Coach John Robinson is not shy about talking—yea, rhapsodizing—over his Rose Bowl-bound Southern California team. "Let's face it," he says, "these are not average human beings. They're amazing, and they're the most serious group I've ever been around. They even listen to me. But what we have had to learn is how to survive while hearing every day that there is no way we can possibly lose a game because we have all these great players. The problem, of course, is: flattery is seducing."
Nobody knows about seduction better than USC. While the Trojans were rolling along toward their widely conceded ninth national championship, a dreadful thing happened on the second Saturday in October: they got tied 21-21 by unranked Stanford (5-5-1).
Abruptly, the "most impressive college football team I've ever seen" (former Michigan State Coach Duffy Daugherty) was perhaps not even the most impressive college football team on the West Coast in 1979. And what with a bevy of teams—most notably Alabama and Ohio State—playing deep into the season without a loss or a draw, the once-tied Trojans limped along in oblivion, which is what a No. 3 (AP) or No. 2 (UPI) ranking is considered to be at Southern California.
But they didn't ever lose, finishing with a 10-0-1 record. And pollsters sometimes reward perseverance. Thus, the Trojans go to their Jan. 1 date in Pasadena against undefeated, untied, No. 1-ranked (AP) Ohio State with a second chance to prove what is widely suspected—that they are the best in the land. This will be the first time since 1969 that the Rose Bowl has matched a pair of unbeatens (the situation was identical then, with USC having a tie and Ohio State being undefeated: the Buckeyes won), and just about everyone is delighted at the prospect of a national champion being crowned in Pasadena, especially NBC.
But hold on. While the Rose Bowl seems to have the battle for No. 1, the Sugar Bowl game between Alabama and Arkansas cannot be ignored in the national championship equation. If the Rose Bowl ends in a tie and Alabama wins, Alabama is No. 1. If Arkansas wins, everybody takes a saliva test. If Ohio State wins big, it's No. 1. And while it is a stickier call, it appears that if USC wins and Alabama wins, the Trojans will get to wear the championship crown.
Arkansas Coach Lou Holtz is his usual off-the-wall self in discussing how to defend against Alabama's potent wishbone offense. "The problem is: even if you break the wishbone, you don't always get the big end," Holtz says. "They control the ball so much that if we don't bring a ball of our own, we might not get to hold one."
Nobody, however, poor-mouths better than Alabama's Bear Bryant. He says, "I'm not 50% the coach I was 15 years ago. But in the middle of the season, I thought this would become the best team I've ever been around. But then we had all these crippling injuries. Still, these players have been a great joy to me." Yes, indeed. For Alabama is undefeated and was the unanimous choice for No. 1 after USC suffered its Stanford calamity.
The Tide retained that distinction until the final regular-season poll earlier this month, when the writers who ballot in the AP poll summoned the courage to vote the facts, which are: Alabama played such a light schedule—it included the likes of 5-6 Virginia Tech, 1-10 Wichita State and 0-10-1 Florida—that the Tide had little chance to prove its supremacy. Or disprove it. Therefore, it was dropped to No. 2, and Ohio State moved to the top. However, in the UPI—or coaches'—poll, Alabama impressed enough voters to retain its No. 1 spot. Last year AP named Alabama national champs, and UPI picked USC. There could be more split vision this year.
Anyway, for those of you who aren't going to be in the country on New Year's Day, here's the way it will go:
Southern Cal will dismantle Ohio State, behind Heisman winner Charlie White, the nation's leading rusher, with 180.3 yards a game, and a marvelous offensive line anchored by All-America Guard Brad Budde, who correctly says, "Without us, you wouldn't hear of Charles White." The game will prove to the talented and tenacious Bucks that even if the rest of the state of California is laid-back and mellow, the Trojans aren't. The win should give USC the national championship. And that holds true even if Alabama puts Arkansas away in New Orleans. What could upset this scenario would be one of those stirring come-from-behind wins for the Tide, which would: 1) establish the fact that Arkansas is a worthy opponent; 2) establish Alabama as a team with heart as well as personnel; and 3) allow the writers who voted for USC in the final season poll to get back on Bear's good side—he has likened the turncoats to "that Ayatollah fella."
