The Ghost of New Years Past |

The Ghost of New Years Past


Bored Historian
Aug 26, 2011
Pursuant to a discussion in the latest Jim Boeheim Show thread, I decided to repost this item which I first presented in 2008:

Todd Blackledge was asked to comment on the “bowls vs. playoff” issue and said he was in favor of the bowls but he’d be willing to consider a playoff if it involved a first round that took place on New Year’s Day because one thing he’s regretted is that the excitement of New Year’s Day has dissipated in recent years. He talked about how big a deal New Year’s Day used to be in college football. Now it seems like just another day full of bowl games, many of them not the top-tier bowls. Several posters have expressed a similar opinion. I decided to do a post discussing the issue and reminiscing about some great New Year’s Days of the past.

The first New Year’s Day I remember was 1/1/63. I was 9 years old at the time. I’d begun following football the previous year but it was mostly NFL football. My Dad and I rooted for the Browns because Jimmy Brown was the greatest player and he’d come from Syracuse. I became aware of Ernie Davis being at Syracuse and recall watching the 1961 Liberty Bowl. It was the first SU game I ever watched. But the 1962 college football season was the first one I followed from beginning to end. In those days there was just a single “game of the week” on each week. The only one I can specifically recall was when USC beat Notre Dame 25-0. I remember my older brother explaining to me that while Notre Dame was the most famous team, USC was #1 in that particular year. I figured they must be if they could beat Notre Dame like that.

On 1/1/63, suddenly there were four games on in one day, all televised, an incredible smorgasbord of football. The Orange Bowl began before noon. I remember President Kennedy, a big football fan, was present and I saw his motorcade circle the field. It was a battle of two legendary teams and coaches. Bear Bryant’s Alabama team beat Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma team, 17-0 and Lee Roy Jordan made an incredible 31 tackles, an all-time bowl record. The Cotton Bowl and Sugar Bowl were on simultaneously on different stations. LSU upset a 9-0-1 Texas team, 13-0 in Dallas while a 9-0 Mississippi team beat Arkansas, 17-13 in the Sugar Bowl. Ole Miss was perfect that year but was ranked #3 behind the 10-0 Trojans and Wisconsin, the Big 10 champ, who was 8-1.

That Rose Bowl was the most memorable game of my youth. I remember my aunt and Uncle and cousins were over for the holiday and at first all the males were in the living room watching but by the end of it, even the females were watching, fascinated by the spectacle. The Trojans were blowing out the Badgers, (I loved their helmets with the “W” on the back), 42-14 going into the fourth period. But Badger QB Ron Vanderkelen, who passed for a then incredible 401 yards, led his team to three unanswered fourth quarter TDs, (they also got a safety). It came down to an on-side kick with the score 42-37. The Trojans got it, ending the most exciting day I could ever remember.

The one thing missing was that the national title was not on the line. In those days, there were no polls after the bowls. Even if Wisconsin had gotten that on-side kick and scored again, they wouldn’t have been national champions and neither would Ole Miss. The games were considered exhibitions. Southern California was already the national champions when the Rose Bowl began, (just as Syracuse already was when they took the field for the 1/1/60 Cotton Bowl).

The only thing I recall from 1/1/64 was the Cotton Bowl, another 1 vs. 2 match-up between Texas and Navy. Texas, like USC, took a four touchdown lead going into the 4th quarter, (28-0), but Roger Staubach was unable to match Vanderkelen’s heroics and Texas won, 28-6.

Notre Dame had blown the 1964 title by losing a 17-0 lead to USC in the fourth quarter of their last game. Alabama and Arkansas were both 10-0 and ranked #1-2. Behind them were the Irish, Michigan, Texas and Nebraska, all with only one loss. Alabama and Texas were paired in the Orange Bowl, a battle of teams that were 40-3 and 39-3-1, respectively, since 1961. Arkansas took on Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl. Michigan thrashed Oregon State 34-7 in the Rose Bowl. The Sugar Bowl was of considerable local interest as LSU beat Syracuse, 10-13. But the big games were the Cotton and Orange Bowls.

Arkansas won a defensive dual with the Huskers, 10-7 and then, in the first ever nighttime bowl game, Texas knocked off Alabama, 21-17, Tommy Nobis stopping Joe Namath at the goal line on fourth down late in the fourth quarter. But again, Alabama retained their national title, even though Arkansas was 11-0 and had beaten Texas.

