Anyone who understands anything about college football knew for certain that Penn State would beat Notre Dame last Saturday. After all, the Nittany Lions were ranked 18th in the Associated Press poll, had often been unimpressive despite their 7-2 record, were led by a quarterback, junior Tony Sacca, who looked miserable in games against Alabama and West Virginia that Penn State was lucky to win, and were coached by a sometimes pessimistic Joe Paterno, who mused, "I don't know whether we're physically capable of matching up with the Irish. They may be one grade higher, talentwise, than anybody in the country."
At the same time, the 8-1 Irish were ranked No. 1 by the AP, were playing a demanding schedule, were led by the sensational flanker-tailback Raghib Ismail, and featured four All-Americas, more than any other team. Oddsmakers considered all this and made Notre Dame a solid seven-point favorite.
The reason, of course, that all signs pointed to a Penn State win was that this is screwed-up 1990. Topsy-turvy 1990. What is supposed to happen in 1990, does not. Texas coach David McWilliams calls this college football season "complete chaos." Illinois coach John Mackovic says, "I can't recall a wilder year." Losers win, winners lose. Up is down in 1990, and down is up.
So it seemed fitting that in the gloaming at South Bend, with the game tied at 21, Penn State "hero" back Darren Perry would intercept a horribly errant Rick Mirer pass with 59 seconds to go and run it back to the Irish 19. And it seemed perfectly logical that an unheralded Penn State freshman kicker named Craig Fayak would calmly drill a 34-yard field goal with eight seconds left to win the game 24-21. It was significant that Ismail missed the entire second half after aggravating a badly bruised right thigh just before intermission. Whether Ismail has the ball or not, the fact that he might get it intimidates the opposition. But injuries are no excuse. That's football, and what college football is this year is an incredibly wacky adventure.
November 26, 1990
For example, on Oct. 13, Arizona, a 21½-point favorite over lowly Oregon State, was ripped 35-21. One week later, Iowa State, a 23½-point underdog to Oklahoma, traveled to Norman and beat the Sooners, 33-31, for the first time since 1961. With two Saturdays left in the season, seven major games have been won by teams that were underdogs by 17 points or more. Stanford fullback Tommy Vardell, who scored four touchdowns on Oct. 6 as the 17½-point-underdog Cardinal upset then No. 1-ranked Notre Dame 36-31 in South Bend, says, "Maybe the poor teams are just sick of losing."
Georgia Tech, which had lost 16 straight games in the ACC until midway through last season, is 9-0-1, the only undefeated major team in the land, and No. 3 in the AP poll. For the first time in its history, Virginia was No. 1, for three straight weeks, before being unceremoniously dumped, first by Georgia Tech, 41-38 on Nov. 3, then last Saturday, 35-30 by Maryland, which had been 5-5 and ready to shop for a new coach. Kansas State, the school with the worst record in the history of major college football, finished at 5-6; the Wildcats had a total of three wins from 1986 through '89.
Rice, beaten 17-16 by Baylor last Saturday when the Owls failed on a two-point conversion with 1:03 left, also ended its season 5-6. The Owls won only two games last year and were winless in '88. North Carolina finished 6-4-1, a five-win improvement over last year. Texas, 8-1 with two games left to play, is coming off a 5-6 year. Temple, 1-10 last season, beat Pitt and Rutgers over the last two weeks to run its record to 6-4 with one game left.
Auburn, Alabama, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Pitt and UCLA were all picked to finish in the Top 20 in the AP preseason poll. Today, not one is there.
How strange are things? Three weeks ago, against then-undefeated Houston, TCU's backup quarterback Matt Vogler passed for an NCAA-record 690 yards.
How strange are things? New No. 1 Colorado has won the Big Eight championship for the second year in a row. It's the first time that a team other than Nebraska or Oklahoma has won outright titles back-to-back in the conference since Missouri did, in 1941-42.
How strange are things? Fifteen different teams have received first-place votes in the AP poll this year. Three of the top six—No. 3 Georgia Tech, No. 5 Florida and No. 6 Texas—were not even in the Top 25 at the start of the season.
What's clear is that the day is past when next year's Top 20 can be composed, with certainty, of teams in the current year's Top 20. There will never be another Oklahoma, which won 47 straight games from 1953 to '57. There will never be another Washington, which between 1908 and 1916 went 58-0-3. The disarray of 1990-and the bedlam it portends—can be attributed to 11 factors, some of which have been at work for a fair length of time, some of which are suddenly converging and hitting with full fury.
