Saturday, December 27, 2014

When Little Guys Still Had a Chance

SAN DIEGO - Thirty years ago on this field, in this bowl game, BYU became the last team not from the current power five conferences to win college football's mythical national championship. We pay tribute to that occasion because something like that probably will never happen again.

The No. 1-ranked Cougars, the only unbeaten Division I-A team not to lose a game before the bowl season in 1984, were by conference rule obligated to play in the Holiday Bowl instead of a more prestigious New Year's Day bowl game. Their opponent certainly had brand recognition, but its 1984 squad was far from vintage.

The 1984 Michigan team turned out to be the only team in the Bo Schembechler era not to post a winning record. No Michigan team in fact compiled a worse record in the 30-year period between 1968-2007 after it lost to BYU in the Holiday Bowl to finish 6-6.

Even after winning the game, 24-17, BYU had to sweat it out for 12 long days. Because of their narrow victory, there was rampant speculation that the Cougars might be jumped by No. 2 Oklahoma if the one-loss Sooners could handle No. 4 Washington in the Orange Bowl. But thanks in part to the infamous Boomer Schooner incident that wiped out an OU field goal, the Huskies went on to win 28-17, handing BYU its only national title.

The Cougars swept both the AP and UPI (coaches') polls, but the legitimacy of their "undisputed" championship has been questioned ever since. It's certainly inconceivable today to believe an undefeated mid-major team would have a chance to finish No. 1, ahead of one-loss conference champions from the Pac-10 and SEC, but that's exactly what happened in 1984.

Certainly a confluence of events helped BYU's cause. One-loss Washington was relegated to the Orange Bowl because it lost head-to-head to Pac-10 co-champion USC, which won the Rose Bowl but had three losses. Florida won the SEC with a 9-1-1 record, but it was ineligible for a bowl because of NCAA sanctions and its conference title was vacated six months later. The champions from the ACC, Big Eight, Big Ten and Southwest Conference all had at least two losses.

BYU also had worked on putting itself on the map for nearly a decade. In 1984, the Cougars were playing in their seventh consecutive Holiday Bowl, having split the previous six against major-conference opponents. And along the way, they were cementing their reputation as Quarterback U by sending their record-setting passers to the NFL, one after another.

Coached by the legendary LaVell Edwards, the Cougars had their first breakthrough in the 1980 Holiday Bowl, when they rallied from a 20-point deficit with 2:33 remaining to stun SMU on a Hail Mary pass by Jim McMahon. Three years later, Steve Young threw a TD pass, ran for a TD and then caught the game-winner in a 21-17 victory over Missouri.

In the Edwards era that spanned from 1972-2000, BYU had its share of star quarterbacks that also included Marc Wilson, Ty Detmer and current USC coach Steve Sarkisian. In fact, Sarkisian credits the grit that Detmer displayed in a Holiday Bowl loss to Texas A&M in the 1990 game as the reason why he chose to play for BYU.

"I have a lot of great, vivid memories of the Holiday Bowl," Sarkisian said before the Trojans beat Nebraska, 45-42 Saturday night in a game reminiscent of the shootouts that the bowl used to be known for. "But I especially remember Ty Detmer separating his left shoulder against A&M, and then separating his right shoulder, but he hung in there. I grew very fond of Ty after that game - he was one tough customer."

Detmer claimed BYU's only Heisman Trophy during that 1990 season, but it was Robbie Bosco who led the Cougars to their only national championship.

Like Detmer, Bosco played hurt in the Holiday Bowl, hobbled by leg and ankle injuries. But he told quarterbacks coach Mike Holmgren that he wasn't leaving the game, gutting it out with 343 passing yards and two TDs, including the game-winning 13-yard toss to Kelly Smith in the final minute.

Had the playoff committee existed in 1984, BYU wouldn't even have made its top 10 rankings, let along winning the national championship. Before the bowl game, the Cougars' best wins were 30-25 over 8-4 Air Force and 18-13 over 7-4 Hawaii. Nine of their 13 wins were against teams that finished .500 or worse.

But in 1984, "game control" and "quality loss" were lexicons that haven't been invented yet. To the voters in the two major polls, BYU passed the eye test. It helped that the Michigan team was playing out the season without sophomore quarterback Jim Harbaugh, who is now poised to return to his alma mater after it suffered a third losing season in the last seven years.

While that Holiday Bowl game was a forgettable chapter for Michigan, it was a momentous occasion in college football history, one that's unlikely ever to be repeated again.

“It’s still very special 30 years later,” Edwards told U-T San Diego in a recent interview. “They will probably still be talking about it (30 years later), and debating whether they should or shouldn’t have made us No. 1.”

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