Poll Controversies Revisited: 1990 - The Infamous 5th Down

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  1. TedSlimmJr

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

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    The new decade began with two powers atop college football, Miami and Notre Dame. These two schools combined had won the last three national titles and their games were becoming an annual 'must see' showdown. A polling controversy had ended the decade with Miami winning out over Notre Dame primarily by virtue of a head-to-head win in November. Just below the Big Two, several other schools were in line for shots at the national title. The team of the year in 1989 had been the Colorado Buffaloes, whose tale of triumph and tragedy resonated throughout both the football and gossip circuits. In less than one calendar year, the Buffs had seen their quarterback get the head coach's daughter pregnant, diagnosed with an inoperable stomach tumor, die at the mere age of 21 just months after the coach's daughter gave birth to their son, run through the regular season schedule undefeated with huge wins over both Nebraska and Oklahoma, and finally bowing in the Orange Bowl to Notre Dame after leaving 17 first-half points on the board. Coach Bill McCartney's outspoken Christian views - he had addressed a pro-life rally on the morning of the Nebraska game in Boulder - were seen in conflict with both his home morality and the high rate of criminal suspects that permeated his roster.

    On the other hand, he had built a program from nothing into a potential contender.

    In the SEC, Auburn entered the 1990s holding (or sharing) three consecutive SEC titles, four straight Iron Bowl wins, and the seeming secure long-term future of Coach Pat Dye, quickly becoming the SEC's second-longest tenured coach (behind Johnny Majors of Tennessee), providing long-term stability to Auburn recruits. And the up and coming program appeared to be Florida State, a team that had lost just enough big games in 1987-89 to come up just short of national contention. Michigan appeared to be on top in the Big Ten and USC in the Pac Ten, continuing a tradition that appeared to date to the day after God created Eden. Nobody could have known as the season began that 1990 would be one of the most improbable, unbelievable, and topsy turvy seasons in college football history. And in retrospect, it should surprise nobody that having endured the soap opera of 1989 put Colorado in the perfect position to benefit from such chaos.

    The pres-season AP Poll rankings were:
    1) Miami
    2) Notre Dame
    3) Auburn
    4) Florida State
    5) Colorado

    And the year began with a bang, when Colorado squared off in the season opener against #8 Tennessee in the Disneyland Pigskin Classic in Anaheim. To make it even more ridiculous, Colorado's Heisman Trophy candidate Eric Bieniemy was suspended by Coach McCartney for charges filed for his interfering with firemen called to the family residence in Aurora (Bienemy attempted to prevent firemen from knocking in a wall leading to the family garage as they attempted to contain a small fire). Despite missing perhaps their best player, Colorado hung tough with the Vols, the defense bailing them out with an interception at the 16-yard line that prevented Tennessee from attempting a game-winning field goal. The game ended in a thrilling 31-31 tie that didn't hurt either team very much in the rankings. (Ties were done away with when new overtime rules were passed beginning in 1996).

    Another exciting game scored the first direct hit on a national title contender when BYU and eventual Heisman winner Ty Detmer stunned Miami, 28-21, in Provo in a shocking upset. The Cougars won despite committing five turnovers that prevented them from a full-scale rout of the Hurricanes. Because BYU had earned a degree of national respect with a questionable title in 1984, the Canes only dropped to #10 and with their Notre Dame date looming in October, they were still in the hunt despite the loss. Notre Dame moved to #1 and Auburn was at #2 after an impressive win over an Ole Miss team that would become a national story themselves before the year ended. BYU vaulted all the way to number five with three first-place votes after the upset of Miami. One week later, the Cougars moved up to #4 when Notre Dame beat Michigan, 28-24, in a classic in South Bend. The one team well down the polls that had a first-place vote, Nebraska, was running up huge margins (once again) against outmanned and outgunned competition. Colorado beat Texas in the final minute of their clash in a game that would loom larger as the year progressed but seemingly had no major input to the rankings in September. BYU fell by the wayside with a loss and the Cougar were replaced by a never power suddenly garnering a lot of attention, the Virginia Cavaliers. Led by quarterback Shawn Moore and receiver Herman Moore, the Cavs were doing a great impersonation of Nebraska by running up large margins on overmatched also-rans. This would not be the last time UVA mimicked UN in 1990. The month ended with Auburn and Tennessee playing a sensational matchup that saw the Vols blow a 26-9 fourth quarter lead and the infamous Pat Tie (once again) playing for a tie with an extra point kick when a 2-point conversion with 1:56 left would have won the game. Dye was generally lauded in the media for the tie in a conference game early in the year. The game all but eliminated Tennessee from the national title picture with their second tie, but real controversy was only a week away.