•Scholarships. The scholarship limit of 95, reduced from 100 last year, was designed to even things out, and it seems to be working. Schools can sign only 25 players a year instead of 30, and can keep a maximum of 95. Thus talent is more spread out.
•Television. Everybody gets to watch everybody else on the tube. High school athletes, who used to be exposed only to teams in their state, or, at most, their region, now see teams from all over the country, and they get wanderlust. High school coaches learn how to coach better, players learn how to play better, and the result is everybody is doing things more alike. Ergo, the gap between haves and have-nots is narrowed.
•Offense. Dave Nelson, the secretary of the NCAA Rules Committee, says, "Offense is dominating the game. Defense used to be the thing. It's not anymore." Today there is more passing, with more sophisticated passing attacks and much greater accuracy. In 1940 passers completed only 3896 of their attempts, and two of the best quarterbacks of the pre-World War II era, TCU's Davey O'Brien and Sammy Baugh, failed to average even 50% for their careers. Today's average for all Division I-A passers is 54.6%. The nation's leader in completion percentage, Stanford quarterback Jason Palumbis, is on the money 68.6% of the time.
Nelson believes that it is more difficult to play good defense consistently because of the array of passing offenses—and that this makes for more unpredictable outcomes. A team nearly always sticks with its offensive plan for the entire season, during which the attack is honed to a fine edge. Defensive coordinators, on the other hand, must come up with a different strategy virtually every week. Offenses are so hot that if a team is averaging 31 points per game this season, it isn't even in the Top 20 in that category.
More passing also leads to more plays. In 1940 an average of 112 plays a game were executed. In 1989 that figure had climbed to 142. That means "more chances for something weird to happen," says Nelson. And when a beleaguered defense does succeed in stopping an opponent short of the goal line, another equalizer comes to the fore....
•The field goal. In 1958 there were 103 field goals. Last year there were 1,389. "It really hurts the defense," says Nelson, "to play very well and still give up half a touchdown." Last season teams made a record 69% of their field goal tries, including 50.6% of 40 yards or more. Nearly every team has a fellow who, with one swing of the foot, can undo the heroics of 11 stalwart defensive players. This is the stuff of upsets.
•Coaching stability. A lot of once-mediocre schools are finally catching on to the fact that having a revolving door at the coach's office is not so smart. Consider this: At Colorado, Bill McCartney, who was hired in 1982, promptly went 2-8-1, 4-7 and 1-10. The school stuck with him, and last season the Buffaloes played Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl for the national championship (the Irish won 21-6). On Jan. 1, Colorado will be back in the Orange Bowl for a rematch with the Irish, with the national title possibly at stake once again, and McCartney is in the first year of a shiny new 15-year contract.
At Oregon, Rich Brooks is completing his 14th year as head coach. In four of his first six years, his teams won two games, but last season the 7-4 Ducks went to the Independence Bowl (where they beat Tulsa 27-24), and this season's 8-3 squad will play in the Freedom Bowl.
Cal also got the message. Under rookie coach Bruce Snyder, the Bears were 3-6-2 in the Pac 10 in 1987; in '88 they finished last in the conference, and duplicated the feat in '89. It was at that point that athletic director Dave Maggard added another two years to Snyder's contract. On Saturday, although the Bears were edged in a wild finish by rapidly improving Stanford 27-25, they wound up 6-5 and are headed for the Copper Bowl, their first bowl appearance since 1979. To be sure, though stability counts for a ton, some schools still don't get the message. Witness Pitt, which year in and year out has superlative talent. However, the Panthers, 3-6-1 with one game left, against Penn State, have struggled mightily under four coaches in the past 10 years.
•Coaching malaise. If upstart schools have benefited from new faces, some established powers may be suffering from tired blood. Can Terry Donahue still cut it? And what about Auburn's Pat Dye? Though 7-2-1, he seems to have suffered a failure of nerve, going for a tie rather than a win—the final was 26-26—against Tennessee just as he has done in similar situations in past seasons. Success can do that to a guy. Virginia Coach George Welsh had the Cavs pass up a chance to score a fourth-quarter touchdown from the six-yard line against Georgia Tech, instead kicked a tying field goal, then watched as the Yellow Jackets came back with a field goal of their own to win 41-38. Dye, incidentally, may be playing it too safe in other ways as well. The Tigers were 3-0-1 in their first four games as freshman Stan White hit on 91 of 161 passes for 1,142 yards and eight touchdowns. In the next six games, in which Auburn was 4-2, White was only 72 of 146 for 915 yards and four touchdowns. Why did Dye become cautious? "We're a football team searching for an identity and a personality," he says.
