington could have been, if it had had a little more firepower. The Huskies threw for only 119 yards against Oklahoma, suffered three interceptions, lost a fumble and were successful on only three of 13 third-down conversions. Hardly the work of champions.
The Oklahomas of college football have suffered most from the parity/passing axis, of course, because as much as their fans hate to admit it, parity has brought them down within reach of the masses. There are two explanations for this fall from grace. One is that the forward pass is as common to their routine as a total eclipse. The other is the "30-95" rule put in by the NCAA in the mid-'70s to limit scholarship allowances to 30 a year and eventually to 95 overall. Before that, coaches at the big-budget schools could fill their corrals with talent, leisurely sift through to find the best and then let the rest mildew on the bench. Johnny Majors won the 1976 national championship at Pittsburgh by bringing in 75 players in 1973, among them a running back named Tony Dorsett.
Those days are long gone, but the impact of their departure still jars coaches. Now, says Bowden, "instead of going out and signing the 10 best running backs on your list, you close your eyes and pick two and hope to gosh you've done right." Giving a growing 18-year-old a scholarship is, of course, far riskier than drafting a 22-year-old adult into the pros. So it's a crapshoot now, and schools with lesser reputations are much more aggressive when recruiting the best players, knowing they have a chance to steal a few. The culls no longer mildew on your bench; they come back and beat you in somebody else's uniform.
Thus has parity breathed new life into the lungs of so many moribund football programs and brought the high and mighty back to earth. And thus have teams like Southern Cal, Alabama and Texas struggled to keep up appearances, while the Oklahomas, clinging to the wishbone even when they can no longer stock it three-and four-deep with talented players, risk embarrassment when they poke fun at another team's pedigree or schedule.
Those who throw stones at the Cougars for playing stiffs and derelicts (New Mexico, Utah State, Colorado State, et al.) do so from glass houses. No one was safe. Oklahoma lost to Kansas, which lost to Vanderbilt, which lost to Tulane, which lost to Pittsburgh—which lost to BYU. Washington lost to USC, which lost to Notre Dame, which lost to Air Force—which lost to BYU. Florida lost to Miami, which lost to Boston College, which lost to Penn State, which lost to Pittsburgh—which lost to BYU. The bottom line, as one bemused BYU professor noted in charting the above, was that "everybody has lost to somebody who has lost to somebody...who has lost to BYU." But nobody beat anybody who beat BYU. Case dismissed.
It was argued that this parity made a parody of the bowl games. Who, after all, were these guys, and what were they doing playing for prizes and trophies? Ten of the 18 bowl games featured teams that had lost at least four games. One team, Houston, lucked into a major (the Cotton) by playing in a conference (the Southwest) that took equality to the extreme. Champion Houston beat Texas and SMU all right but lost to Arkansas and TCU—and to 2-9 Louisville in a nonconference game. At home. Two bowls had to sell five-time losers, the Holiday (Michigan) and the inaugural Cherry (Michigan State).
It wasn't always easy. The Cotton Bowl failed to sell out despite having Heisman-winner Flutie, and the Orange Bowl had its second-smallest crowd in 38 years. The flip side was that several freshly minted teams, buoyed by parity, turned out to be much in demand. The Holiday Bowl was jammed, and the Gator Bowl, where South Carolina came with the first team in its history to have won more than eight games, had a record 82,138 in attendance. Oklahoma State, triumphant in the Gator by 21-14, had never played before such a crowd and, for the first time in its 83 years of football, wound up with 10 wins in a season.
Boston College earned its first bowl victory in 44 years when Flutie led the Eagles to a 45-28 defeat of Houston in the freezing rain in Dallas. Army and Virginia played in their first bowls ever, and both won—Army over Michigan State in the Cherry, Virginia over Purdue in the Peach. Bowl favorites lived dangerously through the postseason. In 10 bowls, the underdogs beat the point spread, and eight won their games—Army, Washington, USC over Ohio State in the Rose, SMU over Notre Dame in the Aloha, Air Force over Virginia Tech in the Independence, Kentucky over Wisconsin in the Hall of Fame, West Virginia over TCU in the Blue bonnet and UCLA over Miami in the Fiesta. Such is the healthier side of college football's touch-and-go romance with the record-wrecker parity. From that perspective, only the diehards in Norman and Austin and Tuscaloosa could possibly argue that it has not done the whole of the game good when color can be seen in the cheeks of more members.
