Last Friday Nebraska Football Coach Tom Osborne was distractedly shuffling papers around his desk as he talked about his team. "We're not unbeatable," he said, "but we're pretty good. I guess to be great, though, to be No. 1, a team has to be able to play poorly and still win. You've got to be able to survive a fumbled kickoff or something like that. And you have to be a little bit fortunate."
Then Osborne put his squad on a plane for Columbia, Mo., where the next day the Cornhuskers played poorly against Missouri—among other things, they blew a 14-point lead in an eight-second span—and fumbled a kickoff. But they were a little bit fortunate, winning 23-20. Which makes them great? Perhaps. Which makes them No. 1? Perhaps.
After all, for a team hot on the trail of a national championship—as 8-0 and No. 2-ranked Nebraska most certainly is—overcoming adversity is second in importance only to winning every game. Indeed, among the nation's six most notable undefeated teams—all of which are holding up their index fingers with some justification—three of them had to show championship mettle Saturday to win. No. 6 Florida State required two second-half touchdown passes by backup Quarterback Wally Woodham and an eight-yard run by Mike Whiting with 1:38 to play to get past Cincinnati (2-6) 26-21. No. 4 Houston needed two final-period TDs—a 14-yard run by Terald Clark and a seven-yard pass from Delrick Brown to Leon Felder—to defeat TCU (2-6) 21-10. And Nebraska required a miracle, getting it when Missouri (4-4), on the last play of the game and with the ball on the Huskers' 11, disdained a near-certain game-tying field goal in favor of a vain attempt to score the winning touchdown. Three weeks ago Alabama, which seemingly has a death grip on the No. 1 spot, got behind 17-zip to (then 4-1) Tennessee (now 4-3) before rallying; No. 5 Ohio State has had to stage frantic comebacks against both Minnesota (now 4-4-1) and UCLA (now 3-5).
And the No. 3 Southern Cal Trojans, the seemingly invincible golden boys who were supposed to run off with the national title, failed to halt a second-half surge by unranked Stanford four weeks ago and paid for it with a 21-21 tie. The Trojans were summarily dropped from the No. 1 spot in both major polls—the AP, in which writers vote, and the UPI, in which coaches vote—and now have only the slimmest chance of reclaiming the ranking before the end of the regular season.
With six undefeated teams holding down the top six positions in the AP poll, only one thing is certain: to be No. 1 this year a team must wear some shade of red. Alabama wears crimson while Houston, Nebraska and Ohio State are arrayed in scarlet; USC wears cardinal; and Florida State's color is garnet.
But among those wearing the requisite color, who really is No. 1?
The wire services say Alabama. Bill Dooley, coach of Virginia Tech, whose team has been rocked two years running by the Tide, says, "There's no difference between drowning in the Pacific and drowning in the Atlantic, but this year's Alabama team is better than last year's. I'd vote the Tide No. 1." Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder ranks USC tops, followed by 'Bama, Ohio State and Nebraska. Mort Olshan, editor and publisher of The Gold Sheet, viewed by many as the bible of football information, also plumps for Southern California. "We feel USC would be favored over any team in the country if the game were played right now," he says.
"I don't know," says Osborne. "I think it's like four blind men trying to describe an elephant. It depends where you're standing." That's what he says; he votes, however, for his Cornhuskers. At Florida State, Coach Bobby Bowden says, "Everybody is closing the gap on everybody."
All talk about No. 1 must start with Alabama. When USC faltered, then-No. 2 'Bama was promoted into the top spot. "It's nice to be No. 1," says Tide Coach Bear Bryant, "but it doesn't mean a hill of beans at this stage of the game. Yet, being No. 1 is like courting a girl. Once you get your hands on her, you never want to let her get away." Bryant knows. Just last season, half of the old girl got away—the UPI half, which went to USC—although the AP awarded the Tide its version of the national championship.
While all coaches are given to saying that it's not important where a team starts in the rankings but where it ends up, that's not true. To the contrary, the most significant factor in the final ratings may be the preseason poll. Witness the enviable position Alabama finds itself in:
If 'Bama isn't beaten or tied, it will end the season as national champ—never mind that a persuasive case can be made that the Tide is only the third-or fourth-best team in the country. It's a lockout, because 'Bama was the No. 2 preseason choice in the AP poll. As soon as USC was tied, Alabama moved to the top, there to remain until it slips up. Even if Nebraska finishes 11-0, which means it must beat Oklahoma on Nov. 24, the only chance the folks in Lincoln would have to legitimately shout "We're No. 1" would be for the Huskers to play—and beat—Alabama in the Orange Bowl. That's a possibility. Which is more than Ohio State has. Even if the Buckeyes roll on, beating Michigan and finishing 11-0, No. 1 is a pipe dream in Columbus. It matters not a whit that both Oklahoma and Michigan are tougher than any three teams put together on Alabama's schedule. 'Bama got there first.
Bob Devaney, athletic director at Nebraska, correctly says that the best way to get to be No. 1 is to start out there in September and win every week. If not, then a team must wait for the team or teams ahead of it to be beaten. The voting is by rote. It's like a very conservative corporation in which the vice-president invariably becomes president even though the treasurer might be far better qualified.
