MIAMI -- It took five downs and a penalty flag to get Colorado a national championship. It took 59 coaches and eight hours to take part of it away.
In a twist of fate as unpredictable as the season itself, members of the United Press International coaches poll awarded upstart and undefeated Georgia Tech, not Colorado, its national title by a single point, 847-846. The vote was a stunning reversal of the Associated Press sportswriters and broadcasters poll, which named the Buffaloes the No. 1 team by a slim, but comfortable, 34-point margin yesterday.
The split decision marked the first time since 1978, when Alabama and Southern Cal shared the championship, that the wire services couldn't agree on the same No. 1 team. And since 1954, there have been only eight dual champions.
Even more remarkably, no team has finished the regular season ranked first, as Colorado had, won its bowl game, as Colorado did against Notre Dame Tuesday night, and dropped in a final poll.
The panel of 59 coaches, obviously impressed by Georgia Tech's 11-0-1 record and its convincing 45-21 victory over Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl, gave the Yellow Jackets 30 first-place votes, compared with Colorado's 27. Miami finished third with two first-place ballots, followed by Florida State and Washington.
Meanwhile, the AP poll awarded the Buffaloes 39 first-place votes and 1,475 points. Georgia Tech was next with 20 first-place votes and 1,441 points, followed by Miami's one first-place vote and 1,385 points. Completing the top five were Florida State with 1,303 and Washington with 1,246.
The AP vote was the fifth-closest since the wire service switched to a postseason final poll in 1968. And although Colorado's margin was slim, it still fell short of Brigham Young's 20-point advantage over Washington in the 1984 balloting.
Of course, the difference in rankings also can be linked to Colorado's "fifth-down" victory over Missouri. Despite Colorado's best efforts to explain and justify the victory, the controversy never fully subsided.
Nor did it help when Colorado struggled to a 10-9 victory over the Irish. That game wasn't decided until Raghib Ismail's last-minute, 91-yard punt return for an apparent touchdown was nullified by a Notre Dame clipping penalty. After that, enough UPI coaches apparently thought that Georgia Tech, with its unbeaten record, was more deserving than 11-1-1 Colorado.
"I'm not going to take issue with the coaches," McCartney told Denver's KCNC-TV. "I think it's kind of incredible when you consider Colorado's schedule was ranked the most difficult in all of college football. Notre Dame had the second-most difficult schedule, and we played them and beat them. I guess people felt we needed to beat them decisively. I'm plenty satisfied to beat them by one point."
Computer rankings conducted by the New York Times added to the day's confusion by ranking Miami first, Georgia Tech second, Colorado third, Washington fourth and Clemson fifth. About the only sure thing is that next week's NCAA convention will include discussion, formal or otherwise, of a playoff format.
Until then, Georgia Tech will cherish its first national football title since 1952, while Colorado, which has 12 skiing championships to its credit, covets its first football banner ever.
Understandably enough, McCartney didn't sleep well in the wee hours Wednesday. Despite the Orange Bowl victory, he worried about the poll results. Would voters reward Colorado for overcoming the loss of two starters, quarterback Darian Hagan and linebacker Kanavis McGhee. Or would they penalize the Buffaloes for scoring only a one-point victory?
Still, McCartney didn't learn of the final AP rankings until moments before his morning news conference yesterday. Upon hearing the results, McCartney turned to AP reporter Rick Warner and delivered an awkward high-five.
"Right up until Rick gave me that vote, I didn't have any guarantees," he said. "I recognize that Georgia Tech won impressively."
Little did McCartney know what would transpire during the day.
For instance, Georgia Tech offensive coordinator Frank Friedgen said the AP voters erred by selecting Colorado. "I don't think it was even close," he said.
All-American Ken Swilling was even more direct in his criticism, saying: "We'd beat [Colorado]. Colorado's not the best team in the country. We'd probably beat them handily."
And defensive coordinator George O'Leary, when asked if he could understand Colorado's claim as No. 1, said: "I could if we had a loss and a tie. But we don't. If we had five downs to win one game, we'd probably be 12-0 right now."
Georgia Tech tied North Carolina, 13-13.