No. 1? No. 2? It doesn't add up

January 04, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

The college football season that ended over the weekend was the best in memory. There were four-star games such as Florida State-Notre Dame and Boston College-Notre Dame. There was a heated, shrill, multisided championship debate. There was a national championship game with no fewer than four endings.

Only one item was lacking: a clear-cut No. 1 team.

This time, the long day of New Year's bowls proved absolutely nothing.

Yes, Florida State won the final balloting in both polls, but don't pay attention to that. The voters have to pick someone, and many were predisposed to Florida State and nice-guy coach Bobby Bowden. That doesn't mean the Seminoles proved on the field that they were the best team. They didn't.

Look at their season. Sure, they scored a lot of points and beat Florida on the road, but they lost their biggest regular-season game, to the No. 2 team, Notre Dame. Don't talk to me about where it was played, or when, or how close it was. They L-O-S-T. Then, in the Orange Bowl, they were outplayed and out-coached by Nebraska.

They still managed to win Saturday night because the officials blew the call on a goal-line fumble and gave them their only touchdown, then pushed them into field-goal range on their final drive with 30 yards in penalties, the last 15 on an interference call on an uncatchable pass.

I'm normally loath to criticize officials, but the quality of the work in the Orange Bowl was poor, and the Seminoles benefited.

Sure, it was nice to see Bowden finally win his title, but he did his best to prevent it. His big-game coaching was awful this season. He panicked against Notre Dame and started calling trick plays in the second quarter. Then, in the Orange Bowl, he managed to do what no coach had done all season -- stop his offense.

The Seminoles were averaging 50 points a game with Charlie Ward in the shotgun, so what did Bowden do with the title on the line and a month to prepare? He junked the shotgun and reverted to a stuffy two-back offense limiting Ward and negating speed advantage. Incredible!

His coaches apparently talked him out of it at halftime, and Ward, back in the shotgun, led the team to 12 of its 18 points in the last two quarters. But let's just say Bowden didn't scare up any comparisons to Bill Walsh. Not that Bowden does much coaching anymore anyway.

Then, in the final seconds, with the Seminoles in position for a field goal, Bowden burned his last timeout 20 seconds too soon. He could easily have made the winning field goal the last play, but instead gave the Cornhuskers a last possession with which they almost stole his title.

That would have been the just ending. The Cornhuskers deserved to win. They were sounder, more balanced and more consistent than Florida State. Only less lucky. They had every right to believe they were the better team.

Of course, Lou Holtz and Notre Dame don't just have to believe they're better than the Seminoles. They know it. They beat the Seminoles. Yes, Yogi, they can look it up! Yet it did them no good.

I'm a longtime supporter of using polls and bowls to determine No. 1 -- it keeps the regular season important, and the arguing is fun -- but I know a breakdown when I see one. The fight for the title came down to two teams with one loss apiece, and the loser of the game between them was the winner in the polls. That's wrong.

(Just a hunch, but with the system failing this year, and with CBS having lost the NFL, needing a signature event and having all sorts of money to throw around, I can see the NCAA finally bowing to the pressure and profit and saying yes to a championship playoff. You read it here first.)

The convoluted logic of the voters was that Notre Dame's loss (at home to Boston College) was less pardonable than Florida State's loss. OK, fine. But Notre Dame's loss also was less pardonable than Nebraska's, yet the Irish finished ranked ahead of Nebraska. In other words, the logic used to separate No. 1 from No. 2 wasn't used to separate No. 2 from No. 3.

And, of course, the most irrefutable logic of all -- the final score of a game played on the field -- wasn't used at all.

Ah, well. You can go on forever with this stuff. Let's get back to the original point: The bowls proved nothing, except that Penn State was the best team on Jan. 1. The Cornhuskers lost to the Seminoles, who had lost to the Irish. The Irish have a legitimate claim on No. 1, but their slim win over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl wasn't the stuff of champions. Who is No. 1? To the moon, Alice!

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