Maybe the greatest New Year’s Day was 1/1/66. Michigan State, Arkansas and Nebraska were all 10-0-0 and ranked #1-2-3. One by one, they all got beat. LSU again beat an undefeated SWC champ in the Cotton Bowl, 14-7. UCLA withstood a furious Spartan Comeback with a goal line stand on a two point conversion to win the Rose Bowl 14-12. Alabama destroyed Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, (it was 39-28 but had been 39-14 until a couple of late Husker scores made it respectable). Alabama had the best record and ranking of the winners, (three more well-placed points and they’d have been 10-0 themselves) and had won by the most decisive margin. When the Associated Press asked their writers to vote again after the polls, (as they could do since the whole thing was unofficial anyway), they voted the Tide #1. The Coaches didn’t vote after the polls so the Spartans retained a share of the title.

AP didn’t make it a regular thing to vote after the bowls until after the 1968 season and the coaches, who worked for UPI, didn’t do it until after the 1974 season. In addition, Notre Dame refused to go to a bowl game until the 1/1/70 Cotton Bowl and the Big 10 and Pac8 had an agreement that they would not send the same school to the Rose Bowl twice in a row until the 70’s.

This took a lot of the drama out of the 1/1/67 bowl games. Notre Dame and Michigan State were ranked #1-2 after their ties with each other. Alabama, with perhaps their best team of the Bryant era, was 10-0 but only ranked #3. They beat Nebraska even worse, 34-7, this time in the Sugar Bowl but it did them no good. Notre Dame didn’t play at all and Michigan State didn’t get a rematch with UCLA, (who was 9-1 and ranked #5). Instead we got 8-2 Purdue beating 7-3 USC in the Rose Bowl. It is ironic that a 10-1 Alabama team won the 1964 national title and a 9-1-1 Alabama team won the 1965 title but an 11-0 Alabama team couldn’t win the 1966 title.

On 1/1/68 USC beat Indiana, 14-3 in a dull Rose Bowl while the #2 and #3 teams, Tennessee and Oklahoma, met in the Orange Bowl, a great game won by the Sooners
26-24. But USC had already won the national title. The next year, Ohio State and Penn State were both 10-0 while USC and Georgia had only ties against their record. Georgia was upset by, 16-2, Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl. By the time Penn State squeaked past Kansas, 15-14 in the Orange Bowl, the Buckeyes and Trojans had already decided things in the Rose Bowl, with Ohio State winning 27-16. The Lions got snookered the next year, too, when Texas beat Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl and President Nixon gave them a plaque before Penn State beat Missouri in the Orange Bowl. Both teams wound up

0n 1/1/71, Texas was again #1 and played the Irish again in the Cotton Bowl, but lost 11-24. Ohio State was #2 but got beat by Stanford, 17-27 in the Rose Bowl. Finally, the winner of the Orange Bowl would be national champ. But it wouldn’t be Penn State. Instead Nebraska, 10-0-1, beat LSU to win its first national title.

The next two years the title was won by two of the greatest teams ever, both of whom won their bowl games decisively. On 1/1/72 Nebraska gained revenge on Alabama, 38-6 in the Orange Bowl. The next year USC crushed Ohio State, 42-17 in the Rose Bowl.

1973 was the year when the top teams had their biggest stranglehold on the rest of college football. They were the ones who had the money to spend and realized the need to spend it to compete in the era of two platoon football. Alabama was 11-0 and ranked #1. Oklahoma was 10-0-1, (a 7-7 tie with USC), and ranked #2. Notre Dame was 10-0 and #3. Ohio State and Michigan were unbeaten except for tie with each other. Penn State was 11-0. USC was 9-1-1, having lost to Notre Dame. The Sooners were on probation. Only one Big 10 team could go to a bowl and the ADs voted to send the Buckeyes to the Rose Bowl and leave the Wolverines home. Ohio State got their revenge on the Trojans, 42-21. That night, in the Sugar Bowl, Notre Dame won a classic from Alabama, 24-23. Meanwhile Penn State beat LSU, 16-9 in the Orange Bowl. This is what the old days were like. I thought Ohio State looked like the best team but Notre Dame was voted #1 in both polls.

In 1974, Oklahoma was clearly the best team in the country, going 11-0 and outscoring their opponents 473-92. But they were still on probation and not in a bowl game. What we got on 1/1/75 was a USC-Ohio State rubber match won by the Trojans on a late TD pass, 18-17. The Sooners got their revenge on 1/1/76 when UCLA upset #1 Ohio State, 23-10 in the Rose Bowl and opener the door for Oklahoma, despite one loss, to win the title with a win over Michigan on the Orange Bowl, which they did with a 14-6 win. Arizona State, who had beaten Nebraska in the 12/26/75 Fiesta Bowl, was 12-0-0 but in the same boat that Utah is this year. They were still in the WAC and the best they could get was a #2 final ranking.