    The most memorable game of the season was an obscure game that nobody other than attendees would remember were it not for the long-term consequences. Colorado strolled into Faurot Field against Missouri without their quarterback, Darian Hagan, who was down with an injury. This did not seem to be a major problem as CU was a huge favorite. But the oddsmakers could not account for the new OmniTurf that saw Colorado players slip an estimated 92 times during the game. While the argument that both teams played on the same field is correct, Colorado ran a variant of the wishbone that depended largely on the ability to suddenly cut upfield, so their offense was unquestionably hurt more. CU got a first down inside the ten with about a minute left when the controversial sequence unfolded. 1990 was the first year of the new "spike rule" for the quarterback. Previously, quarterbacks were required to throw the ball out of bounds to stop the clock. A convergence of bizarre factors - the new spike rule, a man having a heart attack behind the assistants holding the down marker, confusion among the officials, and among the players - resulted in Colorado scoring the game-winning touchdown on what was actually fifth down. Or perhaps they scored. The very play was controversial itself and it is far from certain that quarterback Charles Johnson made it into the end zone before he hit the ground. But at least that was a judgment call; the fifth down was a violation of the most basic rules of football, and the most amusing irony certainly must be that during his regular week the head referee of the game, J C Louderback, was a high school math teacher. A lot of blame could go around, but it hardly seemed worthwhile at the time. Colorado had already lost a close game to Illinois and had a tie with Tennessee. While a loss would have eliminated the Buffs for certain, the fact was that the AP chose to treat their win as a loss by dropping the Buffs two spots in the poll. McCartney earned the wrath of many fans who questioned his religious faith when he dogmatically and defiantly snorted in anger about the condition of the field. Coach Mac would later admit that he was so frustrated over the possibility of losing the game that he was telling himself to not remark about the field or make excuses; however, when CU won, his emotional side came out and he became defensive. He would also admit that at the time he was unaware that they had used five downs to score. When calls came up for McCartney to forfeit the game in the spirit of the infamous 1940 Dartmouth-Cornell Fifth Down controversy, McCartney responded that not only was there now a rule against such a proposal but his team had actually only tried to score on three of the plays as opposed to the five necessary in 1940.

    Of course, there was an even bigger story on October 6 that momentarily gave Colorado cover when 1-3 Stanford walked into South Bend, Indiana and slapped Notre Dame right to the ground in a shocking 36-31 upset sealed with 36 seconds left. As if Colorado and Notre Dame had not provided enough chaos, Miami climbed off the mat with convincing 31-22 beating of #2 Florida State that sent the polls into a dizzying spiral. On the morning of October 8, the new AP poll was as shocking as it was enlightening:

    1) Michigan
    2) Virginia
    3) Miami
    4) Oklahoma
    5) Tennessee
    6) Auburn
    7) Nebraska
     
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  2. TedSlimmJr

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

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    PART 2:



    In a continuing mystery, Nebraska continued to beat overmatched teams and picked up another first-place vote. The controversy surrounded Virginia, who was not exactly playing a world class schedule themselves. And just one week after the Fifth Down debacle, another controversy worked to fell another number one and introduce the sports journalism community into Virginia bashing.

    Hosting Michigan State in Ann Arbor, the top-ranked Wolverines trailed with only minutes left when quarterback Elvis Grbac drove them downfield for a touchdown that brought UM within one. Going for the win, Grbac opted for a short pass to Desmond Howard. Seeing he was beaten, Spartans DB Eddie Brown first held and then pushed Howard toward the ground - and he still should have made the catch. When he dropped it, however, Michigan lost and Coach Gary Moeller went on a tirade against the officials, accusing them of losing his team the game. Of course, Michigan St was only 1-2-1, so maybe Moeller should have looked in the mirror at why his team needed a late drive to salvage the game. But now the question became: should Virginia be number one despite not having played anyone of consequence or should Miami, generally considered the best team, be number one despite their loss to BYU, who had turned out to be a bit of a paper tiger?

