Unlike the general public, bowl sponsors do not really care very much about national championships—unless, of course, they happen to luck into such a game, as the fellows in Miami did when they invited Nebraska and Alabama to play in the Orange Bowl even before they had won their showdown games with Oklahoma and Auburn. Now the Orange Bowl is ecstatic, for right there on the Poly-Turf it has the absolute grand final battle for No. 1, the only bowl game that will truly matter among the eight or 10 thousand others to be staged through the holidays. Which doesn't mean that the Orange Bowl people weren't just as happy when all they knew was that the game was a guaranteed sellout and there would not be a rental car or stone crab left in Miami because of all the fans that Nebraska and Alabama would bring to town, regardless of what rested on the outcome.
What nearly happened, as most everyone knows, is that the bowls could have fouled up a game between No. 1 and No. 2 by inviting the teams so early. Had Oklahoma beaten Nebraska, which almost happened—as you could tell by the noise the Sugar Bowl representatives were making in the press box at Norman that fateful day—the No. 1 team would be going to New Orleans to play No. 5 while No. 2 would be confronting No. 3 in Miami.
One obvious cure would be for the NCAA to prevent any bowl sponsor from even making contact with a team rated in the Top 10 until its regular season is completed. No one seems able to explain why it was so desperately critical for the bowls to pick their teams on Nov. 20 instead of Nov. 27.
The whole dilemma of who's No. 1 could be solved for everybody, especially the public, if the NCAA would make one simple, all-too-sensible decision. Let the bowls go about their business of matching up as many Southeastern Conference teams as they wish, but, meantime, institute something on the order of a national playoff. Even if it happens to be nothing more than a single game between No. 1 and No. 2 after the bowls. For the benefit of the Hall of Fame, or Walter Byers, or anybody. Just play it.
December 20, 1971
But of course if that were to happen and we were to have something better than a voting-booth decision for the national championship each year, it would take away a lot of the fun for a group of widely traveled gentlemen known as "bowl representatives."
Bowl representatives are amusing people who start turning up at football games in late September to "scout" prospective teams, and one wonders what they race home to report. That Penn State has a fine cornerback and therefore ought to be put on the list of Gator Bowl candidates? That Oklahoma is running the Wishbone and therefore ought to be considered a serious candidate for the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl?
It is equally hilarious that the Orange Bowl goes around pretending that it has a policy whereby it will always take the two most highly rated teams it can find. This makes you wonder three things. First, does this mean the other bowls look for the lowest-rated teams they can find? Second, if Notre Dame were No. 3 and wanted to come and Baylor were No. 2, would Miami select Baylor? And third, why didn't the Orange Bowl invite Nebraska and Oklahoma, which were the two most highly rated teams on Nov. 20?
But enough of this making sport of the Orange Bowl, for it has staggered into the one game that every other bowl would love to have—and the one everyone wants to see. Miami has the national championship game whether unbeaten Michigan likes it or not, and just about the only thing that could put the Wolverines in contention for the No. 1 post-bowl vote—assuming they beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl—would be a Nebraska-Alabama tie coupled with a dreary performance by Oklahoma against Auburn in New Orleans.
As for the game itself, Nebraska's problems with Alabama are altogether different than they were against Oklahoma. To the untrained eye, it might seem that Alabama runs the same offense as the Sooners—the Wishbone—but Alabama does not.
Alabama's Wishbone is not nearly as deceptive or as swift around the corners, and Terry Davis, the Crimson Tide quarterback, simply is not Jack Mildren. But this does not mean that Alabama can't block and Johnny Musso can't run over people. Any team that can decisively beat the opponents Alabama has faced must do something right, and blocking and tackling is it.
Nebraska will be the same as it was on Thanksgiving Day—thorough, confident, balanced, physical and well disciplined. It will be a far more accomplished Nebraska team, with more speed and surprise than either of those sluggish Cornhusker outfits Bear Bryant defeated with quickness and pride in 1965 and 1966.
What Alabama will show Nebraska, however, is something that Coach Bob Devaney's team has not seen this season, a furious defense, bigger than usual, and one without the unstable qualities of Oklahoma's.
Nebraska is more overpowering and has greater variety than Alabama, and it probably will have more confidence since it is a team that is not astonished at itself for winning. It has a superior quarterback in Jerry Tagge, a big, pounding Jeff Kinney to counterbalance Johnny Musso, and a flying, catching Johnny Rodgers that Alabama cannot match. Defensively, Nebraska will be able to play a more normal game, shedding the panic it felt for Oklahoma's speed outside. In short, the team that beat Oklahoma will face a less accomplished Wishbone from Alabama. Which means that Alabama will have to win the game with its defense and surprises. It would seem that Bear Bryant will make sure the defense does its part, but there is no evidence that the Alabama offense has the talent to pull off the necessary surprises without a tremendous number of breaks. In short, Nebraska should win.
As for the other games earlier in the day, let us look at them in the order of their appearance on TV.
The Sugar Bowl certainly should produce more touchdowns than any other game on New Year's Day. It is difficult to imagine Oklahoma being slowed down tremendously by Auburn's defense; the Sooner Wishbone has broken a variety of records already and it gained 467 yards on Nebraska. At the same time, Terry Beasley ought to have a fairly grand afternoon fielding Pat Sullivan's fly balls in the spotty Oklahoma secondary.