On 1/1/77, Johnny Robinson tried to claim that the Rose Bowl was “Really the battle for the national championship” because #1 Pittsburgh was an eastern team. His USC team, who had lost their opener to Missouri, beat Michigan, who had been #1 until a loss to Purdue, 14-6. But the Panthers sewed up the title by beating SEC champ Georgia 27-3, in the Sugar Bowl.

In 1977, Texas had the Heisman Trophy winner, Earl Campbell and swept to a 11-0 record. For the third time, they had to beat Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl to win the national championship and, for the second time, they failed. And they did it by 10-38, giving the Irish the title. Arkansas had shocked Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, 31-6 after Lou Holtz had had to suspend 6 players for violating team rules. But Texas had beaten them so they really weren’t in it.

We had a nice controversy in 1978 as USC beat Alabama during the regular season, 24-14 in Birmingham. They were upset by Arizona State two weeks later. Oklahoma was #1 until Nebraska beat them. Penn State wound up #1 at the end of the regular season. Alabama beat them, 14-7 in the Sugar Bowl on Barry Krauss’s famous tackle. Oklahoma avenged itself against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, 31-24. Earlier that day the Trojans had beaten Michigan, 17-10 in the Rose Bowl. The writers decided Alabama, who had been ranked #2 in both polls, should be the champion. But the coaches were persuaded by a public debate that USC, since they beat Alabama, should be #1. The next year the two teams didn’t play each other and finished 2-3 in the writer’s poll and 1-2 in the coach’s poll, USC having suffered a tie to Stanford. #1 according to the coaches was 11-0 Ohio State, whom the Trojans beat in the Rose Bowl, 17-16. Alabama then took care of Arkansas, 24-9 in the Sugar Bowl and wound up #1 in both polls.

The next two years Georgia and Clemson were the only unbeaten teams and won their bowl games. In 1982, Penn State had lost to Alabama but beaten Nebraska. They and the Huskers won the rest of their games and wound up 2-3 in both polls behind 11-0 Georgia. SMU went 10-0-1 and won the SEC. SMU beat Pitt, 7-3 in a dull Cotton Bowl. That night Nebraska nipped LSU, 21-20 in the Orange Bowl but when Penn State beat Georgia 27-24 in a classic Sugar Bowl, JoPa had his first national title.

The 1983 Nebraska team was one of the greatest teams ever but when Miami beat them in the Orange Bowl, the ‘Canes had the first of their five titles. No other bowl game mattered that day. New Years Day was taken out of the picture the next year as BYU was ranked #1 but by contract had to go to the Holiday Bowl as the WAC champs where they beat a 6-5 Michigan team 24-17 on December 21st to wrap up the title. The 1975 Arizona State team had to wonder what was up with that. So does the 2008 Utah team.

Penn State went unbeaten the next two years. In 1985 they were ranked #1 as the only unbeaten team but lost to Oklahoma, 10-25 in the Orange Bowl and the Sooners were #1. The next year the Lions were #2 behind Miami and they were matched in the Fiesta Bowl, a new player. For the first time the Big Game wasn’t on January 1st, and the Fiesta was played the next night. Penn State won 14-10. Since both teams were unbeaten the previous day’s games didn’t matter. Other, lesser bowls were now being held on January 1st. It was the beginning of the end for New Year’s Day as we had known it.

In 1987, Miami, Oklahoma and Syracuse all were 11-0 and Florida State was 10-1, having lost by a point to Miami. The Canes and Sooners met in the Orange Bowl, effectively closing out the other two. Miami won, 20-14. The next year Notre Dame beat the Canes 31-30 and wound up at #1. West Virginia also won all their games and was #2. Unlike SU the previous year they got to play for the national title, in the Fiesta Bowl and lost, 21-34.

In 1989 Colorado won all their games and was ranked #1. Florida State had beaten Miami and Miami had beaten Notre Dame to end the Irish’s 22 game winning streak at the end of the regular season. Notre Dame was paired with Colorado in the Orange Bowl while Miami played Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The two games were played at the same time and you could switch back and forth between them. The Irish spoiled the Buffalo’s perfect season, 21-6 while Miami beat the Tide, 33-25. The voters in both polls reasoned that since Miami had beaten Notre Dame, they should be #1.

1990 was a wild year and Colorado returned to the #1 slot and the Orange Bowl to face Notre Dame again. The Buffs had lost to Illinois and been tied by Tennessee and beat Missouri only because of a 5th down. But Notre Dame and Miami had two losses. Georgia Tech had been the surprise winner of the ACC with a 10-0-1 record over a weaker schedule. Tech wound up in the Florida Citrus Bowl vs. Nebraska. But that was a New Year’s Day game and they won it, 45-21. Colorado gained revenge on Notre Dame, 10-9. Tech had been #2 in both polls but the big win over the Huskers who had lost to Colorado 12-27, convinced the coaches that they deserved to be #1. The writers stuck with the Buffs.

