Marshall: Football Championship Formula

Phillip Marshall writes about the path to winning a college football national title.

Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville still winces at the memory.

He was in his first season as an assistant coach at the University of Miami. The Hurricanes were the most powerful force in college football, blowing through the 1986 regular season with ease. Quarterback Vinny Testaverde won the Heisman Trophy. Defensive tackle Jerome Brown won the Outland Trophy and cornerback Bennie Blades won the Jim Thorpe Award.

The outcome of their national championship showdown with Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl was considered a foregone conclusion.

It wasn't.

A week that started with controversy when many Miami players showed up in Tempe, Ariz., wearing battle fatigues ended with Testaverde having the worst game of his career. Testaverde threw five interceptions and Penn State won the game and the national championship, 14-10.

"We might have been the best team ever put together in college football," Tuberville said. "We walked through the regular season with very few close games, but we didn't win the national championship.

"I learned a lot from that game. We were a much better football team than they were. I learned that it doesn't matter how good you think you are or what you've done in the past. We had great practices. We were focused and ready to play. We just didn't play very well."

A year later, the Hurricanes were supposed to be in a rebuilding mode. They went 12-0 and won the national championship.

As unhappy as the memory of 1986 is for Tuberville, it pales beside 2004. We all know what happened that season. Auburn was 12-0, a dominant team at the end of the regular season. Few teams even managed to stay in games against that team for a half.

Yet, the Tigers could only grit their teeth in frustration as USC beat Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl for the national championship. Tuberville believed then and believes to this day that he had the best team in the country, one that would have handled either USC or Oklahoma.

The bottom line: Winning national championships in football is an iffy business that has as much to do with luck and timing as it does with talent and preparation.

In 1998, Tennessee's run for the national championship seemed to be over. Arkansas led the Vols 24-22 in Knoxville and was running out the clock. Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner inexplicably fumbled without being touched. Tennessee recovered, drove to the winning touchdown in the final seconds and went on to a perfect season, beating Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship.

Vols coach Phillip Fulmer acknowledges the good fortune that came Tennessee's way, but he says the key is getting into position to take advantage when the football gods smile.

"You have to be somewhat fortunate to stay healthy and you have to get a bounce or two along the way," Fulmer said. "When that happens, you have a chance."

David Cutcliffe was the offensive coordinator on that team. He returned last season after trying his hand as head coach at Ole Miss and sitting out a year because of health problems.

"It takes a special team," Cutcliffe said. "It takes talent, obviously, and great chemistry. You have to keep the right players healthy. You have to win the close games. Once all that happens, it usually comes down to some luck. In today's game, that's just the way it is."

Few teams ever had more good fortune than Florida in 1996. The Gators lost 24-21 to Florida State in Tallahassee in their regular season finale. It seemed Steve Spurrier would be denied his first national championship again. For Florida to have a shot, it had to beat Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, Ohio State had to lose to Michigan in the regular season finale and beat Arizona State in the Rose Bowl. Texas had to upset Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship Game.

It all happened.

Florida got a rematch with Florida State in the Sugar Bowl and romped to a 52-20 victory to claim what would be Spurrier's only national championship with the Gators.

Three of the past four SEC teams that have won national championships--Florida in 1996, LSU in 2003 and Florida last season--did it with one loss. Tuberville and Fulmer are the only coaches in the league who have experienced perfect seasons at SEC schools.

The start of preseason football practice is just three months away now. A handful of SEC teams will have the kind of talent it takes to compete for a championship. Maybe the ball will bounce right for one of them. Maybe it won't.

"You have to be good," Tuberville said. "You have to do one thing I've talked about that, and that is you have to find a way to win when you play poorly. You are going to play one or two or three bad games in a year. It's tough to keep that focus for 14 games.

"Every football team is different. No matter if you have all your players back from last year, when you line up for the first game that chemistry mixes in with that team. That has to work for you, and there has to be a lot of good luck."

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