Surprisingly, both the Rose and Sugar Bowl games could well turn on passing, though Alabama, Ohio State and Southern Cal traditionally have been known for their running games. Nowhere is the matchup more exciting than in the Rose Bowl where USC's All-America senior, Paul McDonald, and Ohio State's phenomenal sophomore, Art Schlichter, match wits and arms.
During the 28-year reign of Woody Hayes, Buckeye fans only had heard rumors that a football could be thrown. Now they know it can, Schlichter having completed 94 of 179 passes for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns. Though he's a sophomore he already has all the Ohio State career passing records. Predictably he has the perfect attitude for a thrower. "Know what you do if you miss a pass?" he says. "You try to complete the next one." Ah, life is so simple when you're 19. And when you have on hand a receiver like 6'1", 180-pound Flanker Doug Donley, whom Schlichter describes as "the fastest white guy I've ever seen."
Donley, who was spotted in a recruiting film while the Buckeye coaches were watching another player, is called White Lightning by his teammates. He and Schlichter practice constantly during the summer. "Art knows what kind of pattern I'll run," says Donley. "He knows when I'm going to run an out or come back on a post. At first when we worked out, we had to think about it. But the more we did it, the more it became natural, instinctive. I don't think about catching the ball." He just does it, having grabbed 33 this year for 690 yards and five touchdowns.
Schlichter and Donley may have started to learn each other's moves back in high school when they guarded each other in a 1977 district playoff basketball game. "We argue about how many points I got," says Schlichter, who played for Miami Trace (Ohio) High. "I think it was 19. He says he held me to six." Sniffs Donley, who performed for Cambridge (Ohio) High, "I'm sure he didn't get double figures against me." In fact, Schlichter had 17 points, Donley got nine. Donley's team won.
But Schlichter has become a winner at Ohio State since he stopped throwing interceptions—21 in '78 vs. only five in '79. The main difficulty for the Buckeyes is that their tackles—both offensively and defensively—are a little small. If USC starts pushing them around, which it should, Ohio State players will have to be content with humming a few bars of Wait 'til Next Year.
If Schlichter's passing has been attracting more attention, mostly because it's such a novelty in Columbus, the passing of Southern Cal lefthander McDonald has compiled even glossier numbers—153 completions out of 240 attempts for 1,989 yards and 17 touchdowns. He, too, had only five interceptions. Helping to make McDonald, an academic All-America (3.69 average) who majors in accounting, look awfully good is little (5'8", 155 pounds) Kevin Williams, who has made 23 catches this year—incredibly, seven of them for touchdowns.
The two are now known as the Bug and the Brain. But when Williams, White's teammate at San Fernando High, arrived at USC, his reputation was for driving coaches buggy with his bad hands. Even McDonald says, "I never thought he'd make it." Practice has changed that. "I have a number of flat-out speeds," says the now-surehanded Williams, "and that tends to confuse defensive backs." His slowest pace is blazing and it goes up from there, which is why McDonald exults, "No one can cover Kevin one-on-one."
One big advantage for the McDonald-Williams connection is the presence of Heisman Trophy-winner White. For if a team thinks too much about stopping the pass, White will destroy it. In fact, if the opposition concentrates exclusively on the run, White might wreak havoc, anyway.
Southern Cal is more vulnerable against the pass than Ohio State, because neither its secondary nor its cornerbacks have been brilliant this season. "Our offense is the best I've ever been around," Robinson says, "but our defense has not been able to snuff people out like some of ours in the past."
When it comes to scoring defense, Alabama leads the nation, having allowed only 5.3 points (and 180.1 yards) per game. But the Tide, too, has a potent passing combination in Quarterback Stead-man Shealy and Split End Keith Pugh, who says, "When a ball is thrown, I consider it mine." Twenty-five times this year it has been, and one of his two touchdowns was a crucial score against Auburn when the Tide was struggling.
