Poll Controversies Revisited: 1983 - The Showdown Of Unbeatens That Never Was...

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  1. TedSlimmJr

    TedSlimmJr Hartselle Tigers (15-0) 5-A State Champ

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    When Tom Osborne took over the University of Nebraska football team as head coach in 1973, he inherited a team that had won consecutive national championships as recently as 1970-71 under the program building guidance of Bob Devaney. Osborne showed remarkable consistency in his first decade as coach, never winning fewer than nine games during 11-game schedules. The first decade saw Osborne win four Big Eight titles, go to ten straight bowl games where they compiled a 6-4 record, and finished ranked every single year. The only real blemish on his record was a 3-8 mark against his arch rival, Oklahoma. Entering 1983, however, Osborne finally appeared on the precipice of the national recognition and glory that had eluded him.

    The 1982 version of the Nebraska Cornhuskers were a phenomenal team. They compiled a 12-1 record and beat LSU in the Orange Bowl. And their lone loss was a sore subject of controversy given that it likely cost them the 1982 national championship. Heading into the game in State College, Pennsylvania, the Cornhuskers were ranked #2 and the Nittany Lions - still having not won a national title - were #8. Trailing 24-21, Penn State QB Todd Blackledge led his team down the field for a potential game-winning drive. After converting a fourth and 11 to keep the drive going, Penn State tossed a 15-yard completion on second and four to keep the drive going and set up Penn State at the two-yard line. But the Penn State receiver was clearly out of bounds when he caught the ball with nine seconds left. There was no replay in 1982, and Penn State's subsequent touchdown won the game - and eventually enabled Penn State (and not Nebraska) to win the national title. Nebraska fans seethed and set their eyes on righting the narrow miss in 1983.

    The Huskers offense in 1983 was nothing short of phenomenal. Led by running back and eventual Heisman winner Mike Rozier, the talented Huskers also had an excellent option quarterback in Turner Gill and a dazzling wideout named Irving Fryar. And their offensive line had talented blockers like Dean Steinkuhler. Their defense might leave a bit to be desired, but the Huskers were immensely talented. And in the inaugural Kickoff Classic played at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the Huskers began their quest for Osborne's first national title with a bang. Nebraska entered the season with the nation's longest winning streak at ten games.


    PRE-SEASON AP POLL RANKINGS

    1) Nebraska

    2) Oklahoma

    3) Texas

    4) Penn State

    5) Auburn

    As was usually the case in the 1980s, the AP poll vote largely boiled down to "which team that finished well last year is returning a bunch of players." Penn State's ranking had more to do with their status as defending national champions, given the fact they lost several stars to the NFL, including Todd Blackledge and Curt Warner. And the pollsters no doubt figured that Georgia's run of success in 1980-82 was largely the product of Herschel Walker, who had left the game a year early to star for the New Jersey Generals (who were not yet owned by businessman Donald Trump). Georgia, who had been number one for much of 1982, was ranked #15 to start the year, below conference foe Alabama. Auburn's high ranking was primarily the product of a bunch of returning starters (including sophomore sensation Bo Jackson) on a team that very nearly beat Georgia (and probably should have) the previous November. Auburn, in fact, was dealing with perhaps the game's biggest tragedy when fullback Greg Pratt collapsed and died during practice on August 20. The official cause of death was heat stroke, although Pratt had exhibited no symptoms. Whether Auburn would meld together in the face of tragedy or fall apart in despair was a major question affecting the SEC in 1983. Yes, 1983 promised to be a year of great offenses, and the best resided in Lincoln, Nebraska.


    The first-ever Kickoff Classic pitted Nebraska and Penn State in a revenge match. On August 29, 1983, Nebraska unloaded on Joe Paterno's troops, running up 500 yards of offense and 44 points in a colossal rout that might have been worse had the Huskers not fumbled nine times (though they only lost one). In fact, Penn State's only score of the game came with 20 seconds remaining in a 44-6 thumping that was the worst blowout of Joe Paterno's storied career. So impressed were the pollsters that Nebraska immediately captured several more first-place votes and held a commanding lead in the AP poll. The opening week also saw a result that seemed meaningless at the time but would loom large as the year progressed when Florida drilled Miami, 28-3. Penn State's loss was so complete that they dropped in the polls from fourth all the way down to 20 (the AP only ranked 20 teams back then).