Which, in a year like this, is too bad. That's mostly because, simply put, Alabama has a creampuff schedule. The Tide has not had, and will not have, a rigorous test of its considerable skills during the regular season. Its opponents have a cumulative record of 21-33-2, a winning percentage of .393; the NCAA has added up the numbers and found that Alabama is playing only the 106th most difficult schedule in the country. (See box on page 40 for how the Top Six undefeateds have compared so far this season.) This is understandable, because 'Bama has rushed out to do battle with the likes of Wichita State and Virginia Tech. Bryant, a man given to mumbling when sensitive issues are brought up, mumbles, "I make no apology for Wichita State." Well, he should.
In fairness, Alabama doesn't always go for the runts. Last year, for example, both Southern Cal and Nebraska were on the Tide's schedule. But in their places this season are Wichita State (1-8) and Georgia Tech (2-5-1). After blitzing another newcomer, Baylor, 45-0, Bryant grumped, "Our offense never established that much consistency." So, you can see, it's not always wise to take everything Bryant says at face value.
Another reason for Alabama's soft schedule is the weakened condition of the SEC this year. The conference's members—save 'Bama—are playing their poorest football in recent memory. The team with the league's best record aside from Alabama is Georgia (4-0 in the SEC, but 0-4 in non-conference games), which lost 31-0 to Virginia, an ACC also-ran, last Saturday. Georgia and Alabama will not play each other this season. If Georgia defeats its two remaining SEC opponents, the Bulldogs, who have not been to the Sugar Bowl since 1977, will get the tickets to New Orleans this year, because 'Bama has been there more recently.
All of which is terribly unfair to the Tide players, who wouldn't call in sick if asked to meet Nebraska or Ohio State out behind the stands some afternoon this fall, or anywhere on New Year's Day. Alabama has been beset with injuries, including one to its best offensive player, Running Back Major Ogilvie, who has been out two weeks with a muscle pull in his pelvis. But the Crimson Tide is good and deep. Emory Bellard, the Mississippi State coach, says, "You don't lose much when injuries hit you and you replace a horse with a horse."
Tide offensive coordinator Mai Moore admits, "It doesn't seem we have a weakness. Which I can't explain, because we don't have a lot of great players." Junior Defensive Tackle Byron Braggs says, "If you need a reason for our success, it's Coach Bryant." Yup, some things never change. One is that Bryant will mess up pronouncing the names of his players; the other is that he sure gets them to play. The Tide defense, for example, is giving up only five points per game.
That figure was only slightly exceeded in Saturday's 24-7 conference victory over Mississippi State, the Tide's 21st straight SEC win. It was also its 17th victory in a row, the longest streak in or out of conference in the nation. 'Bama's star of the game was Steadman Shealy, who ran for 190 yards to break the school's quarterback rushing record set by Pat Trammell in 1959. One State player, Defensive Back Kenny Johnson, was unimpressed. "They're not No. 1 in my mind," he said. "The writers and coaches may not think they can be beat, but they can." Bryant agreed, saying, "We won, but I'm not too sure we beat them." Whatever, the fact remains that it's not Alabama's fault that Mississippi State isn't ranked.
Alabama isn't the only high-ranked team with a weak schedule. Ohio State's opponents are just marginally better, with a 28-40-2 record, which means the Buckeyes are playing only the 103rd hardest schedule in the country. Nebraska opponents are 28-30-1, and Devaney admits, "We can point to Alabama's schedule but we can't really defend ours." True. The major blights on the Husker slate this year are Utah State and New Mexico State.
Tradition also has a lot to do with determining who's No. 1. Voting for 'Bama is sort of a knee-jerk reaction. A lot of folks from places other than Alabama think that Bryant holds unfair sway over the media and coaches, that he is so powerful and mystical that those who vote in the polls believe he can look them in the eye and tell how they voted. Even better proof of the tradition theory is the example of Ohio State, where what is now being called the Reign of Terror of Woody Hayes has ended after 28 seasons. Hayes' successor is the amiable Earle Bruce. The Buckeyes weren't highly regarded at the start of the season—they weren't even ranked by the AP—but they probably would have been had King Woody still been on the throne. "Heck, we have a lot of talent," says Ohio State Guard Ken Fritz, "but I guess people didn't think any coach could put this team back together in one year."
Sadly, another key factor in No. 1ism is margin of victory. That is carefully calculated by voters, but it's highly unreliable. While some coaches run up the score, others—like Bryant, in most cases—try to remember what it's like to be stomped. 'Bama fans, an unusually silent bunch in comparison to, say, Nebraska or Florida State rooters, are also spoiled. After whomping Virginia Tech 31-7 in a game in which the margin of victory could have been far wider, the prevailing feeling among the Tide faithful was, "What's wrong?"