Ordinarily this kind of game would be decided by emotion. Both teams have some to summon up, since each lost the game it wanted most to win. It can hardly be a secret that Oklahoma would rather be in Miami meeting Alabama and that Auburn would rather be in the same town playing Nebraska. As it is, New Orleans has become a sort of Runner-up Bowl.
Still, there's a good deal of tinsel surrounding the affair. On display, of course, will be Sullivan, winner of the Roone Arledge Memorial Trophy as the outstanding college player of the year. This award was once known as the Heisman Trophy, until the Downtown Athletic Club of New York allowed the envelope to be opened on ABC-TV at the halftime of the Georgia-Georgia Tech game. Also on display will be Oklahoma's Jack Mildren, a marvel of runner and passer who probably is a better quarterback than Sullivan. The two of them will serve up the best quarterback duel of the season, or at least the best since Mildren met Nebraska's Jerry Tagge. Like Tagge, Sullivan is primarily a thrower who can run a little while Mildren is more complete; a runner who can pass effectively. He rushed for more yards this year than any quarterback in history. Mildren's running also gave hurry-up Oklahoma two runners over the 1,000-yard mark—the other, of course, being Greg Pruitt. They were among the record 26 players who broke the 1,000 barrier in a year that belonged to rushing. But along with his 10 touchdown passes, Mildren has actually produced more scores, running and throwing, than Sullivan. And almost as many yards in total offense—and against tougher teams. So in the Runner-up Bowl it should be the Sooners.
The Cotton Bowl will also find the Wishbone wearing a paper hat. But before the kickoff it could well become known as the Personality Bowl, for it brings together two of the most quotable coaches in the land—Texas' Darrell Royal and Penn State's Joe Paterno. In their different styles, Royal from the Southwest and Paterno from Brooklyn, they should wow the media daily. An air of friendship, fun and wisecracks should prevail like at no other bowl—until the kickoff. Then it will be the Eastern Establishment against Marlboro Country in a game that could also be labeled the Delayed Bowl.
Surely you remember 1969? Texas and Penn State finished their seasons undefeated and untied, but Texas won the polls and President Nixon gave the Longhorns a plaque that Paterno hoo-hawed. They might have met in that Cotton Bowl, except Penn State chose Miami, which Texans hoo-hawed, and the Dallas sponsors discovered, anyhow, that Notre Dame was willing to play a postseason game for the first time in 45 years. The argument as to which team was the better was never resolved, to Penn State's way of thinking, at least. Both the Longhorns and Nittany Lions won in the bowls and finished their campaigns at 11-0. Texas got all the trophies, however, and the last hoo-haw.
Now, two years later, they meet at last, but this time neither is unbeaten. Texas lost back-to-back games in mid-season to Oklahoma and Arkansas, while Penn State was humiliated by Tennessee in its final game. Nevertheless, it should be a fascinating contest, particularly if Texas Quarterback Eddie Phillips can play effectively. With most of their people well, the Longhorns are not bad. And Penn State is better than most Texans probably think. There will be some fine, familiar names on the field, doing their things for the last time as collegians. Players like Texas' Phillips and Jim Bertelsen and Penn State's Lydell Mitchell, who almost scores touchdowns during time-outs, and Franco Harris. It will be close.
The Rose Bowl no longer causes the excitement it once did, even though one of the teams, Michigan, is undefeated. This in itself speaks for the sophistication of the modern college fan. Did anyone ever think he would see the day when a Big Ten team could go undefeated and untied, as Michigan did, and wind up No. 4 in the national polls?
It was to the credit of the voters, of course, that they recognized the fact that the Big Ten looked again like a Medium Two. As good as Michigan might have been at times during the regular season, the Wolverines never had a chance to prove it against the endless lineup of lightweights they faced. Even so, they were fortunate to win their last two games—over Purdue, which only lost seven times, and a "down-year" Ohio State team.
None of this has made Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler happy. He forbore from chewing up sideline markers, as Woody Hayes did, but he did turn on the writers once, which was a larger mistake. Bo somehow worked it out in his head that the writers were to blame for Michigan's unlofty rating. If they were, they must have been playing for the mediocre Purdue team that held Michigan to a narrow victory in the last 43 seconds. After which Schembechler had the audacity to say, "We are the best."
Meanwhile, leaving the Big Ten to its dreams of yesteryear—to those days before it began to get outrecruited and outcoached by the Big Eight—there is the mystery of Michigan's Pasadena opponent, Stanford.
Last season Stanford had Jim Plunkett and as good a team as anybody on most days. But while it could get high for the big ones—USC, Arkansas, Ohio State—it had a tendency to dismiss contests which didn't seem to matter in the Pacific Eight race. Stanford was caught snoozing three times in 1970—against Purdue, Air Force and California. This time Coach John Ralston's team did it again, only worse.
The Indians had Don Bunce instead of Plunkett, granted, but Bunce did a pretty good Plunkett imitation, finishing second in the nation in total offense. Moreover, Stanford had a better defense than a year ago. So what happened? Well, Stanford lost to Duke, Washington State and San Jose State, three teams which normally couldn't be expected to beat anyone except perhaps each other. And this was a Stanford team that beat USC a little worse than Oklahoma did.
What all of this means is that the Rose Bowl will be decided by what kind of mood Stanford is in, or how much support Bo Schembechler gets from the men of literature. Ah, but heck. Michigan and Stanford inaugurated bowls way back in 1902, right there in Pasadena. Let there be nostalgia at least. But let's get it over with so we can get down to the game that matters, the one in lucky old Miami.