    The second week saw a stunning upset when Boston College shocked 1981 champion Clemson behind the stout passing of Doug Flutie. Penn State proceeded to show how far they had fallen by somehow losing to the University of Cincinnati, 14-3. The other team climbing in the polls was - once again - media darling Notre Dame, a team that would always be thrust into the limelight immediately after a win and then blow it during the Gerry Faust era. This was no exception as Faust's troops lost to Michigan State right after making the top five, and they would plummet totally out of the rankings again by the end of Faust's third season.

    Another major showdown took place in Auburn on September 17 when Texas came to town and handed the Tigers their heads in a 20-7 beating. Auburn's lone touchdown came on a two-yard Bo Jackson run late after a 95-yard drive by backup QB Pat Washington. Because Texas was also ranked in the top five, Auburn only fell to eleven in the polls. Starting on September 19, the top two teams in the polls were Big Eight Nebraska and Southwest Conference Texas. For the rest of 1983 - until the final poll - Nebraska and Texas, in that order, would remain atop the polls over everyone else. And as each week passed, it became more evident that a national title controversy was awaiting the end of the season.

    Alabama seemed to have a pretty good offense themselves. The Tide punched in 104 points in their three September games and climbed in the polls as high as number six, behind such usual non-powers as Arizona and North Carolina. A stunning upset by Iowa over Ohio State in Iowa City by a 20-14 count dropped the Buckeyes and elevated Iowa to #4 in the country. Miami got into the national consciousness by shutting out Notre Dame, the first Irish shutout since 1978. And when Nebraska bombed UCLA by a 42-10 count, the Huskers were sitting atop the polls with all 60 votes from the AP selectors. September ended with Nebraska on a roll and Alabama climbing fast.

    After an October 1 upset loss to Cal by Arizona, the Tide reached #3, their highest ranking since the week after they had beaten Penn State one year earlier. Coincidentally, Alabama was about to head to play Penn State in the third installment of a ten-year series. And tragically, home cooking by the officiating again marred what should have been a dazzling game and (likely) a Penn State loss. After the Tide took a quick 7-0 lead on a Walter Lewis to Joey Jones eight-yard TD, Penn State exploded and headed into the fourth quarter with a 34-7 lead and the game seemingly in hand. But Alabama climbed off the canvas as Walter Lewis suddenly turned into the college version of Joe Montana, at one point hitting 15 of 18 passes that included two touchdowns to Jesse Bendross. Trailing 34-28, Lewis led Alabama down the field for the potential game-winning drive. He got it, too, with a toss to tight end Preston Gothard that tied the game at 34. Make that "should" have tied the game because once again a Penn State official made a call at variance with every bit of evidence available. When Kerry Goode's attempt at scoring failed, the Nittany Lions once again escaped with a home win courtesy of the zebras. On the same day, Texas manhandled #8 Oklahoma by twelve points and began to pick up a few stray AP votes. The cry over the injustice that appeared to lay just ahead began to get a little louder. Nebraska had their closest call to date, a 14-10 win over OK State, and the Huskers kept rolling.

    Another key game of the season came when Illinois upset Ohio State on October 15, scoring on a 5-play, 83-yard drive that only took 37 seconds in crunch time. The Illini took the lead in the Big Ten, and they had not been to a Rose Bowl in twenty years so it was also big news. By October 17, there were three SEC teams - Auburn, Florida, and Georgia - in the top seven, and all would play round robin starting October 29. On that day, Maryland QB Boomer Esiason led the Terps to an upset of #3 North Carolina and when Auburn beat Florida by a touchdown, 28-21, the Tar Heels fell while the Tigers were now ranked #3 heading into November. Georgia was at four as they prepared to face Florida in the ****tail Party.

