Boise State may finally be on the verge of a BCS Championship Game appearance. The Broncos have won 24 consecutive regular season games, and an undefeated season in 2010 will run that number to 36. It will also mean that Boise State will have won on the East Coast against Virginia Tech, held off Oregon State, and run through the rest of their schedule without a loss. Boise State finished the '09 season as the #3 team in the country and returns 21 of 22 starters in 2010 (cornerback Kyle Wilson was drafted in the first round of last month's draft by the Jets). Bringing back nearly the entire roster from an elite team ensures that the Broncos will have a top-five pre-season rank. That may be enough to vault them into the title game, as a 25-0 record in '09 and '10 will be difficult to ignore. These facts prompted Dr. Saturday to compare BSU to the 1984 BYU Cougars, the only mid-major football team to ever be crowned national champion by the Associate Press.
The '84 Cougars have been profiled by many journalists; Stewart Mandel's excellent recap of their season serves as a terrific background for the uninitiated. John Underwood's article from the week BYU was crowned #1 is a great way to teleport to the mid-'80s (including some quotes by Penn State's elderly coach, Joe Paterno). The Cougars went 13-0, but didn't play any of the top teams in college football that season. Winning the WAC, then and now, is not tied to a prestigious Bowl game, and as a result, BYU ended up playing a depleted, 6-5 Michigan team in the Holiday Bowl. So what's the best way to determine how good the Cougars actually were? Was Brigham Young deserving of the national championship? Were they the best team in college football? This post seeks to answer those questions.
First, I used the simple rating system to grade every major college football team in 1984. I ignored all non-division 1 games; I don't have a full database of non-Division 1 football games from that season, which is why I chose to exclude all of those teams from this study. As a result, some of the Division 1 teams, as a result of some appearances against non-D-1 teams, will not have their complete results listed below. I used the same Simple Rating System formula that I used last season to grade college football teams, with one difference. In 1984, there was no overtime in college football; I graded home ties as -3 and road ties as +3. The full SRS ratings, below:
|61||Bowling Green State||10||10.3||-10.9||-0.6||7||3||0||0.700|
|66||San Diego State||12||-0.3||-1.2||-1.5||4||7||1||0.375|
|70||North Carolina State||10||-5.2||2.5||-2.7||3||7||0||0.300|
|71||San Jose State||11||3.4||-6.5||-3.1||6||5||0||0.545|
|82||Long Beach State||11||-3.6||-5.3||-8.9||4||7||0||0.364|
|107||West Texas A&M||8||-6.9||-17.7||-24.6||2||6||0||0.250|
|109||New Mexico State||11||-12.6||-12.6||-25.2||2||9||0||0.182|
BYU comes in at #6, but we can safely jump them ahead of Nebraska, Boston College and Florida State. Those teams may have been better than BYU from a predictive standpoint, but I have no problem naming an undefeated team national champion over teams with 2+ losses in their season.
That leaves only three real contenders for the crown of mythical 1984 national champion -- BYU, Washington and Florida. Let's break each of them down.
The Gators were probably best team in college football in 1984. Florida had the best SRS grade of any team and went through a much tougher schedule than either BYU or Washington. But there's a good reason why they shouldn't have been named national champion: UF was barred from post-season play as a result of 107 rules violations; their SEC Championship was also vacated after the season. Still, it's hard to imagine them not being crowned champion under normal circumstances (and in today's environment, they'd be assured of a BCS National Championship Game appearance). Florida lost their opening game in Tampa against defending national champion Miami and followed that up with a tie against LSU. After that, the Gators won nine consecutive games, including a scorched earth run at the end of the season, blowing out two SEC heavyweights and winning in Tallahassee against a very strong FSU team. A nine-game winning streak, a difficult schedule, and only one loss should have put Florida in a title game. But the rules violations prevented any of that, and without a Bowl victory, it's hard to argue for Florida as national champion. They would have been set up to play Nebraska -- #2 according to the SRS and #5 in the last regular season AP poll -- in the Sugar Bowl. Instead, LSU got the league's invite to that game, and was blown out by the Cornhuskers. In my view, a Florida win over Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl would have made them the most deserving team of the phrase, "national champion." Instead, they'll have to settle for title of SRS champ.
The Huskies were number one for four weeks beginning in mid-October, but dropped to #8 after a loss in the Coliseum. Washington got up to #4 by the end of the regular season. The final regular season AP poll had BYU at #1, Oklahoma at #2 and Florida at #3; the Orange Bowl showdown between Washington and Oklahoma was billed as the de facto championship game. A Sooners victory would likely have given coach Barry Switzer his third national championship (instead he would have to wait one year to add that to his resume) but it was unclear what a Huskies victory would mean.
Washington's only loss that season came at USC. Meanwhile, the Trojans lost non-conference home games to LSU and Notre Dame, but boasted the same 7-1 conference record as the Huskies. As a result of the head to head victory, USC earned the Pac-10's invite to the Rose Bowl to face Ohio State. As it turns out, this might have been a good thing for Washington: Ohio State was ranked 6th at the time, but according to the SRS was better than Oklahoma. And by not being bound to the Rose Bowl, Washington was able to go to Miami to play the Sooners.