    Leave it to Notre Dame to settle the controversy. Indeed, the Irish seemed to be in the center of almost everything despite not even playing of the title this year.

    When Miami and Notre Dame took the field for the 1990 game, it had already been announced that the annual series was cancelled for the foreseeable future. The consensus was that after losing 5 of 7 games to Miami - including a shutout and a 58-7 blowout - Notre Dame figured they could find a foe easier to beat than Miami. Notre Dame led through most of the game and took the lead for good on a great short pass play from Rick Mirer to the late Rodney Culver. Miami's 1990 title aspirations were as good as dead. Auburn beat Florida State in another close classic that put the Tigers back at #2. And continuing to both gain votes and play nobody of consequence was Nebraska, now up to five first-place votes. Alabama took Tennessee out of the running for good with a bailout in the final minute that looked like something out of the Auburn Miracle manual. Tennessee lined up for a long field goal that was blocked by Stacy Harrison and spun some thirty or so yards downfield. Moments later, the nation's best field goal kicker, Phillip Doyle, hit a game winner that turned Alabama's 0-3 start into a 3-3 record with momentum going forth.

    One week later, Auburn once again survived the third game they should have lost, blocking a Miss State PAT to preserve a 17-16 victory. Virginia continued to hold the top spot, but the close call dropped Auburn to #4 behind Notre Dame and the quickly ascending Nebraska. The entire season would come to a head the following Saturday, November 3.

    The game of the year was in - of all places - Charlottesville, Virginia - and featured an ACC match-up of two unbeatens, UVA and Georgia Tech, who had a tie on their resume. This game featured several famous sons of famous people, including the sons of both Vince Dooley (Derek) and Bill Curry played in the game along with a son of Jesse Jackson (Yusef). And despite neither team being a national name, the 230 CBS broadcast drew a crowd for the game of the year that saw Georgia Tech overcome two 14-point deficits to win on a field goal in the final minute, 41-38. The defeat was bitter for the Cavaliers, who had heard for one month about their undeserved ranking and now earned the wrath of being overrated. At the same time as the big game in Charlottesville, Nebraska and Colorado met in a rain storm in Lincoln that Nebraska dominated for 48 minutes. The Cornhuskers were looking like the nation's new number one team as UVA was going down. But with only 12 minutes to play, Colorado unleashed a furious running attack behind Eric Bienemy, scoring four lightning quick touchdowns to put the Cornhuskers down for the count, 27-12. The win had the perverse effect of vaulting Colorado all the way up to number four in the poll. And the final game to affect the rankings took place in Gainesville. Auburn took the field knowing that with a tie as their only blemish, a win over #15 Florida would probably vault them into the number one spot. Tied 7-7 entering the second quarter, Florida unleashed the Spurrier Air Attack that would become more typical later in the decade, blasting Auburn's D for 27 quick points and putting the game away by halftime, 34-7. It wound up 48-7, and Auburn's SEC hopes were on life support while their national title hopes were dead.

    And speaking of support and death, there was a beautiful story unfolding at Ole Miss, where a paralyzed black orphan from Russsellville, Alabama was uniting both a state and a football team in pursuit of a dream. Chucky Mullins's tragic injury in the 1989 Vanderbilt game left him a quadriplegic with no direct family (both parents were dead). The poorest state in the union managed to use Mullins as a rallying point, raising more than one million dollars in fan donations alone to set up his 'after care' for the rest of his life. Inspired by Mullins's smile and courage, Ole Miss put together their best season since Archie Manning left and contended for the SEC title for much of the year. An early loss to Auburn was put behind them up until they met Tennessee, who just had too much talent for the Rebels in 1990. Ole Miss, however, would get their first New Year's Day bowl in nearly two decades, and the future looked bright in Oxford though it would ultimately be an illusion. Tragically, Mullins died just six months later from health problems related to his injury.

    And with the demise of everyone around them, Notre Dame was number one once again. Washington was all the way up to number two, probation saddled and unbeaten Houston was #3, and Colorado was up to four. When both Washington and Houston lost the following week, Notre Dame and Colorado were 1-2 in the polls and preparing for a rematch in the Orange Bowl. Despite two losses, Miami was all the way back up to number three, and Georgia Tech was close behind at number four as the nation's only remaining unbeaten team. This was the way it should be - two highly ranked foes from early in the year setting up to meet in a winner take all game for the national championship. In fact, on November 12 - a full thirteen days before bowl invitations could be extended - word got out that the Orange Bowl wanted Notre Dame against the Big Eight champion. The Orange Bowl had locked up a national title match-up featuring one versus two. Naturally, the bowl wound up with egg on its face.

