Thursday, October 01, 2009

I'm About Ready to Do the Humpty Dance All Over Again

For the past several weeks, I've struggled when filling out my Blogpoll ballot. After the obligatory Alabama-Florida-Texas trio at the top of the ballot, it's hard to find teams who genuinely look like top ten outfits. For me, a disordered college football universe always throws me back to 1990, a season that ended with the national title being split between a Colorado team that lost a game, tied a game, and required a fifth down to beat Missouri, and a Georgia Tech team that tied a game against North Carolina and, let's be honest here, did not play the most challenging schedule in the pre-Florida State ACC. (If you want another historical example as to why the BCS is an improvement over the old bowl structure, look at Georgia Tech getting a share of the national title against a mediocre Nebraska the noon time slot on New Year's Day in the Citrus Bowl. A national title being decided in a game that kicked off at 12 in Orlando? Yes, it happened. With the BCS in place, Colorado would have played Georgia Tech and we would have had a true title game.)

This is what the 1990 preseason AP poll looked like. The preseason top ten represented a who's who of programs that were on top of their game at the end of the 80s: Miami, Notre Dame, Auburn, Florida State, Colorado, Michigan, Nebraska, Tennessee, USC, and Clemson. By the time the teams had played on the first Saturday in October, things looked a little different. Of the preseason top ten:

1. Miami lost its opener at BYU. (And lest we think that this was a vintage BYU team, the Cougars lost their final two games 59-28 at Hawaii and then 65-14 to Texas A&M, the latter game involving one of the most brutal beatings of a quarterback that I've ever seen: the Wrecking Crew dismembering Ty Detmer in a scene that would presage the end of Braveheart.) By the third weekend of October, the Canes had already lost two games. Miami didn't lose more than one game in any regular season from 1985-89, so this was something new.

2. Notre Dame - ascended to #1 and then lost at home to a Stanford team that would finish with a losing record.

3. Auburn was unbeaten in early October, having rallied from a 17-point fourth quarter deficit to tie Tennessee. However, Pat Dye's Tigers had already shown a chink in the armor in that they were forced to kick a late field goal to beat Louisiana Tech. Doom was around the corner when the calendar turned to November, as Auburn would lose three of four and then eke out a Peach Bowl victory in the rain against Indiana. That was the ignominious fate for the preseason #3.

4. Florida State coasted past four cupcakes in September before losing consecutive games against Miami and Auburn in early October.

5. Colorado opened the season by tying Tennessee, requiring a last minute touchdown to beat Stanford, and then losing at Illinois. Yup, that was the start of the season for a team that won a share of the national title. In Colorado's defense, they did play a brutal schedule. By the end of September, the Buffs had played the eventual champions of the SEC, SWC, and Pac Ten, as well as the Big Ten runner-up.

6. Michigan lost a heartbreaker to Notre Dame before winning three straight to ascend to #1. You know the season is weird when the #1 team in early October has a loss. The Wolverines repaid the pollsters' faith by losing consecutive one-point decisions at home against Michigan State and Iowa.

7. Nebraska had, in customary fashion, played no one and was unbeaten. This being a pre-felon Nebraska team, the Huskers would lose convincingly to the three best teams on their schedule.

8. Tennessee had two ties. By the end of October, the Vols had invented a new manner of suffering by losing to Alabama when a potential game-winning field goal was blocked by the Tide and then Bama turned around and kicked one of their own. This was during the period in which Tennessee needed a Constitutional amendment to beat Alabama.

9. USC had lost a 31-0 squeaker to Washington. Maybe Todd Marinovich wasn't going to pan out quite like everyone had hoped.

10. Clemson had lost to Virginia for the first time ever.

By the evening of October 6, 1990, eight of the preseason top ten had lost, with a ninth having played no team of note. Does that sound familiar when we look back on a 2009 preseason top ten from which only Florida, Texas, and Alabama remain unscathed (and of the three, only Alabama has played a challenging opponent)?

A few final thoughts on this trip down memory lane:

1. I'm not the only one with 1990 on the brain.

2. 1990 was the beginning of the end for two teams in the preseason top ten. Auburn came in having won three straight SEC titles, but they were humiliated in Gainesville and Pat Dye was never the same after that. It would take Auburn 14 years to win another conference title. USC came in having won three straight Pac Ten titles, but they were humiliated in Seattle and Larry Smith was never the same after that. USC would win one conference title over the next 12 years.
3. If we are experiencing 1990 all over again, then that's good news for Boise State, Houston, and TCU because the volatility in the rankings did not subside in 1990 when the calendar turned from September to October.

4. Looking back at the schedules that teams played in 1990, it's hard not to feel wistful about the days when teams were willing to challenge themselves outside of the conference. Excluding conference games, every team in the preseason top ten would play at least one other member of the group with the exception of Nebraska and Clemson. This year, of the preseason top ten, we have Virginia Tech-Alabama and Ohio State-USC. That's it. It becomes harder to reach solid conclusions as to the best teams in the country (and thus, to oppose a playoff) if we can't draw meaningful comparisons between teams and conferences because they're all playing minnows for one-third of their schedules.


Jesse said...

Maybe it wasn't the most difficult ACC schedule possible, but it's also hard to blame GT for their opponents final W-L records. Plus, GT beat Clemson who finished 10-2 with their only other loss being to a Virginia team that was ranked #1. GT also beat Virginia when they were the #1 team in the country and on the road @ UVA, who finished 8-3. Of all the teams GT played that year, eight of them finished with a winning record that year. So, while it wasn't a loaded schedule by any means, it wasn't exactly a cakewalk either.

They also outscored their opponents 379-186 scoring over 40 pts in five games while holding teams under 10 pts in five games. You can say whatever you like, but the fact remains that GT was the only undefeated team that year and it's not their fault the preseason top ten teams failed to hold up throughout the season. Colorado should have never even been in the discussion because of that bogus fifth down, so anyone with half a brain knows who the real champion was that year. And as for us playing Nebraska, you can blame the bowl tie-ins for that one along with the Colorado issue. It's not GT's fault they had to play the Big-12's #2 that year.

Outside of that though, you are right. This year does remind me very much of the 1990 season. Right now, as sad as it might be, it still seems too early to really determine who belongs in the top ten. After the first three, the water gets muddy real quick.

Jesse said...

Oh, I meant to add that GT's opponents went 66-56-1 overall in 1990. It's not really great, but that's all on those teams, not GT.

chg said...

Good piece, but it didn't really ruin the image and the style that I'm used to.