•Tougher academic standards. Iowa State coach Jim Walden thinks they finally are kicking in. Proposition 48, which was implemented in 1986 and requires entering scholarship football players to score at least 700 (out of a maximum 1,600) on the SAT, or 15 on the ACT, could be affecting the distribution of talent. Says Walden, "Before Prop 48, the great players went to 20 percent of the schools, the ones that did all the winning. Now a lot of these great players, who unfortunately liked football more than they liked history class, can't get in. So there are fewer great players qualifying."
Some of these Prop 48 casualties, like Texas A&I's Johnny Bailey and Albert Fann of Cal State-Northridge, end up playing lower-division ball. While it takes 22 athletes at a time to play a game of football, the loss of even one supremely talented player can make the difference between a win and a loss. Consider Notre Dame's futility when Ismail is on the bench (he also missed the Stanford game), then imagine what a Bailey, who broke nearly every collegiate rushing record during his career with the Javelinas—he's now with the Chicago Bears—would have meant to a top-level Division I team.
Second-year coach Fred Goldsmith of Rice thinks the tougher standards have helped schools that are on the top rung academically—Rice, Georgia Tech, Virginia. That's because the players are required to get themselves better educated in high school and that, in turn, helps them score better on entrance tests.
•Fewer anabolic steroids. Some of the biggest, toughest college football teams of the past decade had lots of chemical help. Some schools refused to get involved—or were not sophisticated enough to figure out the pharmacological technology—and thus were being manhandled not by opposing players but by science. These days, while nobody is professing that steroids are a thing of the past, the feeling is that bodybuilding drugs are on the wane. That has helped level the playing field.
•Emotion. It still counts for a lot, and as the level of talent evens out, a little bit more heart can provide the edge. Don't forget that on Oct. 6, Fresno State, ranked 24th, was embalmed by Northern Illinois, 73-18, one week after the Huskies had lost to woeful Northwestern; don't forget that on Oct. 20, The Citadel, a I-AA school with barely 2,000 students, beat South Carolina 38-35, in Columbia.
Illinois's Mackovic says that Iowa was able to beat his team 54-28 on Nov. 3 because the Hawkeyes were "much more ready emotionally." Never mind the hard facts that by any other measure Illinois is a better team than Iowa. Yet Iowa has the Rose Bowl bid all but locked up and Illinois will be playing in the Hall of Fame Bowl.
Two weeks ago, Washington, with an 8-1 record and headed for the Rose Bowl, was a 21-point favorite against UCLA. The Bruins, 4-5 and on their way to their second straight losing season for the first time since 1963-64, defeated the Huskies 25-22. Nobody thinks UCLA is better than Washington.
•Players leaving early for the pros. Clearly, USC was badly hurt when linebacker Junior Seau and defensive back Mark Carrier entered the NFL draft after their junior seasons. With them, the Trojans almost certainly would have been back to the Rose Bowl. Without them, USC has had to settle for the John Hancock Bowl. At Illinois, quarterback Jeff George, the NFL's No. 1 pick last spring, would have made the Illini a strong national title contender. At Pitt, All-America defensive tackle Marc Spindler departed early for the pros, leaving a huge hole. Altogether, 38 underclassmen bailed out, and the ripple effect is still being felt.
•Money talks. A number of schools simply are tired of being beaten. So they are spending to stop the hemorrhaging. Losing schools realize that the alternative to dropping down a division, or dropping the sport altogether, is to invest as much money in their programs as the Nebraskas and Michigans. During the '80s, Georgia Tech spent $30 million on athletic facilities. Kansas State nearly doubled its recruiting budget. This may be a case of skewed priorities in an era of tight money for higher education, but college presidents know how easy it is for a football score to find its way into The New York Times and how hard it is for an accomplishment in the biology lab to make news.
So, weird as it is, 1990 is not a fluke. Don't look for a return to the days of perennial powerhouses and predictable doormats anytime soon. Last Saturday, Mississippi lost to Tennessee 22-13. Business as ususal in the SEC? Not exactly. The loss narrowly deprived 8-2 Ole Miss of its first Sugar Bowl appearance since 1970. Says coach Billy Brewer of his team, and other reborn bowl contenders: "We haven't turned the corner yet, but we've got our blinkers on."