Before you settle too comfortably into this story, we ask that you please leaf ahead 26 pages and see if you can tell us who's missing from the various in-depth analyses that presage the 1985 college football season. Take your time, we'll wait. (Hmmmm-mmmm. De-de, te-tum, hmmmm.) O.K., that's enough leafing. Whatcha got?
Texas? Right, Texas is missing from the SI Top 20. Good for you, too bad for mighty Texas. Who else?
Penn State. True, true. The mighty Nittany Lions are also out for the first time since 1967. And Michigan. Right again. Bo Schembechler will be hard to live with. Any others?
Why, of course. Alabama. Practically moments ago, the Crimson Tide was the mightiest of them all, and now 'Bama is among the discards. Bear Bryant has been hard to live without. Pittsburgh is absent, too, as are Clemson and Miami. And, oh my, where's Georgia?
O.K., settle down. If you have been paying attention, you know that college football has been succumbing to an onslaught of parity. As trends go, this one is firming up like ice on a pond and, alas, turning the forecasting game into an ever more perilous crapshoot. Don't be shocked if Washington, our choice for No. 1, fails to survive in that rarefied air much past the September equinox. We certainly won't be.
Ah, the wonderful, slaphappy world of college football. Once more it has been tilted on its axis. But bear with us, and you'll see that in the end, it's much better this way. If you aren't loving it now, you're going to—provided you're not living, say, in Gerry Faust's shoes, or Fred Akers's. We will explain presently.
Take Georgia, Clemson, Penn State, Miami and Brigham Young, the five national champions of the '80s. At mid-decade only BYU is judged worthy of SI's Top 20. It is an uncertain judgment, to be sure, given the current state of the art, but that's not to say it is lightly considered. What's more, BYU, which we have gingerly placed at No. 13, is hardly a lock to end up in the Top 20. The Cougars' first three opponents are Boston College, UCLA and Washington.
Such a rapid disintegration of the ruling class has never occurred in college rankings. For example, the first five national champions of the '70s, according to the Associated Press poll, were Nebraska (twice), USC, Notre Dame and Oklahoma. Not only did all four make AP's preseason Top 20 in 1975, but they made its Top 10 as well. Check the start of any other decade, and you'll find much the same thing. Check almost any preseason before the '80s, and you'll find that some poll or selection board somewhere pinpointed the eventual champion.
The AP poll, representing the nation's sportswriters, is the best reference for these comparisons because it is the oldest (SI began its weekly Top 20 in 1981) and most widely recognized. At no time in the AP poll's 49-year history has it suffered such flux as it has in the '80s. Alabama, the 1978 and '79 national champion, made AP's final Top 10 in 1981, slipped under in 1982 and hasn't resurfaced. Penn State won the national title in 1982 but missed the Top 20 the next two years. Clemson was No. 1 in 1981, dropped to eighth in '82 and hasn't been heard from since.
Preseason predictions in the '80s might as well be printed on wet tissue. Three of AP's No. 1 choices—Ohio State in 1980, Michigan in '81 and Auburn in '84—didn't even make its final Top 10. Pitt, AP's pick in '82, barely got its toes over the line, in 10th place. Only Nebraska, AP's top choice in '83, came close to fulfilling its promise. The Huskers finished No. 2 that year.
Last season UPI, Street and Smith's and Playboy also picked Auburn to finish No. 1, while SI put the Tigers fourth. They wound up 14th in SI's, AP's and UPI's final Top 20s. (Street and Smith's and Playboy rank teams only in the preseason.) SI's No. 1 choice for '84, UCLA, ended up ninth (SI), ninth (AP) and 10th (UPI). Arizona State and Texas, the preseason picks of Sport and The Sporting News, respectively, didn't make anybody's final Top 20. The highest preseason ranking BYU received was No. 12 by Street and Smith's. The Sporting News and Sport had the Cougars 19th and 20th, respectively, while they were nowhere to be found in AP's, UPI's or SI's preseason Top 20s.
The other side of the coin, the brighter side, is more pertinent to defining what has happened. The five teams that have won the title in the brave new '80s were all first-time winners. Admittedly, Georgia and Penn State were certifiable giants, but Clemson, Miami and BYU rushed in from far out of the limelight. How far out? Well, like BYU, neither Clemson nor Miami got a mention in AP's preseason Top 20 in the year of its ascension, and only a few pats on the head from the other selectors.
You can be sure that had never happened before, either. Instead, the charts are aglow with fresh faces. See Virginia in SI's Top 20. See Boston College, Oklahoma State, South Carolina and Illinois in there, too. See Iowa in the Top 10 and Maryland and SMU in the Top 5. See Army and Kentucky winning bowl games last year.
The catalysts for this exquisite chaos are well known: 1) the 30/95 rule (which limits schools to 30 scholarships a year and 95 altogether) that was in place by 1977; 2) the 1975 rule limiting coaching staffs to eight assistants and one head coach (which hurt the big schools not only on the practice field but also on the recruiting trail); 3) the liberalized passing and blocking rules (1976-83) that opened up the game; 4) the ever-growing demands—most recently from college presidents—for moral and academic reform that may have made coaches more wary about recruiting misfits and morons no matter how well they play the game. The bottom line: Recruiting is infinitely tougher but decidedly fairer and, at last, no longer elitist.
The full consequences of these developments are still undetermined, but one thing is sure: Gone are the dominatin' days of a dozen or so big-budget schools with enormous resources and traditions and warlords for coaches. To be sure, these advantages will always be a factor. Because football is a coach's game, the best coaches at the best schools will continue to have an edge. But that edge is now much less pronounced and as such will likely make the dynasty a dinosaur. Goodby, good luck, good riddance.