    November 5 saw the clutter at the top of the polls begin to clear out. The win over North Carolina had put 7-1 Maryland as high as seventh in the polls. When Auburn beat them behind Tommie Agee (who outshone Bo Jackson this particular day), Maryland fell and Auburn's stock increased. Georgia eliminated Florida in a 10-9 defensive struggle that set the stage for a winner-take-all SEC battle of the oldest SEC rivalry on November 12. In a classic game - one that would later inspire the late Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard's joke about "that dog would bite you" - Auburn was just a touch better than Georgia, 13-7. The win ensured that Auburn would have no less than a tie for the SEC title in those pre-SEC championship game days. It was the Tigers's first SEC title since their national championship year of 1957, which was also conveniently the last year before Paul Bryant took over at Alabama. In short, Bryant had pitched a career shutout against Auburn winning the SEC, and the moment he was gone they immediately were the conference champions.

    The poll clutter was clearing out. The debate was getting more heated by the week as to who was better, Nebraska or Texas. The Cornhuskers not only had the nation's best offense, they would set a (then) record of 624 points for the 1983 season. Texas had the nation's best defense. But the AP poll vote was not even close, with Nebraska continually running up 59-1 vote margins over Texas. It appeared the season was going to end with a debate over the national champion. It did, but not a soul in November or even December could have imagined how confusing it would all become.

    The debate grew more heated after Nebraska beat Oklahoma in part due to yet another officiating debacle. Nebraska got away with a pass interference and contact above the shoulders that would have placed the ball at the one. It was the first time all year the Huskers had trailed in the second half, and the bigger argument took place - Texas had beaten OU by more points than Nebraska had. Indeed, a couple of voters bought the argument so that Texas had three poll votes as the season wound down. Auburn secured a Sugar Bowl berth by beating Alabama, 23-20, in a game that introduced the national audience to Bo Jackson. Jackson tore the Tide up with 256 yards rushing - including TDs of 71 and 69 yards - and this game was marred not by poor officiating as by horrible weather that came into Birmingham in the third quarter. Jackson's virtuoso hid the fact that Alabama had two 100-yard rushers (Goode with 142 and Ricky Moore with 109).

    The final regular season poll looked like this:

    1) Nebraska

    2) Texas

    3) Auburn

    4) Illinois

    5) Miami
     
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  2. TedSlimmJr

    TedSlimmJr Hartselle Tigers (15-0) 5-A State Champ

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    PART 2


    Thanks to their epic offense, Husker RB Mike Rozier won the Heisman Trophy. Just outside the top five was one-loss SMU, who many felt had been snubbed the previous year by the pollsters at the expense of Penn State. The nearly one month period of time between games ensured that there was plenty of time to talk about controversy. Now the college football world had a big problem because the top four programs - and it was generally agreed that these were the four best teams - were all contractually obligated to different bowl games and thus could not play one another. Nebraska went to the Orange Bowl as the Big Eight representative while Texas stayed in Dallas for the Cotton Bowl. Auburn got their second Sugar Bowl trip in history while Illinois was heading to Pasadena for the first time since the country was still mourning the JFK assassination. Miami alone of the top five got to pick which game they wanted so naturally the Hurricanes chose their home field for the Orange Bowl. The head-to-head matchup with #1 meant that with a few breaks the Canes might sneak off with the national title, the first in Miami history. SMU was angry about getting snubbed and winding up in the less than prestigious Sun Bowl so Georgia squared off with Texas and Big Ten runner-up Michigan went to New Orleans to face Auburn. If either Nebraska OR Texas wound up the sole unbeaten, there was no doubt who would be the national champion. But what if both won? Would the UPI give Texas 1/2 the crown? Worse, what if both lost? Should Miami jump Auburn and Illinois if that happened? Or should Auburn move up to the top spot if they beat Michigan, which was far from a certainty? And what if Illinois AND Auburn AND Miami won? What if the season ended with SEVEN one-loss teams similar to 1977?

    Given what eventually happened on January 2, fans should have been a tad more appreciative of Alabama's surprise demolition of Southern Methodist in the Sun Bowl. SMU, even in these pre-death penalty days, already had a reputation as the nation's dirtiest program, having been on probation six times since 1958. Miffed at being selected for the Sun Bowl in El Paso, SMU disparaged Alabama and the selection process and promptly got blown out by a resurgent Tide that tore out to a 28-0 halftime lead and won with a final count of 28-7. This removed SMU from any consideration that might have come about in response to the 1982 controversy. The sun dawned on January 2 - because January 1 was on Sunday that year, and the NFL had two blowout football games take place - and by the time it had set there was a bigger controversy than anyone could have imagined.

