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Plati-'Tudes Story Time: Consensus National Champions

Oct 7, 2020

Another week and still no football games to write about in 2020, here's the fourth entry of: "Plati-'Tudes Story Time."

This week I thought I'd revisit the '90 season but more so the immediate aftermath and our "consensus" national championship; I don't use "split" as throughout history, several acknowledged organizations crowned champions, not just the Associated Press (media, mostly writers) and United Press International (at first media, then eventually coaches).  More on that later.

Now many have blamed Nebraska coach Tom Osborne for causing CU not to be unanimous between the AP and UPI; I never got a confirm of where he actually voted us.  Some would eventually hint to us that it wasn't No. 1, but I knew UPI wouldn't confirm one way or another if I even asked them.  But what didn't happen that some conspiracy theorists have pushed through the years is that he had the deciding vote (which is even "claimed" on Wikipedia, which is often not that reliable).  Now I am not sure what time he cast his vote that day (I really doubt he was last), but I can guarantee you that the UPI sports editor, Jeff Shain, did not tell him where either CU or Georgia Tech stood at any point in the balloting, if they even spoke.  What did rankle us more than anything is that during the season, NU athletic director Bob Devaney made a point of saying publicly that coaches should stay loyal to their conference and vote his school No. 1 when the time came at midseason.

What brought that comment about was that CBS had more or less promised the Big Eight office that the CU-Nebraska game would be its choice for national broadcast on Nov. 3.  When the time came to make the selections, CBS opted to show Virginia, ranked No. 1 with a 7-0 record, against No. 16 Georgia Tech (5-0-1), while Nebraska was fourth (7-0) and CU 10th (6-1-1); UVA was idle on Oct. 27 but the other three were all victorious.  Several league coaches admitted they had voted Virginia No. 1, and Bill McCartney and Bob Stull (Missouri) also relayed they didn't have the Huskers in their top three (not sure why either would admit that!).  Devaney, knowing the value of being on CBS instead of ESPN, blamed conference coaches and said, "Now these schools are asking for shares of the money we and Oklahoma bring in and yet they didn't support the conference when they voted Virginia No. 1."  That's from the October 17 edition of the Lincoln Journal-Star.   

The paper's columnist, Ken Hambleton, pointed out that had Nebraska played a tougher non-league schedule, it likely would have been ranked first: NU outscored Baylor, Northern Illinois, Minnesota and Oregon State by a combined 160-21, teams that went a combined 19-24-1.  Virginia's wasn't that much if any better, defeating Kansas, Navy and William & Mary by a combined 178-59, but it did own a win over No. 9 Clemson.  UVA and Tech remained in their same poll positions by the time they played, while the Buffs and Huskers each moved up a spot.  Georgia Tech would beat Virginia, 41-38, about an hour before CU rallied to win, 27-12, in Lincoln.  After a crazy Saturday where four of the top five teams lost, CU jumped from No. 9 to No. 4, while Tech zoomed from 16th to No. 7; Notre Dame reclaimed the top spot it had held earlier in the season, ahead of now No. 2 Washington (with its only loss to CU) and No. 3 Houston, the only undefeated, untied team left in the country after November's first weekend.

On Nov. 10, Washington lost at home to UCLA, as did Houston to rival Texas (the Cougars were on probation, could not play in a bowl game and would not figure in the UPI poll anyway).  Notre Dame held on to No. 1 in the poll of Nov. 13, with CU now second.  The Irish, after opening 3-0 and rising to No. 1 in the nation, dropped to eighth after losing to Stanford in their fourth game; they would fall out of the top spot again after a home loss to Penn State to drop to 8-2 (the Irish finished 9-3, the three losses by a combined nine points, and were 5-1 against ranked teams during the regular season for those few who doubt they were the toughest team CU would face in the Orange Bowl).  The Buffs then slid into No. 1 for the second straight year in late November following the Nebraska win with convincing wins over Oklahoma State (41-22) and Kansas State (64-3).  (See the AP poll week-by-week below.)

Colorado went on to become just the second team at the time to win a national championship playing the nation's toughest schedule.  The non-conference schedule was one that hasn't come close to being matched by any school since: Tennessee in Anaheim (9-2-2 season record), Stanford (5-6), at Illinois (8-4), at Texas (10-2) and Washington (10-2).  The latter three were all conference champions, with Tennessee a half-game out.  Incidentally, all five of their head coaches voted in the UPI poll that year.

The day after the game. we left Miami late in next afternoon; we all actually were able to have some badly needed pool time.  We already knew the AP had voted us No. 1 prior to departing, but the UPI ballot wasn't tabulated yet.  Remember, it's 1990 – no internet, no cell phones, basically no way of knowing until we landed at Stapleton Airport.   We're down in baggage claim, and I get to a pay phone (yes, a pay phone!) and call UPI in New York and find out the news: Georgia Tech edged us by one point, 847-846, and by 30-27 in first place votes (in the AP poll, CU had a 39-20 margin in votes for the top spot and a 1,475-1,441 margin overall; the other first place votes went to Miami-Fla., two in the UPI, one in the AP).  Other coaches I suspect didn't vote Colorado on the top of their ballots could have been Stull (Missouri, fifth down game) and Lou Holtz (Notre Dame).  Mac did vote Georgia Tech second; Bobby Ross, Tech's coach, surely voted his team first, but we never had any idea where he voted CU.  When it comes down to one point, any ballot that had CU two spots behind Tech would have caused a 2-point swing from the Buffs being one ahead to one behind.