Washington beat Oklahoma 28-17 in the Orange Bowl; you can see highlights of the game here. But the most memorable part of that game wasn't a highlight for anyone. It's remembered as the Sooner Schooner game, because of an unusual turn of events in the 4th quarter:
Perhaps the biggest impact on a football game by the Sooner Schooner was the 1985 Orange Bowl loss to Washington. Following a 22-yard, fourth quarter Sooner field goal that split the uprights, the wagon burst onto the field to celebrate what appeared to be a late 17-14 OU lead. However, the Schooner crew had failed to notice that the Sooners had been penalized for an illegal formation. With the wagon on the field at a premature time, a referee’s yellow flag that flew through the air further subdued the crimson cheers. OU was penalized an additional 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct, forcing what would be a failed 42-yard kick.
“The penalty really affected the outcome of the game,” said longtime OU fan Bob Jackson. “The officials didn’t want the Boomer Schooner on the field because they considered it a delay of the game.” The Sooners never recovered from the penalties that led to the blocked field goal as the Huskies rode the momentum to a 28-17 victory. When the Sooners returned to the Orange Bowl the following year the Schooner was in no danger of being ticketed. OU sports officials ordered the wagon to stay in a parked position in hopes of avoiding a repeat.
I don't think it's accurate to say that Oklahoma lost to Washington because of the Sooner Schooner incident; here's what coach Switzer had to say. With Washington's win over Oklahoma, does that make them deserving of the crown? How do the Huskies look compared to the Cougars?
|11/10/1984||H||San Diego State||W||34||3||26.0||-1.5||24.5|
BYU's schedule was cushy - it comes in as the 84th hardest schedule among the 110 teams. BYU played five teams outside of the WAC -- Pittsburgh, Baylor and Tulsa to start the season, Pacific Coast Athletic Association patsy Utah State in November, and then Michigan in the Holiday Bowl.
Pittsburgh played three other top teams that year -- South Carolina, Oklahoma and Miami. The Panthers lost all four, with the BYU game being the closest one.
But a cross-country east coast road trip to start the season isn't easy (of course, that's exactly what Boise State will have to do in 2010); BYU came home and demolished Baylor in week two. On the other hand, the Bears later played the Sooners, and lost in similarly ugly fashion.
In week three, the Cougars crushed Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane played Doug's Oklahoma State Cowboys later in the year, and were blown out by roughly the same margin.
No other big boy played Utah State, of course, leaving Michigan as the last non-conference team to analyze. The Wolverines played Washington, Ohio State and Miami in '84 -- on the surface, they'd be a terrific barometer by which to measure BYU's ability. Michigan upset Miami, lost by 9 to Washington and lost by 15 in their rivalry game with the Buckeyes; by comparison, BYU's 7-point victory looks pretty solid. But a closer look changes the perspective. Michigan opened at home against the Hurricanes, and won in front of a huge crowd of 105,403 people. That moved UM up to #3 in the rankings, but a home loss against the Huskies dropped them back down to #16. Michigan's last two games were against OSU and BYU, but by then they were a different team. The Wolverines were saddled with injuries throughout the season, including the loss of QB Jim Harbaugh in the fifth game.
Two other WAC teams were strong in '84: Air Force won 21-7 in South Bend and later topped Virginia Tech 23-7 in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport. BYU didn't blow them out, but just winning in Colorado Springs was not an easy task that season. It was the Academy's only home loss in a stretch that spanned 16 games and four seasons.
Utah traveled to Knoxville in September and lost by only six against Tennessee; in the last game of the season -- the Holy War -- BYU went in to Salt Lake City and beat the Utes by 10 points.
A full review of the season makes it clear that BYU was a deserving champion. They may not have been the most deserving team that year -- I think Washington had the better case, and I would have selected the Huskies as my #1 team -- but they were far from a scrappy group of players who parlayed a weak schedule into an unmerited national title. They were, at worst, a top-ten team that year, in terms of ability, and they had one of the three most impressive seasons from a win-loss and strength-of-schedule perspective. They had 13 wins against Division 1 teams; highly impressive in a year where only one other team (Washington) had more than ten. You can argue back and forth about Washington and BYU (and Florida), but BYU was hardly the worst team to ever win a national title, nor were they the least deserving. A perfect season, a large average margin of victory, and blow outs against the bad teams, combined with performances against the best teams that matched what the other elite teams accomplished, makes them a legitimate national champion. They probably would have had a hard time beating Florida or Nebraska, but those teams slipped up on two occasions (if you count Florida's tie as a slip). If Boise State wants to match what the Cougars did, they'll need to hope that the powerhouses of today slip up on a couple of occasions, too.
For those curious, the following players were on the 1984 Brigham Young team and played in the NFL.
BYU had a long history of great quarterbacks who come through Provo -- Gifford Nielsen came before Marc Wilson who was followed by Jim McMahon who was exceeded by Steve Young. But it was Robbie Bosco who led the Cougars to their most memorable season ever.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 11th, 2010 at 9:46 am and is filed under College, Statgeekery. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.