In the Alabama wishbone, passing is not normally a big part of the game plan, but against a stubborn Arkansas defense, it may come into play more. And while Shealy, another academic All-America (3.56 average, physical education major) is known mostly as a runner, he has completed 45 of 81 of his passes this season for 717 yards.
Passing is no big deal for Arkansas, although Wide Receiver Robert Farrell is capable of making clutch catches of tosses from the accurate if lightly employed arm of Kevin Scanlon.
However these bowl games wind up, someone will become national champion. And, again, some folks will be dissatisfied with the final verdict of the polls. Which again points up the need for a genuine playoff for the title. Say Alabama beats Arkansas. Might not a ticket or two be sold to see 'Bama knock heads with the Rose Bowl winner? It's like Ohio State Coach Earle Bruce says, "The better the opponent, the better we seem to play. I like that. Golly, I like that." So does everyone else.
Michigan (8-3) vs. North Carolina (7-3-1)
Can Bo Schembechler finish a season with a victory? Can Amos remain famous? Can Michigan get off an unblocked punt? The game that poses these momentous questions is the Gator Bowl, and the opponents, Michigan, No. 14 in the AP poll, and unranked North Carolina, are the least likely pairing on the postseason schedule.
Under normal circumstances. Bo would not take his team as far south as Ypsilanti for a game against the fifth-place finisher in the ACC, but as the Wolverines and bowl committees have proved, things ain't what they used to be. For instance, while North Carolina and two other ACC teams (Wake Forest and Clemson) got bowl bids, North Carolina State got nothing for winning the conference championship.
This season also has been the most unsuccessful in Schembechler's 11 years at Ann Arbor, even though a total of eight points accounted for all three Michigan losses. Had he been given his druthers, Bo probably would have elected to stay home and brood about his kicking game. That aspect of the Wolverines' offense yielded only 45 points—36 PATs and three field goals—while allowing four blocked punts and generating 100,000-plus catcalls every time the Wolverine kicking unit took the field at Michigan Stadium.
Nonetheless, Schembechler should be pleased that his players voted to go to Jacksonville, because the 1978 Gator Bowl will probably snap his 10-year string of season-ending losses. Under Schembechler, Michigan's record in final games is 0-9-1. More galling still is the fact that six of those losses have come in bowls.
The Wolverines have a running attack led by Butch Woolfolk and the defense to break that streak. Michigan's offense rolled up 403.7 yards per game and racked up 40 touchdowns. Against the rush, the Wolverines allowed only 99.3 yards a game and eight TDs, which bodes ill for Famous Amos Lawrence, the Tar Heel tailback who ran for 1,019 yards though he missed four starts. Quarterback Matt Kupec, who hit 54% of his passes for 1,587 yards and 18 touchdowns, should test Michigan's secondary. Still, this is one final the Wolverines should pass.
HALL OF FAME CLASSIC
Missouri (6-5) vs. South Carolina (8-3)
Their offensive styles are dissimilar and so are their records, but when South Carolina and Missouri do battle in the third-ever Hall of Fame Classic in Birmingham, it will be a game between kindred souls.
In addition to both teams coming from towns named Columbia, the Gamecocks and Tigers have something else in common—controversy. South Carolina, which had its first eight-victory season since 1903, has survived a season-long squabble between Coach Jim Carlen and the local media, along with a briefer beef between Carlen and the school administration. For its part, Missouri has been rapped by fans for accepting a bowl bid at the conclusion of a mediocre season. If that weren't bad enough, the Tigers then threatened to boycott the Hall of Fame Classic over a dispute about the accommodations, or lack of same, for the team and the school band.
Similar character-building experiences may help each team to "overcome adversity," as they say in football. For the Tigers, the main adversity will be a South Carolina running game headed by George Rogers, the nation's second-leading ground-gainer, and his offensive line, known as the Moving Company.
A 6'2", 210-pound junior tailback, Rogers was named to the AP first-team All-America after he gained 1,548 yards on 286 carries and was held to less than 100 yards in only one game. Carlen compares Rogers to Earl Campbell, and on this point at least the South Carolina press is in accord with the coach. It has been beating the drums to establish Rogers as a 1980 Heisman Trophy candidate.