    Georgia squared off with Texas early in the day for the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Given the two defenses, the clash was epic, with Texas holding a narrow 9-3 lead well into the fourth quarter. With about four minutes left in the game and Georgia facing a fourth and 17 on their own 33-yard line, Texas (for reasons that suggest over thinking) feared Georgia might call a fake punt. To prevent this scenario, Texas sent in a backup returner, safety Craig Curry, who had already been flagged for a couple of pass interference penalties during the game (in those days, PI was marked at the spot just as it still is in the NFL). Curry fumbled the punt and Georgia recovered at the Texas 23. On third and four from the 17, quarterback John Lastinger outran the defense for Georgia's first lead of the game with only 3:22 remaining, 10-9. The Bulldogs held on in this early tilt, making the rest of the day very exciting ford the TV viewer.

    There was not much excitement in Illinois' return to the Rose Bowl. Led by QB Rick Neuheisel, the UCLA Bruins thumped the Illini, 45-9. To give an idea how bad the day went for Illinois, early in the game Illinois safety Craig Swoope attempted to return a blocked field goal attempt and fumbled at his own 14, giving UCLA the ball and a new set of downs. Neuheisel torched Illinois for 289 yards and four touchdown passes in the rout. The Fiesta Bowl, which had no bearing on the national title, might have been the best game of the day as Ohio St edged Pitt, 28-23, with a Mike Tomczak touchdown pass with 39 seconds remaining clinching the win. Two games remained, both with potential bearing on the national title.

    Auburn, who had by far played the nation's toughest schedule, struggled with Michigan. Indeed, after permitting a first quarter Michigan TD, the Tigers held the Wolverines at bay the rest of the day. Auburn did not prevail until future NFL star Al Del Greco nailed his third field goal of the day from 19 yards with only 23 seconds left. Auburn had staked a claim to the national title on ABC. But what was going on concurrently on NBC was a game for all-time between Miami and Nebraska on the Hurricanes' home field.

    Nebraska was armed with knowledge nobody else had - a tie in the game would very likely net the Huskers the elusive national title. Of course, nobody - and I mean nobody - at that time even gave Miami a real shot at winning the game anyway. It was just a formality, just a necessary scrimmage before Nebraska was declared the greatest team to ever lace up a set of cleats. It stayed that way right up until the moment in the first quarter when Miami, led by freshman QB Bernie Kosar, roared out to a shocking 17-0 lead and looked impressive doing so. Nebraska was so desperate to flip the momentum that they called a Fumblerooskie to offensive lineman Dean Steinkuhler, who picked up Turner Gill's intentional fumble and ran into the end zone to get the Huskers on the board trailing, 17-7. Nebraska climbed off the mat and responded like champions eventually making a critical fourth down conversion late in the game after Rozier had ended his college career with an injury. Jeff Smith scored to bring the Huskers within one point with 48 seconds left and leaving Osborne with a decision: play for the tie or play for the win. Whether it was knowledge of the calumny that rained down upon Ara Parseghian for his controversial 1966 tie with Michigan State or whether Tom Osborne truly was the saint he was considered prior to the Lawrence Phillips controversy in Lincoln, Osborne opted to go for the win. Ken Calhoun tipped Turner Gill's pass to Smith away and after surviving the onsides kick, Miami had slain the giant, 31-30. And the controversy began immediately in the locker room, when Miami Coach Howard Schnellenberger stated there was no doubt that "we are the number one football team in America." In a vote reminiscent of the 1977 snubbing of Alabama, Miami leaped over Auburn to win the AP national championship in a vote that wasn't even close. As if to add insult to injury, Auburn didn't move from the three spot, nestling below Nebraska in the final vote despite getting 7 votes to Nebraska's 4.5 first place tally. Georgia, in fact, cashed in their win over Texas for a fourth place finish while Texas rounded out the top five.

    DID THEY GET IT RIGHT?

    In a word, no.

