Monday, October 15, 2007

It's 1990 all over again!

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.


Anonymous said...

I understand this was before the era of 12 team conferences and their championship games, but those non-conference games still make me nostalgic.

Miami-Notre Dame
Tennessee-Notre Dame
Auburn-Florida State
Penn State-Texas
Penn State-Southern Cal

All of those programs were either consistent top 20 or better programs or riding a magic player or class for a two or three year role in the nation's football consciousness.

Those games are definitely missed. Plus, you get to see Big Ten area football exposed in the regular season instead of having it clutter up the national championship showdown.

This also reminded me of one my favorite signs ever. From Georgia Tech's bowl game: "If we had five downs, we'd be 11-0."

peacedog said...

I agree that the national media has been spinning this weirdly. Scholarships changed right in the late 80s/early 90s, but we're only now seeing the parity? Nonsense. While it would take a little time for such a move to affect the landscape, it wouldn't take 15+ (or however many) years. It's a nonsensical attempt to explain things, made by people who feel obliged to make attempts.

Also, will someone please explain to the national announcers that QB rotations didn't spring into being last year? Gah.

Anonymous said...

We still have great non-conferece games, they are not a thing of the past, in fact the 12 game schedule has allowed for more of them. I think the non-conference slate is actually better now. This is just this year, remember that OSU played Texas the previous two years.

Va. Tech-LUS
So. Fla-Auburn
Ka. St.-Au
Ok. St-UGA

Anonymous said...

I didn't forget those games. However, the stature of the teams from the 1990 list dwarfs those from this season.

VT-LSU is the only contest between two teams in the preseason top 10, and also the only one involving opponents likely to finish in the top 15. Oregon-Michigan, Cal-UT, and South Florida-Auburn might make it, but most of the others involve brand name programs on the decline.

Weird that three of the four come from the league blasted by rivals for "ducking" tough OOC opponents.

Ed said...

To the person who wrote that we still have great non-conference games, consider this:

In the year following the subject of Michael's post, Michigan played Notre Dame and Florida consecutive weeks.

Things now are very different.

Michael said...

In my sophomore year at UM (1994), Michigan played BC, ND, and Colorado as its three OOC games (and in three consecutive weeks, to boot). Michigan will never do that again and they're following an overall trend away from scheduling more than one quality OOC game every year. USC seems to be the only program that loads its OOC slate up the way that programs did in the 80s and 90s (and why not when those games are seemingly the only ones their players are motivated to play?).

I was really struck by Colorado's OOC slate in '90: Tennessee (SEC Champion), Washington (Pac Ten Champion), Illinois (3rd in the Big Ten), Texas (SWC champion), and Stanford (no slouch, as ND found out). If you want to know how a team wins a national title with a loss and a tie, that explains it. No one plays such a brutal OOC slate anymore.

What struck me in looking back at 1990 is that so many of the contenders played one another. When I walked through the top ten that year, there were plenty of links between them. What links are going to exist this year?

Trey said...


In 1990, Miami, Notre Dame, Florida State, and Penn State were all Independents, which meant they had to play these games to fill out the schedule.

Once those teams took the moneygrab and joined a conference with 8 mandatory conference games in an 11 game season, only Florida State regularly kept up the gauntlet of a schedule with Florida and Miami every year (of course, Miami would have continued to play Florida, but the Gators refused). With the addition of the 12th game, teams are getting bold again (or for the first time), which brings back the happy.

Anonymous said...

You beat me to it, Realist.

For example, in the 3 years previous to joining the Big Ten, PSU played regular season games against Texas, USC, BC, Alabama, WVU, Maryland, Notre Dame, GTech, BYU, Miami, and Pitt.

Anonymous said...

I will post again to defend myself. In looking at teh OOC slate in 1990, ND was involved in two of those games. IF they were any decent this year, we would have had ND Penn State, ND Michigan, ND UCLA, all top 20 preseason teams. Tenn and Cal was a huge game opening weekend, and if Mich had not lost to App State, Mich Oregon would have been two top ten teams as well.

Louisville/Kent was also an OOC game that was big, and Texas TCU were both top 20 preseason.

susieandrew said...

anon 12:22pm,

for the record, Oregon wasn't ranked until after beating Michigan, and then only 19 (AP)/21 (coaches). Oregon didn't break into the top 10 in either poll until week 6.

Chris said...

Georgia Tech should have had the outright title that year...I still can't believe that Colorado-Mizzou 5th down BS...worst officiating ever.