And what was the bottom line on the best of the passers when the last bowl was finally over? Well, you know about Bosco and that Flutie on an off day (13 of 37 for 180 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions) was still plenty good enough to beat Houston. Miami, behind Kosar's passing, scored 37 points against UCLA, but ever since Johnson began "simplifying" the Hurricane defense early in the season, almost every good-to-mediocre passer Miami faced wound up performing like Otto Graham. This time it was Steve Bono, who led UCLA to more points than it had scored in a game all year and a 39-37 win over the defending champion Hurricanes, who lost their third straight. In those three nightmarish trips through the twilight zone—vs. Maryland, Boston College and UCLA—Kosar quarterbacked his team to 122 points, an average of more than 40 a game, and lost each one by two. ("One thing you ought to be able to do when you learn how to pass," says Edwards, "is learn how to defend against it." Brigham Young defends against the pass very well. Miami has some catching up to do.)
Kentucky upset Wisconsin 20-19 when its quarterback, Bill Ransdell, rallied the Wildcats from a 16-7 halftime deficit. The passing of South Carolina's Mike Hold and Arkansas' Brad Taylor kept those two teams in games against superior opponents, Oklahoma State in the Gator Bowl and Auburn in the Liberty, respectively. At one point in the second half, Hold put Carolina ahead by covering 71 and 77 yards for touchdowns in a total of six plays and a minute and 36 seconds, which was all but six seconds of the time the Gamecocks had the ball in the third period. Quick strike capacity indeed. Like Nebraska and Florida, Oklahoma State is gifted in all phases of the game, and its quarterback, Rusty Hilger, happened to be a better midrange passer than Hold was a mad bomber. Also, Hilger's receivers didn't butcher as many balls. Auburn, of course, still wins with defense and Bo Jackson.
More relevant to the issue, perhaps, were the manifest inclinations of a growing number of teams that had shown only grudging interest in the forward pass but now seem to find it increasingly beguiling—not to say profitable. Nebraska's Craig Sundberg threw only 15 times against LSU in New Orleans, but three went for touchdowns, two in the last quarter. Texas, which has abandoned the wishbone, its own creation, actually passed for more yards than it ran for against Iowa in the inaugural Freedom Bowl in Anaheim, Calif., but for its trouble got an education from a quarterback who really knows how to throw. Chuck Long overwhelmed the Longhorns with 461 passing yards and more touchdowns (six) than any quarterback has ever thrown for in any bowl. The final score was 55-17, and afterward Iowa coach Hayden Fry suggested that Hawkeye fans write letters "in care of the football office" to persuade Long to come back next year. A redshirt junior, Long is eligible for the NFL draft.
Equally pertinent is how glaring the deficiency now seems when a team cannot pass. Neither USC nor Ohio State is really very good at it, and Oklahoma is a lost cause. Other lesser lights just don't try. As Florida State's Bowden says, "Passing is dynamite in your hands." And if you handle it poorly.... Wisconsin, with the chance to win, moved to Kentucky's nine late in their game and had an interception. Notre Dame mounted a late drive in its 27-20 loss to SMU in Honolulu, only to have Steve Beuerlein miss a wide-open Milt Jackson in the end zone on fourth down with 30 seconds to play. Kosar was sacked and fumbled away Miami's last gasping effort to overtake UCLA, but, of course, he was the Hurricanes' only hope.
The antithesis of the quick-strike passing attack is, of course, the wishbone. The wishbone is a ball-control, option-running offense that relegates passing to the back of the bus. So how do you figure Army, a team with limited talent, size and a dubious "football commitment," reverting to such a thing, and with such success in 1984? Well, the wishbone is not what people think it is—a ram-it-down-your-throat offense. It's a finesse game of blocking on the fly, requiring impeccable technique and precision, and it is based more on whom you don't block than whom you do. In other words, an offense made to order for a West Point cadet. The Corps is loaded with such discipline.
So how, in the end, to evaluate these radical shifts in the college game? After the rule changes in 1980 it took awhile for coaches to realize how much they could get away with. Offensive linemen now use their hands in a variety of Byzantine ways, some say to the point where a guard is not doing his job if he doesn't have a handful of jersey, and where tackles should get karate belts instead of letter sweaters. It is an exaggeration, but with a pair of high-powered binoculars any casual observer can pick up the use of hands (legally and otherwise) the way they have never been used before. Penalties for offensive holding and illegal use of the hands have been reduced from 15 yards to 10 and five, respectively, and blockers are allowed to move downfield before a screen pass if it is thrown behind the line of scrimmage.
Bowden says that, given those parameters and his own enviable feel for the intricacies of movement and patterns that go into the timing of a passing game, Schnellenberger "came the closest of any coach I have ever seen to perfecting the forward pass" in 1983. With Kosar, Schnellenberger had a quarterback smart enough to pick up the progression of options as they opened up downfield, and he actually timed Kosar's reads to fractions of a second so that the first receiver to appear in his sights (say a back curling out of the backfield) would be there at 2.2 to 2.4 seconds, another farther downfield (squaring out, say, in the intermediate range) at 2.8 to 3.0 seconds, and a third, or deep receiver, running a "fly" or a "post" at 3.0 seconds plus. It is impossible to double-cover three receivers traveling the same line of flight.