As good as Rogers is. South Carolina's attack is too run oriented to tame the Tigers, who are a far better team than their record indicates. Missouri barely lost (24-22) to Oklahoma and turned down a chip-shot field-goal try that might have earned a tie with Nebraska. In trying to stop Rogers, Missouri will be dealing from strength—its rushing defense. On offense. Quarterback Phil Bradley passes well enough to keep the Gamecock defense honest, which should be enough for a Tiger win.
Baylor (7-4) vs. Clemson (8-3)
For a game whose existence has been threatened by poor attendance in recent years, the Peach Bowl has created a strange attraction in hopes of filling 60,456-seat Fulton County Stadium. Touchdowns are supposed to sell tickets, but defenses are likely to dominate the matchup in Atlanta between Clemson and Baylor. If the promise of hard tackling and close competition is a good selling point, however, this edition of the Peach Bowl should be a sellout, even if neither team figures to-score in double digits.
Clemson and Baylor are two of the surprises of the '79 season, and neither is likely to be far from victory if it maintains its habit of yielding points sparingly. However, Clemson, which gave up only 92 points and eight touchdowns during the regular season, also has a moderately potent offense that should be enough to assure the Tigers their second-straight bowl victory.
The Tigers were expected to rebuild this year after Quarterback Steve Fuller and Split End Jerry Butler, among others, graduated to the NFL, but the defense and the solid kicking of Punter Dave Sims and Placekicker Obed Ariri enabled Clemson to win eight games. The Tigers' defense is led by Jim Stuckey, a 6'5", 241-pound All-America tackle, and Bubba Brown, a rangy, 210-pound linebacker. Middle Guard Charlie Bauman, who appeared as Woody Hayes' sparring partner after making a fourth-quarter interception of an Ohio State pass in the 1978 Gator Bowl, is a tough defender, too.
Baylor has rebounded from its 3-8 record of last season to gain its first bowl bid since 1974 chiefly because its defense only once has allowed an opponent's offense to score more than two touchdowns. That opponent happened to be Alabama. The Bears' stalwarts are Mike Singletary. an All-America linebacker who set a school record with 517 tackles during his three-season career, and 6'4", 210-pound End Andy Melontree, who, says Coach Grant Teaff, "is the best pass rusher I've ever had."
With rugged operatives of this sort on both defenses, the New Year's Eve game in Atlanta could turn out to be one of this season's peachiest bowls.
Purdue (9-2) vs. Tennessee (7-4)
Considering the dubious credentials of his opponent, it would appear that the prospect of going to the Bluebonnet Bowl has knocked Purdue Coach Jim Young a bit off his rocker. "We're going to be playing a good football team," Young says of his Boilermakers' clash with Tennessee, "and I think it's an even game."
Few oddsmakers or non-Tennesseans are likely to agree. Most fans were astonished when the Vols accepted a bowl bid the day after a 44-20 thrashing by Ole Miss put their record at 5-4. Two Tennessee victories since, against Kentucky (5-6) and Vanderbilt (1-10), have failed to dispel the notion that Coach Johnny Majors' team really deserved to be home for the holidays. Through a fitful season, which featured a 17-7 halftime lead over Alabama that was a prelude to a 27-17 defeat, a win over Notre Dame and a loss to Rutgers, the Volunteers have demonstrated a remarkable ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Tennessee does have speed in the skill positions and a dangerous quarterback in Jimmy Streater, who passed for 1,256 yards, but even if they play above their heads. Majors' young squad probably will be little threat to Purdue.
For one thing, the Boilermakers have never been beaten in a bowl game, and, for another, they are riding a six-game win streak. Because the Bluebonnet is held in the Astrodome, there is no chance the weather will dampen the accuracy of Purdue Quarterback Mark Herrmann, who threw for 2,074 yards and 13 touchdowns this season.
At the receiving end of Herrmann's passes, look for 6'3" Tight End Dave Young, like Herrmann a junior, who comes into the bowl with 51 receptions. Herrmann certainly will.
