O.K., Dr. Rorschach, we need your help. We've been trying to devise a scientific method to determine which conference plays the best collegiate football. We already have thrown out the MAC, the PCAA and the ACC, the Southland, Southern and Missouri Valley, for the same reason the Pepsi Challenge never includes Sun-drop cola. Besides, they all sound like names of railroads. Then we dumped the Ivy Group because those schools just aren't serious enough—let Merrill Lynch evaluate them. You agree, don't you? Then we took the rest of them and asked some penetrating questions like: Who is Norman Oklahoma and why? What do Arizona and Arizona State have to do with the Pacific Ocean? Would the Pop Warner League get more respect if it lured Northwestern away from the Big Ten? We called the NCAA to get some numbers—you need numbers for this sort of duty—and we ran the whole mess through our computer. But all it spit out were these curious-looking inkblots. We thought if anyone could make something of them, Dr. Rorschach, it would be you.
For instance, here is the blot that came out on the Big Ten. What do you see?
"A 280-pound man named Kowalski pushing at a 285-pound man also named Kowalski."
Ah, very perceptive. Look at this one. The Big Eight. What comes to mind with this one?
"Skinny black man with kerchief on head pulling covered wagon."
"Turkey's wishbone. This is extremely boring."
Western Athletic Conference?
"Mmmmm. Either the Mormon Tabernacle Choir throwing coconuts or the exercise yard at San Quentin."
"Very simple. That's either Robert Redford, as a surfer, or Sidney Poitier in a remake of The Great Escape."
"A dancing Bear putting Atlanta to the torch."
Now, which conference do you think plays the best football?
"What is this football?"
Thanks a lot, Doc.
Determining the "best" conference requires more subjectivity than objectivity, so let us subject ourselves to the numbers that choked up from the computer and see if we can get them into recognizable shape. And, hoo boy, are there numbers. But before we go on, a word of caution. Numbers can be insidious, considering the fact that they are the cherished playthings of three groups of less-than-savory characters: television executives, gamblers and so-called Figure Filberts, those pathetic, frustrated creatures who spend their lives secretly reading The Sporting News under the covers. Now, a gambler might tell you the Big Ten is the best conference, because the teams there play according to form with disgusting consistency—Michigan on the road, take the points and pour the martini. A TV guy likes the Pac-10 because USC televises almost as well as Morgan Fairchild. The Figure Filbert? He wants to look at the record?
Well, the records imply that the No. 1 conference is the Southeastern, largely because it has brought us the national champion (via the notoriously unscientific AP poll) three years in a row—Georgia last season and Alabama twice before that. But what of it? Suppose, say, Alabama goes undefeated—just glides through its conference games, knocks off those notorious toughies Southern Mississippi and Rutgers, gets lucky against Penn State and wins its bowl game. Sure, the Bear (Paul Bryant, that is) will be dancing and Atlanta burning. Alabama will get the better of Georgia in the rankings, and Bryant, incidentally, will become college football's alltime winningest coach. And Alabama doesn't even have to play Georgia this year.
All right, the SEC had the best non-conference record last year, 34-19, including wins in the Sugar (Georgia over Notre Dame), Cotton (Alabama over Baylor) and Tangerine (Florida over Maryland) bowls. But wait a minute. Baylor? Maryland? Come on. And a lot of those other wins came over the likes of Bowling Green, Louisiana Tech and Utah State—practice games. It all amounts to a cheesy non-conference schedule. Premier example: Auburn, 5-6 on the season, got all its wins outside the conference, against such powerhouses as Richmond (5-6), Duke (2-9), Georgia Tech (1-9-1), Southern Mississippi (9-3) and TCU (1-10). In fact, excluding the bowls, the entire SEC played nine games with outside teams that finished in the nation's Top 20—and lost eight. But, of course, there's also a major exception: Big Bad Georgia. Yes, Herschel Walker and friends did beat Notre Dame, and the Bulldogs did finish 12-0, but they had the 114th-toughest schedule—measured by opponents' won-lost records—in the nation. You can look it up.
By the same token, the vaunted Southwest Conference loves to beat up on the Lamars, North Texas States, Texas-Arlingtons and El Pasos of the world. Eight of its 18 outside wins came against patsies from the "other" conferences. SWC champion Baylor—10-1, right? The stats say 74 NCAA Division I-A schools had tougher schedules. In regular-season games against Top 20 teams, the SWC went 1-5. In the bowls, two wins (Garden State and Hall of Fame—big deal) in five. An "off' year for Texas and Arkansas, you say? O.K., O.K. Look at the long-term bowl records. Over the past three years the SWC ranks fourth among conferences. Over 10 years it ranks sixth. That should spell out the true efficacy of the wishbone and its bastard offspring: f-o-w-1.