    When the Irish took a 21-7 halftme lead on Penn State, fans in South Bend littered the field with oranges in proclamation of their destiny. Naturally, Notre Dame collapsed in the second half and somehow lost to Joe Paterno's Penn State charges, 24-21. And now that Fifth Down in Missouri suddenly loomed as the largest and most consequential play of the entire season as Colorado moved up to number one. Miami stayed at two, Georgia Tech was third, and a cluster of schools right behind them that nobody gave a serious chance to win the national title. When Oklahoma shredded Nebraska, 45-10, Colorado was home free as the sole Big Eight champion. When Georgia Tech blasted Georgia in the finale, the voters were now compelled to lift the Yellow Jackets to number two and set up yet another poll controversy.

    FINAL REGULAR SEASON POLL:

    1) Colorado
    2) Georgia Tech
    3) Miami
    4) BYU
    5) Texas
    6) Florida
    7) Notre Dame
     
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  3. TedSlimmJr

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

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    PART 3:



    The rankings are defensible for the most part. Miami had two losses as did BYU, which in a way begs the question of why Miami was ranked higher since one of their losses was to the Cougars. Of course, Miami had played a substantially tougher schedule. Texas had one loss - to Colorado. And now it was up to the bowl games to determine the champion. Going into January 1, there were four teams with a legitimate shot at the national title: Colorado, Georgia Tech, Miami, and Texas. The fates of Miami and Texas depended upon what happened in the Citrus Bowl (Ga Tech vs Nebraska) and Orange Bowl (CU-Notre Dame). The winner had an outside chance at the title just so long as both teams lost. But what if both teams won? While this would eliminate all but those two teams, how could one really determine the champion if they didn't play each other?

    There was another controversy in the state of Alabama that had erupted just before the Iron Bowl. Word got out that the winner of the game would be offered a Fiesta Bowl berth against Louisville. However, Arizona's voters had recently rejected recognizing the M L King holiday in a public referendum. The NAACP and other civil rights groups called for the SEC schools to boycott the game, a move that was actually practiced by Notre Dame and Virginia, who both stated publicly they would not go to Tempe. Not lost on either the schools or the conference, however, were the millions of dollars the bowl game would bring to whichever school went. After promising to step up black recruitment and recognize King (which was done with armbands and patches on the uniforms), the PTB at both Alabama and Auburn opted to permit their teams to go to the Fiesta Bowl. Alabama won their first Iron Bowl since Van Tiffin's kick and their reward (along with millions for the conference) was to be a public humiliation at the hands of former Bryant assistant Howard Schnellenberger.

    New Year's Day 1991 may have been a day of both some of the best weather and worst bowl games ever across the country. Losers averaged losing their bowl games on that New Year's Day by a whopping 26 points. Early in the day - in what would become a critical component in the argument - Clemson shellacked Illinois, 30-0, in the Hall of Fame Bowl. Miami blasted Texas, 46-3, in the Cotton Bowl, but earned the enmity and disrespect of the entire country by getting flagged for over 200 yards in penalties, most of them unsportsmanlike conduct flags in the second half as they stepped up their level of humiliation. Georgia Tech flattened Nebraska, 45-21, and wanted to score more as they attempted to make the argument that they had beaten Nebraska by more points than Colorado had. Louisville thumped Alabama, 34-7, in the Fiesta Bowl and Ole Miss' dream season crashed to a halt in the Gator Bowl with a humiliating 35-3 loss. The win by Ga Tech ensured that Miami could not win the title. The question was whether or not Colorado could maintain their hold on number one.

    In the Rose Bowl, Washington gave a preview of 1991 as they embarrassed Iowa in a game nowhere as close as the final score. And after a day of boring football save for the first half of the Ga Tech-Nebraska game, two classics unfolded on different networks at the same time. On ABC, Tennessee squared off against former number one Virginia and scraped out a 23-22 win behind quarterback Andy Kelly. But surely it was fitting that in this upside down year of controversy that a final controversy - two actually - would mar the year for Colorado.