The real rub, say the wizards of passing, is that after you have spent so much time perfecting such an offense, precious little time is left for anything else. "You have to be totally committed to it," says Edwards, who estimates that less than a quarter of his backfield's time at practice is devoted to the running game. "Timing, timing, timing!" says Bowden, who recalls that when his FSU teams won so many games in the late '70s, before the rule changes made blocking easier, it was more a question of whether his quarterbacks would ever practice anything but the passing game.
All agree, too, that most coaches are inclined to lose their guts after putting in a passing attack and are likely to bail out at the first sign of trouble. "We're all basically conservative," says Bowden, "and deep down inside most of us don't trust the pass. So you see it happen: A guy comes in and turns a program around by doing it the quickest way, which is by passing. He goes from 2-9 to 7-4 or 8-3 and gets a little attention, and then he gets to worrying about it and decides the only way to win them all is to quit passing and go back to basics."
Bowden says that this situation leads to an identity problem, much like the one he now has at FSU with a quarterback, Eric Thomas, who is more runner than passer: "We're betwixt and between, but Eric's a great athlete who can do many things, and we run options and reverses and everything. [Not enough things worked against Georgia in the Citrus Bowl, however. The favored Seminoles were lucky to escape with a tie.] But if I had Flutie or Kosar or Bosco, I'd do exactly what they're doing—I'd pass. You're damn right I would."
On the other hand, it's quite unlikely that the Edwardses of this world will ever consider reverting to the game of old. If anything, they have more faith in the pass than in the run. Schnellenberger tried to mix a veer with his drop-back passing his first year at Miami (1979) but gave it up when he realized the blocking techniques were just too demanding and there wasn't enough time to be effective doing both. He says the ideal blend for a passing game is three-fourths pass, one-fourth run. But when you believe in it the way he does (and the way he now intends to teach it at Louisville), "You get to the point where it begins to take form, and you know you can't be stopped. We were that way last year."
Not everybody is sure this is the yellow brick road that college football has taken, however. Bowden says, "There are only so many good passers out there," and recruiting for them is already tough enough. Neither is he so sure football is the same "when you don't have players who love to get their noses bloodied." Joe Paterno, who has been bloodied himself lately (Penn State was 6-5 and missed a bowl for the first time in 14 years), is "not even sure what the rules are anymore," except that the game he sees on the field "is basketball, not football, and it's not my cup of tea. I like a game I can control. If I'd wanted to be a basketball coach, I'd have gotten into it 30 years ago."
There is no doubt, says Paterno, that the passing game "has never been more sophisticated," with all the reads and blocking calls between linemen and options on receivers, and the ever-more-critical intricacies of timing that are required. "But you don't have to be a complete football team anymore. The way you do it now is you get yourself a passer, a punter, a couple of good wideouts and a field-goal kicker. Then you get five big guys and put 'em in the weight room, and feed 'em and stick 'em on the offensive line and teach 'em how to hold.
"That makes up your passing game. It's a great equalizer, but it is touch football, and it's a joke." The trouble, Paterno admits, is that "the fans like it."
Well, why not? Of all the things it was and wasn't, certainly the season just past was not dull. If the ball flies around a little more than usual, and if Vanderbilt rises up now and again and smacks Alabama, and Army can go to a bowl like the big boys, and a 5'9" lightning rod from Boston can make the sky fall, what's so bad about a little parity?
In the same prepoll poll The Miami Herald took of the AP electorate, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner's representative said he had just about decided that there was no No.1 team. He said he would have left the No. 1 spot on his ballot blank if the AP had let him. He had come to the conclusion that if a 16-team tournament were held among the top 16 teams and then played over and over again 16 times, you would wind up with 16 different winners.
That may be closer to the truth than he meant it to sound, but if it is, one thing more is certain: All 16 would know how to pass the football. The cowards are kicking sand on college football's bullies these days, and the fans like it because it's fun. A tip of the cap to BYU, and may the 1985 season come soon.
With the coming of parity, no one stands head and shoulders above the crowd.
Schembechler was once again cast in the role of a sore bowl loser.
As the Orange Bowl proved. Washington and Oklahoma lack strong-arm air games.
The quick-strike passing attack is making the wishbone, well, passé.
More and more, gifted high school quarterbacks are becoming college receivers.
Many coaches have grown weary of the NCAA's constant tinkering with the rules.
All you need to win is a good passer and five big guys who know how to hold.
The 'bone requires old-fashioned discipline, and West Point is loaded with just that.
Let 16 top teams have a playoff and any of them might be No. 1, but for now it's BYU.