Now the AP awarded 25 points for first place (24 for second, etc.), but UPI compiled its top 25 with the top team receiving 15 (14 for second and so forth) and had 59 coaches voting.  So by my calculations and experience as a true stat geek, Tech earned 450 points for 30 first place votes, 322 for 23 second place votes, 39 for three third and 36 for three fourth for its 847 total.  Figuring CU, the 27 first place votes netted 405 points, 27 second would have earned 378, three third 39 and two fourth 24 to add to 846.  Nothing else realistically works unless either team was voted fifth or lower.  Ironically, if UPI used a 25-point scale similar to the AP, the Buffs would have edged Tech, 1,386-1,377 if the above breakdown I calculated for the UPI poll is accurate. 

So guess who has to waltz up to Coach Mac and inform him of the results … yours truly.  True to Mac form, he tells me, "That's not right.  You call UPI back and tell them to have the coaches vote again."  Well, that wasn't going to happen.  While CU defeated No. 5 Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl, 10-9, Tech defeated Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl, 45-21, but the Huskers had fallen to No. 19 after losing to Oklahoma in the final game of the regular season, and then suspended several key players for the bowl game.  We'll never know if some voters didn't consider the latter, along with CU winning in Lincoln and Georgia Tech playing almost a home game in the bowl.

Now back to why I use consensus.  CU was voted No. 1 by the Associated Press, the Football Writers (FWAA), National Football Foundation (NFF), The Sporting News, Football News and USA Today/CNN, all recognized by the NCAA (along with six computer rankings, including Billingsley which the NCAA had recognized for years) or 12 in all. Georgia Tech won the UPI ballot, the Sagarin rankings and Dunkel, or five total (both were crowned by the National Championship Foundation and something called FACT); Miami claimed the N.Y. Times poll, which nobody ever really viewed as being significant.  Colorado was 5-1-1 against teams in the AP's final poll, Tech was 3-0.

In just a few years, perhaps CU and Tech will settle it once and for all on the field: GT opens the 2025 season in Boulder; the Buffs travel to Atlanta to start the 2026 campaign.

The 1954 edition of the Buffaloes was one of, if not the, most prolific rushing teams in school history.  The team averaged what is still a school record of 6.42 yards per attempt (492 of them), amassing 3,160 net yards and 34 touchdowns.  CU finished 7-2-1 that season, third in the Big Seven with a 3-2-1 league mark (behind 6-0 Oklahoma and 4-2 Nebraska).  Now back then, you couldn't go to the Orange Bowl two years in a row and OU went the year before; on the final day of the season, Kansas State was in line to represent the conference (it owned the tiebreaker with Nebraska) had it beaten the Buffaloes, but CU pulled off an upset, a dominating one at that, 38-14.  The late Carroll Hardy rushed 10 times that day for 238 yards (including touchdown runs of 79, 46 and 3 yards, and another 46-yard dash); he also had punts of 61, 47 and 44 yards which averaged out to 50.7 per.  In that same game, Emerson Wilson set another record with a 95-yard touchdown run; it was the longest play from scrimmage in CU history until last year's 96-yard TD pass on the flea flicker from Steven Montez to K.D. Nixon, but it still remains the longest rush.  Hardy finished his career with 1,999 rushing yards, something S.I.D., the late Fred Casotti, often felt guilty about ("I should have got word to the coaches he needed just one more yard for 2,000.").  CU's three leading rushers that year – Hardy, John Bayuk and Frank Bernardi – combined for 2,034 yards and 23 touchdowns on 290 carries, or 7.01 per try.  And in the end, Nebraska owed a huge thank you to CU for its first-ever appearance of 17 to date in the Orange Bowl.

(includes all schools at one time ranked in the top 10)

PS 9/2 9/9 9/16 9/23 9/30 10/7 10/14 10/21 10/28 11/4 11/11 11/18 11/25 12/2       Final 
Colorado 5 6 9 20 20 12 14 14 10 9 4 2 1 1 1 1
Georgia Tech RV RV RV RV RV 23 18 11 16 16 7 4 3 2 2 2
Miami, Fla. 1 1 10 9 10 9 3 2 8 8 5 3 2 3 4 3
Florida State 4 3 3 2 2 2 10 7 12 12 12 9 8 8 6 4
Washington 20 20 22 21 12 17 17 13 7 7 2 10 9 9 8 5
Notre Dame 2 2 1 1 1 1 8 6 3 2 1 1 7 7 5 6
Michigan 6 5 4 7 6 3 1 10 20 20 19 16 15 13 12 7
Tennessee 8 8 7 6 5 6 5 3 11 11 9 14 14 12 10 8
Clemson 10 9 16 17 19 16 15 22 19 18 18 17 16 14 14 9
Houston 24 24 18 14 13 13 12 9 6 6 3 12 12 11 9 10
Texas RV RV 23 22 RV RV RV 19 13 14 14 7 6 5 3 12
Florida RV RV 24 19 14 13 9 17 14 15 10 6 5 6 11 13
Oklahoma 22 23 14 11 9 7 4 16 22 RV RV RV RV 22 20 17
Auburn 3 3 2 3 3 5 6 5 2 4 15 24 23 20 RV 19
USC 9 7 6 5 18 15 16 15 21 21 23 19 18 21 21 20
BYU 16 16 5 4 4 11 13 12 9 10 8 5 4 4 13 22
Virginia 15 14 11 10 7 4 2 1 1 1 11 8 17 RV RV 23
Nebraska 7 10 8 8 8 8 7 4 4 3 13 11 10 19 19 24
Illinois 11 11 21 15 17 10 11 8 5 5 17 22 22 16 16 25