Situation normal: Hurricanes at top of college football

JOHN EISENBERG

November 19, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

The alternatives were order and chaos when Florida State's Gerry Thomas sent that 34-yard field goal toward the uprights late Saturday afternoon.

Had Thomas made the kick, Florida State would have beaten Miami and the college football season could well have proceeded into chaos, with as many as five teams having a reasonable shot at the national championship.

But when the kick flew wide of the right upright, giving the Hurricanes a 17-16 win, the process became as ordered as a suburban neighborhood.

The title is now the Hurricanes' to lose, and they won't lose it.

"Oh no," said Beano Cook, the college football guru, "they won't lose it."

Simple enough?

It's too bad, because college football is never better than when five teams all believe they should be No. 1 in the polls. Everyone wears funny hats, swells up like a bullfrog and starts crying.

Using the polls and bowls to determine the national champ is a maddening, shrill, imperfect way to do it, but such is the idiosyncratic beauty of the game.

(It's easy to spot the people who believe there should be a national playoff. They have no sense of humor.)

Had Florida State beaten Miami, then lost at Florida this week -- the latter is a prediction, by the way -- the race for No. 1 would have incorporated all three Florida teams, Washington, Michigan and, on the outside, another half-dozen teams with one loss.

Chaos.

As things stand now, though, there won't be too much arguing. The top-ranked Hurricanes need only beat overmatched Boston College and San Diego State to finish the season unbeaten, and don't even have to leave home to play the Big Eight champ in the Orange Bowl.

There are no sure things, as Duke-UNLV demonstrated most recently, but Miami hasn't lost a home game since 1985, and none of the Big Eight contenders -- Colorado, Oklahoma and Nebraska -- is at its best this year, lacking a top 10 ranking.

The upset will be if Miami wins by less than two touchdowns the rest of the season.

Still, the post-bowl shakedown may not be entirely without arguments. Second-ranked Washington could match Miami's 12-0 record by beating Washington State this week and Michigan in the Rose Bowl. The Huskies would then have a legitimate claim on the top ranking, having beaten Nebraska, Cal and Michigan -- all away from home.

It won't matter, though. Miami will still win in a landslide. The voters have come to trust the Hurricanes as a safe selection -- as well they should.

Miami has lost only five games in the last six seasons. A national title this season would be the third in six years, and if not for a one-point loss at Notre Dame in 1988 and a four-point loss to Penn State in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl -- Miami was the better team both times -- this would be five national titles in six years.

It's the d-word. A dynasty. The Hurricanes are becoming The Thing That Ate College Football.

"The best march since the Marines in World War II," Cook said. "They've really got it going down there."

Do they ever. They've had 11 first-round NFL picks since 1987, 38 draftees in all. They haven't finished out of The Associated Press final top 10 since 1982. They're the only team with the big-game cool to go into Florida State, in these circumstances, and win.

It's true their schedule is never the strongest, with no more than half the games even lose-able. This year's schedule is particularly weak, with only two ranked teams (Penn State and Florida State) among the 11 opponents. Washington's is much tougher.

But it's also true that Notre Dame and Florida -- two of the Hurricanes' best rivals -- kicked them off their schedules because they were tired of losing.

"This year they were supposed to play Florida and Notre Dame, (( both down in Miami," Cook said. "No one would be saying anything about their schedule. And it isn't [Miami's] fault that they're not playing those games."

It's also not the Hurricanes' fault they're playing such an easy-looking bowl instead of at least venturing out of town. A Miami-Florida matchup in the Sugar Bowl would have been perfect. But the Sugar Bowl didn't pursue Miami, instead copping out for TV ratings with three-loss Notre Dame.

"[Miami coach Dennis] Erickson says [the Sugar Bowl] never called," Cook said. "So again I don't blame Miami."

And so the college football season again comes down to this ordered, familiar look: Miami on top, period. (Florida State can complain about luck on the field goal, but Miami kicker Carlos Huerta makes 90 percent of his kicks from 34 yards. He wouldn't have missed.)

So as the pro-playoff lobby gears up for another year of complaining about the gray area in their lives, let's look at the absence of a playoff as the perfect cost-cutting measure for these reductionist times.

Why bother lining up a bracket and playing all the games when we know who would win? The Hurricanes would win, of course. They always win.

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