I've been watching college football since the early 80s and prior to this season, 1990 took the cake for the craziest season I had ever seen in terms of the contenders getting knocked off of their perches in rapid succession. In the end, voters were left with the unenviable task of picking between a 10-1-1 Colorado team and an 11-0-1 Georgia Tech team. Colorado lost at Illinois, tied Tennessee, required a fifth down to beat 4-7 Missouri and a last-minute touchdown to beat 5-6 Stanford at home and still almost blew the national title when the otherwise sane Bill McCartney decided to punt the ball to Rocket Ismail late in an Orange Bowl that his defense was dominating. Georgia Tech plodded through the underwhelming pre-Florida State ACC, tying 6-4-1 North Carolina along the way. The Jackets also required a last-minute field goal to beat 6-5 Virginia Tech at home. How were voters left in the bind of picking between two eminently flawed teams? The rest of college football collapsed. Here were the pre-season contenders:
Notre Dame - Opened with quality wins over Michigan and Michigan State before they contrived to lose at home to 5-6 Stanford, then got back into the national title race in November with big wins over Miami and Tennessee before losing at home to Penn State on a Craig Fayak field goal. The Stanford loss is very hard to explain, but the Cardinal did also give Colorado a run for their money and then closed the season with road wins over Arizona and Cal, both of which had seven wins.
Michigan - Lost the opener at South Bend despite running the Irish silly (Elvis, noooo!!!!), then ascended to #1 before losing back-to-back one-point games at home to Michigan State and Iowa. Rebounded to win their last six, finishing with a bowl rout of Ole Miss in which Michigan gained something like 700 yards of offense. Michigan was also aided by John Cooper ineptly sending Greg Frey on a option-keeper on 4th and 1 late in a 13-13 tie. The lessons? 1990 was a nadir in the coaching ranks and John Cooper made bad decisions against Michigan.
Tennessee - Tied Colorado and Auburn early in the season (the Auburn game was one of the most exciting games you'll never see on ESPN Classic) before annihilating Florida, then contrived to lose at home to an average Alabama team when a potential game-winning field goal was blocked and set up Alabama kicking a game-winner. This was at the time when Tennessee couldn't beat Alabama if the Tide announced before each play what they were going to run. The Vols then lost at home to Notre Dame to fall out of the picture.
Auburn - Ascended to #3 after the tie with Tennessee and a last-second win over Florida State before Steve Spurrier announced his arrival in the conference with an epic 48-7 beatdown that heralded the end of one era and the beginning of another. Auburn then completely collapsed, losing at home to Southern Miss and in Birmingham to Alabama before a stirring, last-minute win over Indiana in the Peach Bowl.
Florida - As per usual, was on probation. Absent their usual NCAA dilemma, the Gators would have been in the running until Florida State buried them in the first of many unhappy trips to Tallahassee for the OBC.
Florida State - Followed their customary loss at Miami with the aforementioned loss on the Plains in which they blew a 17-7 lead. That loss likely kept the Noles out of the national title at the end of the season and allowed Georgia Tech to play pre-felon Nebraska in Orlando instead of a team that could actually beat them.
Miami - Lost at BYU in the opener and then in South Bend in the last Catholics vs. Convicts match-up. The Canes took out their frustrations in one of the all-time bowl game ass whippings, a 46-3 detonation of Texas in Dallas despite accumulating roughly 450 yards in penalties.
Texas - Came into the Cotton Bowl at 10-1 having handed on-probation Houston their only loss; left thinking about a new coach. This was also in the era when the SWC consistently produced champions with gaudy records that no one took seriously.
Penn State - Lost their first two games to Texas and USC before running the table until a bowl game loss to Florida State. If you want to know why 1990 was such a bizarre year, try this on for size: the Blockbuster Bowl was the best bowl game of the season.
Washington - Recovered from an early loss to Colorado and would have been in position to win the national title if not for a three-point loss at home to a 5-6 UCLA team. Are you getting the picture that 1990 was a little bizarre?
Clemson - Lost road games to Virginia in September and Georgia Tech in October, then ran through a creamy-soft schedule before bombing Jeff George and Illinois in the bowl game. That result lent some credibility to Georgia Tech's national title aspirations.
The point of this historical babbling, other than to tickle the pleasant memories of watching games when I was 15 in lieu of having a social life, is to show that what we are experiencing this year is not unprecedented. We're only in mid-October and all of the pre-season contenders already have a loss. We're only halfway through the season and most teams play more challenging schedules in the second half as opposed to the first. South Florida at #1 or playing for the national title might seem a little strange, but is it any weirder than Georgia Tech playing for the national title in the Citrus Bowl? Or Colorado winning the national title with as many black marks on its resume as it had?
The other point to be made is that a weird season does not represent a sea-change in college football. I've heard or read umpteen "parity is upon us!" commentaries, but I've yet to hear or read anyone explain why parity has struck this year, but it didn't in 2004 or 2005 when the preseason #1 and #2 both went unbeaten and met in the national title game. 1990 was a weird year and in retrospect, it was an out-lier as 1991 and 1992 both featured major programs going unbeaten from start to finish in the regular season. Talking heads are typically reluctant to simply throw up their hands and say "shit happens," but this might be the year to do so.