No one is saying that a little dynasty now and then wasn't fun. When Frank Leahy's Notre Dame teams won four national titles in the '40s, they were the focus of insatiable curiosity. Fans across the country hovered around their radios each Saturday to follow the Irish's latest battle with the Lilliputians. A dozen or so fans reportedly suffered heart attacks while listening to SMU's near-miss in 1949, when Kyle Rote ran Notre Dame dizzy, but not dizzy enough.
Oklahoma was a terrific attraction in the '50s, when the Sooners were winning three national titles and 47 straight games under Bud Wilkinson. But the '50s was also a period when the game returned to one-platoon play—what Bryant used to call "real football." In real football a good coach can win with fewer players, provided the few are dedicated enough. The '50s thus enjoyed what we are enjoying now, for much the same reasons: teams rising that had never risen. Syracuse, LSU, Maryland and Auburn won their only national championships in that decade.
One-platoon football was phased out in 1964, and with the restructuring came an unprecedented era of oppressive greatness. Great coaches at great football schools (Darrell Royal at Texas, Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame, John McKay at Southern Cal, etc.) won with numbing regularity. The annual rankings were, more than ever, a restricted club as the "great programs" self-perpetuated. If Oklahoma wasn't winning the Big Eight, Nebraska was. If Michigan didn't win the Big Ten, Ohio State did. If Alabama wasn't atop the national heap, Notre Dame was.
Dominance by a few splendid teams spread too long over time and territory is boring. Utter dominance is depressing. Football's Great Depression, by that reckoning, would be the '70s, when a final ballot not crammed with what The New York Times called "that old Gang of Nine" was a rarity. The nine made geniuses of prognosticators and jokes of the opposition (see chart), thoroughly dominating AP's final Top 20. Note how few blanks. Note how few double digits. Note how many 1s.
The only team to break through was Pittsburgh under Johnny Majors, who used a recruiting technique roughly equivalent to saturation bombing—a tactic that, thankfully, is no longer within the rules. Majors gorged the Panther freshman class of 1973 with 73 recruits. One of them was Tony Dorsett. Pitt won the national championship in 1976.
Like most everything the NCAA does, 30/95 was an economic consideration, aimed at cutting costs, not improving the competitive balance. Pay no mind to the diehards who argue that the talent is now so diluted that the quality of play is down. To the contrary, talent that used to wallow on the benches in such prominent stockyards as Norman, Austin and Tuscaloosa has been put to vital use elsewhere. So now, coaches can neither load up with the players they need, nor grab those they think the other guys might need—and thereby discourage any populist uprisings.
Tryhard coaches now make the fat cats work harder to find talent, creating better competition all around. Thus have come to the fore a whole battery of "better" coaches, with names like James, Edwards, Schnellenberger, Ford, Dye, Collins, White and Fry, to join Osborne, Switzer, Dooley and Paterno in the executive suite. And now applying: Joe Morrison of South Carolina, Jack Bicknell of Boston College, George Welsh of Virginia, Ken Hatfield of Arkansas and Bobby Ross of Maryland. And who knows who else the decade will bring.
From 1980 through '84, 26 different teams made AP's final Top 10. Many of them—Clemson, North Carolina, BC, Oklahoma State, for example—were recent strangers to paradise. Clemson reached No. 6 in 1978, but you had to go back to 1950 to find the Tigers in the Top 10 again. North Carolina hadn't cracked the Top 10 since Charlie Justice's junior season in 1948. Oklahoma State hadn't been there since 1945, when it was known as Oklahoma A & M. BC's last Top 10 finish was in 1942, 20 years before Doug Flutie was born.
Is all this upheaval good for college football? Why, of course. It's great for college football. And what happened to that old Gang of Nine? Check the chart. The same group that had occupied 66 of the 100 available Top 10 places in the '70s has accounted for only 18 of 50 in the '80s. The same group that won nine of 10 national championships has combined for one—count 'em, one—in the '80s. Note how many blanks. Note how many double digits.
And look what happened when those coaches who hustled in to fill the void actually filled it: They often won without exceptional talent or, more accurately, without talent that other people—i.e., other coaches and the so-called recruiting services—thought was exceptional. Rating even college seniors is a chancy business. Rating a still-developing 17-or 18-year-old against others his age from farflung areas of the country is, at best, a high-risk business. Just consider how often the NFL, with all of its sophisticated scouting, "misdrafts" 22-year-olds.
BYU made its passing reputation with quarterbacks—Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Robbie Bosco—who were not highly rated or widely sought. Nielsen, in fact, was a wishbone quarterback in high school. Miami's Bernie Kosar was not actively pursued by even his home state school, Ohio State, and he was rated 32nd at his position by the recruiting service that says it "has no competition." The class of 1979, which formed the nucleus of Penn State's championship season, wasn't highly regarded, either. Paterno didn't get the quarterback he wanted (Dan Marino) and wasn't sure how good Todd Blackledge could be. As it turned out, he was very good. Wideout Greg Garrity, who made the title-winning catch against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, was a 5'9" walk-on. His father had to implore Paterno just to take a look at him.
Not even a good beg would have gotten the 5'9" Flutie a football scholarship at most schools. Boston College took a chance with its last one. The result was one of the most memorable continuing sports stories of recent years. So, here's to all those schools that take a chance this season and thereby keep college football tilted on its axis.
The press is less clairvoyant than before at foretelling teams' fortunes.
Gone are the days when a school dominated the way, say, Notre Dame did in the '40s and Oklahoma did in the '50s.
An exclusive club that included McKay, Parseghian, Royal and Bryant thrived in the "Great Depression."
Four years after greeting Dorsett and 72 other freshmen, Pittsburgh was No. 1.
Tryhard coaches are trying harder to find talent, but rating a kid is still chancy.