Comparisons with common opponents also are inexact. For example, Alabama's toughest game so far has been against Tennessee, which the Tide defeated 27-17 on Oct. 20. Tennessee got beat by Rutgers 13-7. Ergo, Rutgers is the equal of Alabama? Nebraska defensive coordinator Lance Van Zandt says, "I could probably show you by comparison that Rice is better than Southern Cal. But I don't think that's true."
There are four other NCAA Division I-A unbeatens, but they obviously don't have No. 1 potential except in the eyes of their alumni. Brigham Young has the statistics—a scoring average of 40.7 points per game and an offense that averages 525.1 yards every time it goes on the field—but the Cougars are members of the WAC and simply don't command the necessary voting power in the polls. Yale and McNeese State have spirit; Central Michigan has a tie.
How do each of the Top Six make a case for being No. 1?
For Alabama, it's easy. The Tide is.
Nebraska points to statistics nearly as good as 'Bama's against a tougher schedule. Missouri is a case in point. Before the season the Tigers were considered equal to challenging for the Big Eight title; that opinion was wrong. Still, Missouri always plays Nebraska tough. In fact the Tigers had won four of the last six meetings between the two teams. Last Saturday it looked like it might be five of seven. In an eight-second 14-point Missouri scoring spree in the third quarter, Quarterback Phil Bradley connected on a fourth-down four-yard scoring pass to Tight End Andy Gibler to bring the Tigers to within eight points of the Huskers. On the ensuing kickoff, Nebraska's returner, Anthony Steels, was blasted by Missouri's Ron Fellows, the ball popped in the air, and the Tigers' Orlando Pope grabbed it and went 17 yards for another TD. The two-point conversion was successful, and the game was tied at 20.
The Huskers knew they were in plenty of trouble. Their star, gifted I Back Jarvis Redwine, had slightly strained his right knee blocking on the point-after attempt following the second Husker touchdown and was of little use the rest of the day. More than any one player, Redwine is responsible for Nebraska aspiring to No. 1 in 1979. He's so good he has relegated I. M. Hipp, the school's all-time leading rusher, to the second team. But Hipp was also hurt, having a sprained toe. Still, Nebraska got right back to the Missouri three, thanks to the running of third-string I Back Craig Johnson—proof positive that the Huskers have the depth a No. 1 team requires. But three running plays from there netted only a yard, and kicker Dean Sukup came in to boot his third—and winning—field goal. Missouri's upset hopes were dashed when Nebraska Defensive End Derrie Nelson wrapped up Bradley before he could unloose a pass on the final play of the game. "We needed a game like this," said Redwine. "There's no stopping us now."
Southern Cal can only hope and wait. Even winning the Pac-10, going to the Rose Bowl and beating, say, Ohio State probably won't get the Trojans back on top if Alabama keeps on winning. Still, Washington State Coach Jim Walden says of USC, "There's no better team in the nation." His Cougars lost to the Trojans 50-21. Against Arizona last weekend USC was its old self, dismantling the Wildcats 34-7 behind a record-breaking performance by lefthanded Quarterback Paul McDonald, who passed for 380 yards and three touchdowns.
The polls may be crudest of all to Houston. For while the SEC and the Big Eight, among the major conferences, are clearly below par, the Southwest is its usual prepotent self. If the Cougars can win the conference title—and Texas will be a big test this Saturday—then Houston has proved it is one fine football team. But neither its reputation nor its image are gloss enough. Worse, if Houston wins the league, it will go to the Cotton Bowl, where it has only an outside chance of facing a team higher ranked than itself. "Houston," says a skeptic, "will be No. 1 when the ocean wears rubber pants to keep its bottom dry."
For Ohio State, there is only hope. "We're real good," says sophomore Quarterback Art Schlichter, who directed the Bucks to a 44-7 win over Illinois last Saturday. "What I hope is we'll be great." Says Coach Bruce, "I don't know if we have the talent to be 9-0, but the players believe they do." Washington State's Walden, whose team also was whipped by Ohio State, gives Bruce and his staff high marks for making the players "think they are better than they really are."
For Florida State, the row to hoe is even longer because it is an independent and can command no sympathy vote from conference boosters. The Seminoles' strategy is to point to its schedule. Among the undefeated six, the Seminoles had played the hardest slate going into last Saturday's games, the seventh roughest in the nation. Florida State was the only team among the biggies whose opponents had won more than they lost this year (28-23). A poor running game diminishes the Seminoles' credibility. But their defense, led by outstanding Nose-guard Ron Simmons, and an imposing passing game save the day, as it did last Saturday. Yet, Florida State still is not thought of as a big-enough football power—even though it is—to get serious national championship consideration. Which doesn't stop its players or fans from dreaming.
Nebraska Cornerback Andy Means sees the picture clearly when he says, "You've got to figure that by the end, there'll probably be one undefeated team." Good guess. But for now there are six, and they are all chanting the same chant. And believing it.
HOW THE SIX BIG UNBEATENS MATCH UP
With the college season two-thirds over, fans of the teams ranked below Alabama can muster statistics to buttress their arguments that their favorites, not the Crimson Tide, should be No. 1.
*Division I-A teams only