Mule': Strength of schedule should factor in

There's still a hollow, faraway look in the eyes of the Auburn faithful when it comes up. It's that painful. It's been two years since the Tigers from the Alabama plains went through a demanding season unblemished – and didn't even get to the national championship game.

What's more, though largely forgotten everywhere but in Alabama, that wasn't even the first time a No. 1 team stepped over the bones of Auburn. A prime example of why strength of schedule should be a major factor in determining who is No. 1 (and not taking it out of the equation, as the BCS did last year), is what happened to the Tigers two decades ago.

 

Think about it this way: In the 1984 Sugar Bowl, in which Auburn beat Michigan 9-7, the Tigers completed an 11-1 season against what was the most demanding schedule in the nation, one that included nine bowl teams and won a cumulative 70 percent of its games. The lone loss was to Texas, by any measure one of the nation's top five squads.

 

Miami, a darling of the Eastern media in particular, had been waging a fiery PR blitz to get voters to their side in case the Hurricanes beat No. 1-ranked Nebraska. 

 

"I just happen to have some figures here,'' a drained Coach Pat Dye said in the locker room after the Sugar Bowl after finding that, sure enough, No. 5 Miami upset the Cornhuskers, which coupled with Georgia's upset of No. 2-ranked Texas would normally have vaulted the No. 3 Tigers into the top spot, "and they say that our opponents had a higher winning percentage than anybody else. Because of that, we should be the No. 1 team in the country. If there's any credibility as far as scheduling is concerned, then there's no way Auburn shouldn't be No. 1. If they (Miami) influence the polls as hard as they are trying, they're going to get it'' Dye predicted. "I'd love for our kids to win the national championship, but I don't want them to win it on a political ballot.''

 

But Miami, the Cinderella of the season, did win it on a political ballot. The Hurricanes leaped from fifth place to first place, reminiscent of the '78 bowls when No. 5 Notre Dame, after beating No. 1 Texas, bounded over No. 2 Alabama, which soundly whipped Ohio State.

 

To any thinking football fan, Miami's first national title was nothing short of an injustice to a more deserving Auburn.

 

Miami, a good team, make no mistake, bested a schedule that won at a .514 ratio. Not bad, but not No. 1 either.

 

Consider: At no point of the season was Miami ranked ahead of Auburn. In the last polls of the regular season Auburn was universally third. Miami was fourth in one, fifth in another. After the Orange Bowl, Miami jumped to No. 1, Nebraska slipped only to No. 2, and Auburn remained at No. 3.

 

Anyone would have to wonder, if the voters were so impressed with the Hurricanes' victories over Purdue, Duke, Louisville or Cincinnati, then why didn't Miami get more support during the season?

 

The biggest break Miami got was squeezing into the Orange Bowl against the Cornhuskers, a media-made "Greatest of All-Time'' team.

 

Nebraska numbed America by opening the season with a televised 44-6 dismantling of Penn State, which just happened to be the defending national champion. Immediately the national pulps began the drum beating. Two weeks later, Nebraska added to its credentials by scoring an eyebrow-raising 84 points against Minnesota. From then on not a question was heard about the place of the 1983 Cornhuskers in college football.

 

But there should have been.

 

All but forgotten after the opening flameout, Penn State proceeded to lose its next two games too, indicating the Nittany Lions weren't nearly the powerhouse everyone expected. And the 84 points against Minnesota wasn't quite as impressive after Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa rang up 69, 56, 58 and 61 points against those same Golden Gophers.

 

One other little item: Miami opened the season with a 28-3 defeat at the hands of Florida. The 25 points separating those squads represent the biggest smudge on the record of any national champion. It's also noteworthy that Auburn beat Florida 28-21. An early stumble can be overlooked – if its not too bad and the team can pick itself off the canvas. The loss, however, of more than three touchdowns is hardly a trivial matter, especially when Miami would go five more weeks before meeting a truly representative football team.

 

"Who did Miami play?'' asked Dye rhetorically a day after the Sugar Bowl. A member of the press corps answered Notre Dame (which struggled through a 7-5 season). "Notre Dame?'' exclaimed Dye with a look of disbelief. "Lordy mercy.''

 

In the minds of the voters, though, Miami's 20-0 victory over the disorganized Irish, on national television, was second in importance only to the 31-30 win over Nebraska. That and the question of style. Football is generally won on defense, but the public is enamored with offense and that Hurricanes had that, riding the brilliant right arm of freshman quarterback Bernie Kosar.

 

Defensive and run-oriented squads like Auburn and Michigan, though perhaps sounder, sort of pale in the minds of the public next to a quick-draw team like Miami.

 

Football can turn on fate. No. 2-ranked Texas would have risen to No. 1 with the Nebraska defeat had a Longhorn not fumbled a punt, opening the gate for a Georgia victory in the Cotton Bowl. Nebraska, as it turned out, might have retained its No. 1 status had Coach Tom Osborne kicked the tying PAT in the final minute against Miami instead of going for two.

 

None of which was any help to Auburn. "Put yourself in our shoes,'' sophomore running back Bo Jackson reflected. "You're the No. 3 team, and the No. 1 and No. 2 teams lose. You should, with no question, move up to No. 1. But there comes a time in everyone's life when you're going to get screwed over. And that was our time.''

        

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Marty Mule' can be reached at MJM981@Bellsouth.net


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