Not a day goes by during the college football season that I don’t thank God the National Collegiate Athletic Association came to their senses and created a playoff system of some sort. It still isn’t perfect, but it sure is far superior to the way the college football national champions were crowned back in the 1980s.
Not an exact science
For whatever reason, the NCAA had no desire to have a playoff system in football, unlike virtually every other sport which did.
That left pollsters, mostly coaches and reporters, to vote for the national champion. There were two main polls that were used to determine the champion: The Coaches’ Poll and the Associated Press.
They used criteria that makes sense, but is still an inexact science. Usually, if a team went undefeated, they were automatically declared national champions. However, if teams suffered one loss, or even two or three, and there were no undefeated teams, these selectors would look at other variables. Did the top teams play each other or common opponents? Did one have a stronger schedule, that is play tougher teams? Even the most bizarre of factors – a loss early in the season matters less than a loss late on the season. Another factor was point differential, encouraging strong teams to run up the score on weak teams to “make a statement”. The surest way to win the national championship, if you were not ranked number one, was to defeat the number one team.
All told, the national champion was not chosen in an objective manner. It was all a matter of opinion.
This would lead to a lot of controversy.
We are the champions
The first two champions of the decade were straightforward. In 1980, the Georgia Bulldogs went 12-0, including a 17-10 win over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl to win the championship. The next year, Clemson went 11-0 and defeated Nebraska 22-15 in the Orange Bowl to win the championship.
The next few years, it was the challenger who beat the number one ranked team for the championship. In 1982, Penn State was ranked second and defeated the top-ranked Georgia Bulldogs 27-23 in the Sugar Bowl to secure the national championship. The next year the number five Miami Hurricanes beat the number one Nebraska Cornhuskers 31-30 to be crowned national champions. In this case, Auburn was 11-1 and was ranked third going into bowl games. They defeated Michigan 9-7 in the Sugar Bowl while the two teams ahead of them, Nebraska and Texas, had both lost. Further, Auburn had defeated Florida who gave Miami their only loss of the season. Yet, the Coaches’ Poll and Associated Press gave Miami the championship – primarily because they had the opportunity to beat number one and seized it.
The next year was even more controversial because Brigham Young University was the only undefeated team in the nation and was voted the champion. Yet, critics said the Cougars played a much weaker schedule than any of the other contenders, and their final game was not a major bowl, but the Holiday Bowl where they defeated Michigan who had a 6-6 record. Yet they were unbeaten.
Oklahoma won the 1985 championship, with an 11-1 record, by defeating number-one ranked Penn State in The Orange Bowl. Michigan, with a loss and a tie, also made a strong case for the championship.
The next year, things would take a step in the right direction.
The climate of college bowls was much different in 1986. Back then it meant something to qualify for a bowl game. Unlike today, where there are dozens and dozens of games named after the sponsoring companies, back then there was a handful of meaningful games, all played on New Year’s Day. It is funny though, that even back then we made fun of the fact there were all these other bowls, like the Holiday, Independence, Florida Citrus, Liberty, and Gator Bowls. Even the Fiesta Bowl, which wormed its way into the spotlight, was considered a bit of an outsider (but a bit more about that later).
The main bowl games of the time were the Cotton, Rose, Orange, and Sugar Bowls. By 1988, the Fiesta Bowl had joined the party as well.
Back then, some of the teams for these games were determined by their conference. The Big-8 Conference champion qualified for the Orange Bowl, while the Pac-10 and Big-10 champions met every year in the Rose Bowl. The Fiesta Bowl gained prominence because organizers had the ability to invite whatever teams they wanted to. There was no national championship game at the time, as the national champion was determined by those two polls.
After the 1986 season, Fiesta Bowl organizers saw their chance to create a de facto national championship game. That’s because the number one ranked Miami Hurricanes and number two ranked Penn State Nittany Lions were both independent teams. Consequently, they were both invited to meet on January 2, 1987, a day after the usual bowl day showcase, in the Fiesta Bowl. Since they were number one and two, the pollsters would literally have no choice but to vote the winner the national champion – although if memory serves it was not unanimous, as it obviously should have been.
Penn State would win that game, and be voted national champion.
There was finally a national championship game, but it was not to last.
The remaining years
Number one met number two again after the 1987 season as Miami defeated top-ranked Oklahoma for the title. The next year, Notre Dame went unbeaten at 12-0 and won the national championship by beating number three West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl. Miami would round out the decade by winning its third title. This was a little muddy too, because Miami and Notre Dame both had a loss, but Miami beat Notre Dame. However, Notre Dame had a much tougher schedule and Miami’s loss was to a lower ranked opponent.
It just showed, the national championship was a matter of opinion.
What is really unfortunate is that fans would have loved to see some of these top teams play each other for the championship. It would have settled any doubt, and probably been some really good football.
One of my biggest pet peeves was the lack of a college football playoff. Voting was such a poor way to determine a champion. It penalized teams that coaches and sports writers did not see, and completely discounted the possibility a smaller school could compete with a bigger school. The fact this is possible is evident in the college basketball tournament every year. Because the teams have to play the games, no one can presuppose the winner.
In college football they did, all the time.
Eventually, starting in the 1990s, college football organizers slowly began to come around. They started with the Bowl Coalition, followed by the Bowl Alliance and the Bowl Championship Series. This last one, the BCS, showed how smaller schools such as Utah State and Boise State could shock the bigger schools. Yet, all of those systems still relied on opinion and voting in some way.
They still do, with the College Football Playoff, but at least they have created a tournament so the best do play off. However, the best is still determined by a committee, not by results on the field.
Hopefully, some day, as the teams continue to organize themselves into conferences, the NCAA just organizes a tournament where the champions of these conferences play each other until a champion is determined.
It works in every other sport, why not football.