    The AP voters used the precedents they had already somewhat bizarrely established in 1977 and 1978 - "if you beat number one, you become number one." Of course, there was nothing at all similar about the case with 1978 because Alabama was, in fact, ranked #2 in the AP poll. (I will ignore, for a moment, the fact Alabama's lost was head-to-head to USC). Two beat one, two became number one. But there was so much heat generated in 1977 when Notre Dame jumped Alabama that one would have thought more thought should be given to how to vote. At least Notre Dame had absolutely crushed Texas in that 1977 title game; Miami won the Orange Bowl in a home game only because the opposing coach had chosen to forego a tie and certain national championship. Furthermore, Miami wasn't viewed with awe as a contender, they were only in the game because of the convenient circumstance that the four teams ranked ahead of them were obligated to different bowl games. The circumstance gets more egregious when you actually examine the two teams' overall records.

    Before proceeding, let's note something else: if this were the BCS era then Nebraska plays Texas for the national title in a showdown of unbeatens. In the four-team era, the top four teams were easily agreed upon. And in that era, four different conference champions would have met to decide the winner. Please note that under neither circumstance does Miami get a whiff of the national championship game while Auburn is eliminated under the BCS scenario but plays a rematch with Texas in the four-team playoff era. Thus, any discussion of this issue must realize the basic fact that we are arguing over two teams, one that deserved no consideration and won and a second that deserved some consideration but lost.

    Auburn's 1983 schedule was a murderer's row of talent. Consider that in that 11-game season era, Auburn played SIX foes who won at least EIGHT games in 1983. In FIVE straight games, Auburn played AND BEAT #5 Florida, #7 Maryland, #4 Georgia in Athens, #19 Alabama, and #8 Michigan. Yes, they had two weeks prior to the Alabama game and a month prior to Michigan, but the fact remains they knocked off FOUR top ten-ranked foes in five games, including three in consecutive weeks. The Tigers only faced two teams that won less than six games, Ga Tech and Mississippi State. Indeed, as of 2008 the schedule was still the second toughest in the entire history of college football. The sole argument against Auburn was, "Well, they lost to Texas at home."

    Miami, meanwhile, did not face anything resembling the schedule that Auburn did. The teams shared three common foes, Florida, FSU, and Mississippi State. Miami beat the Bulldogs by 24 in Starkville while Auburn beat the Bulldogs by 15 at home. Auburn beat the Noles at home by three while Miami beat them on the road by one. And while Auburn beat #5 Florida in Jordan-Hare, the Hurricanes not only lost their only game of the year to Florida, it was even more egregious than Auburn's 13-point loss to Texas, a 25-point rout at the hands of the Gators in Gainesville. Miami faced four teams (to Auburn's seven) and beat three (to Auburn's six). Miami faced six foes who had four wins or fewer in 1983, Auburn two. Indeed, the resumes are so far apart that one has to wonder how in the world Miami was not only voted ahead of Auburn but substantially so?

    One common argument is that Auburn didn't beat Michigan by enough points to merit consideration. This is amusing when one remembers that Auburn beat the number eight team in the country by twice as many points as Miami won their game by - and didn't have the luxury of playing a home game after four weeks to prepare. True, Auburn did not score a touchdown in beating Michigan. But it's an absurd argument in the larger picture. Even if Auburn had thumped Michigan by thirty points, how does that alter the material fact that Miami still beat Nebraska? Nebraska's reputation was so inflated in 1983 that any team that managed to beat them was going to get a lot of publicity and reputation out of it. I would not normally argue this point except for the fact Auburn had no choice where they went to play the bowl game due to contractual obligation.

    In so many ways, 1983 is the mirror image of the injustice handed to Alabama in 1977. In both years, teams not affiliated with conferences were given the luxury of playing the top-ranked team in the country despite not being considered national contenders themselves. And Alabama, unlike Auburn in 1983, left no doubt by pasting Ohio State, 35-6, and STILL got messed over in the final vote. Does anyone truly believe that if Auburn had beaten Michigan 35-6 that they would have been voted the national champion? And in both years, coincidentally, SEC championship teams in the state of Alabama were messed over.

    There is no getting past it: the 1983 vote was wrong at every level. The press blew up Nebraska's reputation into an unbeatable juggernaut so that the moment a team did manage to beat them, it inflated the reputation of that particular team beyond what they deserved. Ultimately, the case study of 1983 would prove in due time to be one of the key arguments for matching up 1 vs 2. And we'll get that eventually. But Miami simply did not deserve the vote based on geographic accident that they got in 1983.
     
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