The Boilermakers' bid for their first 10-victory season will be abetted by a rugged defensive unit that features End Keena Turner and is particularly stingy against the run. Purdue held six of 11 opponents to less than 100 yards on the ground and should suffer no falloff against Tennessee.
Houston (10-1) vs. Nebraska (10-1)
When Houston and Nebraska square off in the Cotton Bowl, past embarrassments will be a motivating factor for each team. The eighth-ranked Cougars are still red-faced over the Cotton Bowl of a year ago. when they blew a 34-12 third-quarter lead and lost to Notre Dame 35-34 on the last play of the day. "This time we're going to finish," says Houston Coach Bill Yeoman.
Nebraska once again is disappointed that a chance for a perfect record was ruined in its regular-season finale at Oklahoma, where the Cornhuskers lost by a field goal. "It was very, very painful to come that far and not make it," says Coach Tom Osborne, "but a Cotton Bowl victory will ease a lot of the pain."
While the intangibles and a matched set of defenses could make this game the most competitive in the bowl lineup, Nebraska's rushing attack should give Osborne his fifth bowl victory in the last seven seasons. The Huskers have run for 35 touchdowns and rank third in the nation with 345.1 yards a game on the ground. And if Nebraska can't move the ball with basic stuff it isn't loath to resort to trickery, such as the "guard-around" on which Randy Schleusener scooped up a "fumble" and scored from 15 yards out against Oklahoma. But Quarterback Jeff Quinn will more often call upon Jarvis Redwine. The transfer from Oregon State rushed for 1,042 yards and relegated I.M. Hipp to second string this season.
Houston also relies on its running game. The Cougars' veer ranked seventh nationally, with 296.1 yards a game, and piled up 29 touchdowns. Quarterback Delrick Brown's prime mover is Terald Clark, a 5'9", 196-pound junior who gained 1,063 yards.
The Cougars play tougher as the game goes on. In fourth quarters this season, Houston rallied to win six times and outscored the opposition 102-24. If the Cougars can somehow hold the Huskers at bay for the first three quarters, this year's fourth could be a big one—not a bad one—for Houston.
Florida State (11-0) vs. Oklahoma (10-1)
Shortly after his Florida State team had beaten archrival Florida to close out the regular season with a perfect record, Seminole Coach Bobby Bowden was asked who should be voted the No. I team in the nation. A deeply religious man, Bowden answered with a parable: "People ask us: 'Do you have the best defense in the nation?' Nope, not close. 'The best offense?' Nope, not close. 'How about your record?' Well, yeah, we're pretty close there."
But probably only until New Year's night, because the surprising Seminoles, in their first major bowl game, will be facing perennial postseason-invitee Oklahoma, which ranks second in the nation in scoring with 34.7 points per game, and a healthy and fired-up Billy Sims. The 1978 Heisman winner needs 187 yards to become the 10th NCAA player to rush for 4,000 career yards. Sims means to do it. In the Sooners' final two regular-season games, against the staunch defenses of Missouri and Nebraska, he gained a dazzling 529 yards.
Given Oklahoma's formidable offense, Bowden can thank the Lord for his 6'1", 238-pound All-America nose guard, Ron Simmons. Quick as a cornerback and strong as The Hulk, Simmons leads Florida State in bench-pressing (530 pounds) and tackles for losses (17), despite almost always being double-teamed. Yet he is the quiet sort who does not seek the limelight. "Strength can only get you so far," he says. "Then it's all up there." He points to his head, securely anchored to his 19½-inch neck.
On offense, Florida State will counter Oklahoma's ground game with the passing of interchangeable quarterbacks Wally Woodham and Jimmy Jordan. Between them they have completed 167 passes—more than twice as many as Oklahoma has attempted—for 17 TDs.
Bowden says with a grin that "the only way we can win the national championship is by an act of God...and, of course, I talk to Him every day." If Simmons can force the Sooners to bobble the ball—Oklahoma lost 36 fumbles this season—while the Seminole offense hits a bomb or two, a miracle could happen.