We'll take the WAC over the SWC, even if some of its schools seem to recruit from the cast of I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Was any game better than last season's Holiday Bowl, in which BYU Quarterback Jim McMahon—holder of 34 NCAA offensive records—brought the Cougars back from 20 points down in the fourth quarter to defeat SMU 46-45?
Now, the Big Ten has inspired volumes of jokes since Michigan and Ohio State took it over in the late '60s and proceeded to lose 10 of 12 Rose Bowls to the Pac-10 (Pac-8 before 1978). But last year was a Big One for the Big Ten. Kowalski vs. Kowalski might make a good title for a Brando movie, but it doesn't describe the Big Ten any more than "Big Two, Little Eight" once did. Maybe the Big Ten used to resemble a cattle drive; now it's more diversified. Michigan's Anthony Carter was catching passes; Purdue's Mark Herrmann, Ohio State's Art Schlichter and Illinois' Dave Wilson were throwing them. And Michigan won the Rose Bowl! Purdue won the Liberty Bowl! O.K., Ohio State lost the Fiesta Bowl, but all three teams ended up in the Top 20. Outside its conference, the Big Ten went 12-18-1, not too good. Thirteen of those games were against teams that wound up in the Top 20. No other conference had as tough an outside schedule. Too bad the Big Ten lost 12 straight before breaking through in the Rose Bowl or we would be making an even stronger case for the rise of the Big Ten here. As it is, despite the long Rose Bowl drought, the Big Ten has represented itself a little better in bowls the last three years, going 5-5.
Among conferences committed to a major bowl, Oklahoma—that is, the Big Eight—has been as good as anyone over the past three years. Yes, Oklahoma, with quarterbacks like the bandannaed Thomas Lott and wispy J.C. Watts, has won three straight Orange Bowls. So what? In the last two, it-beat overrated Florida State teams, and before that it beat its own clone, Nebraska. The fact is that Big Eight football is as exciting as the geography of the land the conference spans. The Big Ten finally got smart and added the forward pass to its football, and now we like it. So how come Big Eight quarterbacks always seem to be drafted into the pros as defensive backs? Last year the Big Eight went 2-2 against the SEC, 0-2 against the SWC and 0-3-1 against the Pac-10. Oklahoma, 10-2, lost to Stanford, which went 3-4 in conference, 3-1 outside. Against "others," the Big Eight won nine of 12. Bully, bully.
So finally we come to the Pac-10, where the power I was invented, the conference that brought us Billy Kilmer, Dan Fouts, Jim Plunkett and, of course, those USC tailbacks from Garrett to O.J. to Charlie White. Forget about Notre Dame. What we're talking about here is the prototypical American red-blooded golden-boy football players, such as Stanford Quarterback John Elway, who has the looks of a movie star and gives Academy Award performances in game films. Perhaps it is because life is so laid back on the Coast that multidimensional football has been able to flourish there, while elsewhere in the country bone busting and tooth gnashing have become more the order of the game. Perhaps life is too laid back, and that's why five Pac-10 schools were nailed for eligibility-cheating last year—by the conference's presidents and chancellors, it should be noted—and banned from postseason play. The rest of the nation was lucky. The Pac-10 went 21-15-1 outside its conference—7-3 versus the Big Ten, 5-4 against major independents and 4-4 against Top 20 teams.
As good a way as any to determine the best conference is to look at the 1980 NFL rosters. The Super Bowl-champion Oakland Raiders listed eight players from the Pac-10. By contrast, New Orleans, the league's worst team, had 11 from the Big Eight. Overall, the Pac-10 had 140 players on NFL rosters, followed by the Big Eight with 132, the SEC with 102, the Big Ten with 96 and the SWC with 90. In the 1981 rookie draft, the Pac-10 led the way again with 42 players chosen, to 32 from runner-up Big Eight.
Of course, you Tuscaloosans and Texans, you Athenians from Georgia, Nor-maniacs from Oklahoma and Michiguanas from Ann Arbor—and, yes, you effete Ivy snobs—may all disagree. You may not give a hoot for the NFL, Robert Redford or dancing bears. You want to like your conference, go ahead. We admit it—we liked the Pac-10 even before this whole exercise began. Prejudice is where it's at, anyway.
As Herr Doktor Professor Hermann Rorschach might put it, "Wer bezahlt, hat die Wahl."
Which means, of course, "You pays your money, you takes your choice."