1991 was one of those years that brought about the BCS. Miami and Washington won all their games impressively but could not be matched against each other because of the Pac10’s Rose Bowl contract. Miami was #1 in the writer’s poll. Washington was #1 in the coach’s poll. Washington took care of Michigan in the Rose Bowl, 34-14. The Canes handled Nebraska 22-0 in the Orange Bowl. Nothing changed. The next year there were also two unbeaten teams, Miami and Alabama and they were paired in the Sugar Bowl. The Tide shocked the Canes, 34-13 for the national title.

Florida State had its all-time best team in 1993 but they couldn’t get out of South Bend with a win, losing to Notre Dame, 24-31. The Irish then lost to Boston College on the same field, 39-41 the next week. Nebraska and West Virginia won all their games. It made for one of those special New Years Days. Notre Dame beat Texas A&M 24-21 in the Cotton Bowl. That night Florida destroyed the Mountaineer’s dreams 41-7 in the Sugar Bowl. In the Orange Bowl, the Noles outlasted the Huskers, 18-16, dodging a bullet in the form of a last second field goal attempt to win the title.

1994 was 1991 all over again as Nebraska and Penn State won all their games impressively but the Lions, as Big 10 members, had to go to the Rose Bowl, where they took care of Oregon 38-20. Meanwhile Nebraska beat a 10-1 Miami team in the Orange Bowl, 24-17. The difference this year was that both polls voted for the Huskers. The next year the situation repeated itself except it was Florida that joined the Huskers at the top and they were free to be paired with them in the Fiesta Bowl. There was room for only one team at the top of the hill and the Huskers rolled 62-24 for their second straight title.

The Gators came back in 1996, losing a battle of 10-0 teams to arch-rival Florida State to end the season and gaining revenge 52-20 in the Sugar Bowl. Arizona State was also 11-0 but lost to Ohio State, 14-17 in the Rose Bowl. In 1997 we had one more great controversy before the BCS was created to resolve such matters. Nebraska and Michigan both won all their games but the Wolverines, like Penn State in 1994, had to go to the Rose Bowl where they beat Washington State 21-16. The Huskers crushed Peyton Manning’s Tennessee team in the Orange Bowl, 42-17. The writers went for Michigan and the coaches for Nebraska.

Since the BCS we have the blessing that the top two teams will be paired against each other. That would have resolved the problems of 1991, 1994 and 1997. But in most years it has proven to be inadequate because there have been other teams with credentials arguably as good as at least one of the top two teams. And the insistence that the winner of the 1-2 game be voted national champion, (at least in the coaches poll: but the writers have tended to follow suit), means that there will be only one meaningful bowl game and that one isn’t even played on New Year’s Day any more. Meanwhile the TV networks have spread out the bowl games to try to get the big games maximum ratings. This year there were five games on New Year’s Day: The Rose Bowl between USC and Penn State was the big one, but neither team had a shot at the national title. Virginia Tech and Cincinnati were in a watered-down Orange Bowl. The other games on that day were the Outback Bowl, the Gator Bowl and the Capital One Bowl.

Suppose we used Blackledge’s idea. Put the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta and Rose Bowls on that day, with the BCS conference champions and two at large teams in them. Seeding the teams by the BCS standings, it would have looked like this:

Virginia Tech would have played Oklahoma
Cincinnati would have played Florida
Penn State would have played Texas
USC would have played Alabama
(I don’t know in which bowls.)

If you use a straight invitational, with no automatic bids, Utah and Texas Tech would have replaced Virginia Tech and Cincinnati and the first round would have looked like this:

Penn State would have played Oklahoma
Texas Tech would have played Florida
Utah would have played Texas
USC would have played Alabama

I like that one better. A 16 team playoff would have required 8 games in the first round, too much for one day, although they have played that many on New Year’s Day. I still think it’s a bit much. I’m just afraid that the BCS conferences would never take part without automatic bids.

It’s often said that, whatever criticisms you might have of the BCS system, it’s certainly better than the old days. Usually they mention the fact that bowl committees, left to their own devices, made deals way too early with teams in a effort to wrap up who they wanted. Teams that were 7-1 would accept bids to bowl games and then lose 3 in a row and the bowl would get stuck with a 7-4 team. (This has been effectively ended by contracts with conferences and various bowls.) Then there were those split titles where two top teams couldn’t meet as in ’91, ’94 and ‘97. But I think, on balance, the old days were actually better. At least New Year’s Day was something special.

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