Tuesday, December 21, 2010

December 21, 1984: One for the little guys

SAN DIEGO - "Only the big schools have a chance," say the detractors. "The schools from smaller conferences never have an opportunity to win a championship." It's a common refrain, one that comes up every time a college football team from outside the established power conferences has a great season. Every time the leaders of college football try to come up with a new system to determine championships - the Bowl Alliance, the BCS - it always seems to keep the power with the major-conference schools, always leaving teams from the lesser conferences behind.

It has always worked this way in college football. Since there is no playoff system, and because the national championship is determined by voters rather than on the field, the voters have to try to figure out which is the best team. Sometimes it's easy, but often it's not. When forced to compare between two unbeaten teams, the voters are much more likely to go with the more established football power. It's just how the system works. The so-called little guys are left in the dust.

There was one notable exception to that, though.

As the 1984 regular season wound down, Brigham Young emerged from the pack as the only unbeaten team in the country. Voters ranked them number 1 in both major polls, but reluctantly so. BYU had the disadvantage of playing in the WAC, which was considered a weak conference. Plus, BYU and the rest of the WAC teams played a pass-happy, free-wheeling style that the conservative college football voters were wary of. Still, there was no argument about the record. Automatically tied into the less prostigious Holiday Bowl because of their conference title, the Cougars sat by and waited for one of college football's established powers to challenge them.

The Holiday Bowl first invited Washington, ranked number 4, who was 10-1 but had lost the tiebreaker for the right to go to the Rose Bowl. While the Holiday Bowl wasn't a well-known bowl and didn't pay out nearly as much money as the major bowls, playing BYU would give Washington a shot at the national championship. The Huskies passed, chasing the money for a matchup with Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Same for Nebraska, ranked number 5, who had the option of playing BYU but instead opted for the bigger payday in the Sugar Bowl.

With the better teams turning them down, BYU was forced to settle for playing a sub-par Michigan team, one that had gone a pedestrian 6-5 during the season. Not exactly the type of opponent worthy of a national champion. But BYU couldn't control who they played - they could only control what happened on the field.

After a scoreless first quarter, BYU went into the locker room at halftime with a 10-7 lead. Michigan took a surprising 17-10 lead in the fourth quarter, but the Cougars came back. BYU tied the game with 10:51 remaining, then forced Michigan to punt twice before quarterback Robbie Bosco, playing with an injured knee ligament, drove the Cougars for the winning touchdown with 1:23 left.

The 24-17 final wasn't the convincing win the Cougars were hoping for, but they thought they had done enough to claim the national championship. What helped was that while Michigan hadn't had a good season, they were still an established national power, a recognizable name that would look impressive to the voters.

After being forced to wait a week for the rest of the bowl games to finish, the final polls gave BYU the national championship. As soon as the polls were released, some of the traditional powers in college football complained that with their tougher schedule, they were more worthy champions. It didn't matter to them that many of them had been offered an opportunity to play BYU and had turned it down. They felt it was unfair. But for once in college football, it was fair. The team with the best record, the only team that had gone unbeaten, had been declared national champions.

The Associated Press has been declaring national champions since 1936. In that time, 75 national champions have been named, and 63 of them have come from one of the six current "power" conferences. Of the 12 who didn't, eight were titles won by Notre Dame, which has always been independent. The other four: Army (twice), Texas Christian in 1938, and Brigham Young in 1984.

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