    Going into the game, CU was the recipient of a lot of negative media coverage regarding the Fifth Down. It was somewhat amusing to watch sports journalists whose only commentary on it had been in October suddenly become crusaders for the cause against CU. References to a "tainted win" were found even in the pregame Orange Bowl coverage from Bob Costas. And a classic game ended in, what else, controversy.

    Notre Dame scored a touchdown and field goal to take a 9-3 lead over Colorado. To make matters worse, quarterback Darian Hagan left with an injury, leaving Charles Johnson to work the same magic he had in the Fifth Down game (presumably with only four downs this time). Colorado scored a third quarter TD to take a 10-9 lead and an entertaining battle of defenses unfolded. The critical player in the game for Notre Dame was Heisman Trophy runner-up Raghib "The Rocket" Ismail, a man proclaimed by Bill Walsh to be "perhaps the fastest man to ever play college football." Ismail had given teams nightmares with his ability to flip the field or even an entire game. With only 65 seconds left - after a series that saw Colorado lose 20 or so yards but burn a lot of clock - Colorado opted to punt the ball with a national championship on the line to the most dangerous return man the 1980s college game had seen. Rocket took the ball at his own nine, appeared to be corralled quickly, but he made a quick escape, darted to his right and hit full speed as he raced down the sidelines carrying Colorado's national championship to the university in Atlanta. For about five seconds. A flag flew just as the last guy made a futile effort to tackle Ismail, and in a controversial call the ref flagged Notre Dame for a block in the back that brought the ball back down the field. A desperate drive was ended when future NFL pro Deon Figures intercepted a Rick Mirer pass and ran out the clock to preserve - maybe - the national championship for Colorado.


    But it still wasn't over. A fitting controversy ended a fitting controversial season. Colorado did maintain their AP national title by losing only three AP voters (all of whom went to Georgia Tech) and holding a 34-point margin over Tech. But the UPI vote (the coach's poll) came down to the last vote and saw Colorado lose enough support from the coaches that Georgia Tech won a share of the national championship by one single point. Rumor has held for nearly 30 years that Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne dropped Colorado from one to four in his final poll in order to ensure that Colorado did not win a consensus national championship. Both coaches made solid arguments for their teams.


    WAS THE OUTCOME CORRECT?

    It seems hard for people born after 1985 to believe this, but there really was a controversy at the time, and the top two teams did NOT meet in the bowl games. This was what we used to have, and the BCS at its absolute worst is a major improvement as is the four-team playoff.

    Georgia Tech did nothing but win. Indeed, they were the only unbeaten and while their schedule was certainly not as difficult as Colorado's, the fact remains they won and never lost. They beat just as many number one teams as CU did, they smashed Nebraska (though to be fair, they had more time to prepare and three Nebraska defensive players were suspended for the game), and they did all they could do. Colorado had a tie without their best player, beat Stanford on a controversial touchdown call, beat Missouri on a controversial fifth down non-call, and beat Notre Dame on a controversial clipping call. Indeed, despite all their breaks, CU still lost one game and tied another. The question is whether the difference in schedule makes up for it.

    We ended up with split national champions in Colorado (AP Poll) and Georgia Tech (Coaches Poll).

    The best team in the country was probably - once again - either Notre Dame or Miami, but they did not do what was necessary to win the title. Under the circumstances we had in 1990 - mandatory bowl tie-ins, no 1 vs 2 unless it was in that bowl, tougher schedule vs luck of the officials - the best solution is what happened: a split champion. Indeed, it was years like 1990 that gave us 1998 (BCS) and 2014 (4-team).
     
    Last edited: Aug 7, 2018
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  4. TedSlimmJr

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

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    By the way - the single most significant and favorite moment of last season aside from Tua's 2nd & 26 touchdown pass to win the championship in overtime, was Braxton Berrios putting his hands behind his back after scoring the TD against Notre Dame, in ode to Catholics vs. Convicts. It demonstrated that he was aware of the significance and the history before him. Well done.
     
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2018
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  5. Teenwolf

    Teenwolf You are an animal

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    Hey Ted, that made for a great read. I'm a huge college football fan from England, I catch all of the action on ESPN. Saturday's just aren't the same until the season starts. Last year I finally made it to my first ever game, Florida v LSU. The game wasn't the best but the gameday experience in Gainsville was awesome - it was everything I expected it to be and more.

    Bring on the new season!
     
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