This is one slick wrinkle that college football has added this season. Already lacking a definitive means to select its national champion and mired in a partisan poll system with more holes than Water-world, the keepers of the game have changed the objective. Mere winning is no longer enough. Points are the point. If four touchdowns is good, six touchdowns is better, and eight touchdowns is ecstasy. It's brilliant. The boys at Major League Baseball, those playoff innovators, must be kicking themselves: Why didn't we think of this?
The place to best study this phenomenon is State College, Pa., where last Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium quiet moments were filled with announcements from the public-address system. "Scores from other games...Nebraska 50, Michigan State 10," the voice would boom. Meanwhile, on the field, the Nittany Lions were winning a fierce and dramatic struggle, 24-23, over three-touchdown underdog Texas Tech.
There would be many more big scores to come. Florida State would get 45 points against Clemson, Florida 42 against Kentucky, USC 45 against San Jose State, and this weekend's point-scoring champion, Auburn, 76 against Tennessee-Chattanooga. In the season's first two weeks Nebraska has scored 114 points. And the Nittany Lions, who dropped from No. 4 to No. 7 in the polls as a result of their narrow victory over the Red Raiders, have seen this movie before. A year ago.
A short history lesson is in order. This recent flurry of interest in victory margins was spawned last Nov. 5 in the heart of a ferocious battle for No. 1 between Penn State and Nebraska, each of whom entered that day atop a poll and seemed destined to share the national title. The Nittany Lions led the USA Today/CNN coaches' poll, and the Cornhuskers were best in the Associated Press writers' poll. But that afternoon at Indiana, Penn State held a 35-14 lead with a few minutes to play when Lion coach Joe Paterno substituted freely. "We used guys who hadn't even practiced," he would say later. The Hoosiers scored twice, including a 40-yard TD pass and two-point conversion at the end of the game, creating a deceptively close 35-29 final.
One day later the Nittany Lions fell from their No. 1 ranking in the USA Today/CNN poll. The apparently close win over Indiana effectively killed Penn State's shot at any part of a national title since, as champions of the Big Ten, the Nittany Lions were obliged to meet the Pac-10 winner in the Rose Bowl. That precluded a Nebraska-Penn State matchup in another bowl.
That weekend's events created a new dictum for coaches gunning for a high ranking in the polls: Crush the opposition. Dumb down the process for the voters. "It's a bad incentive, but those are the facts," says Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel, whose Buffaloes have scored 85 points in two games. Florida State's Bobby Bowden rushed to the head of the pack on this front by using first-team quarterback Danny Kanell to throw the final touchdown pass in the Seminoles' 70-26 victory over Duke during the opening week of the season and admitting afterward that he did so in part to protect Florida State's No. 1 ranking.
"Ours is the only sport I know of where people vote to determine a national champion," says Florida coach Steve Spurrier, whose No. 4 Gators have 87 points in two weeks. Spurrier also concedes that poll rankings could influence coaches to tack on a couple of scores in a blowout. "I think it might," he says.
The new bowl alliance will serve to reinforce the tendency to run up the score. In effect, it will place the six top-ranked teams, excluding the Big Ten and Pac-10 champions, in three bowls. This season No. 1 and No. 2 will meet in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2. The difference in one ranking spot could be several hundred thousand dollars and a big boost in a school's recruiting.
At the center of this tempest are Nebraska and Penn State. The efficient Cornhuskers have left nothing to chance by turning solid victories into romps this season. They seem likely to continue doing just that, despite the dismissal of star running back Lawrence Phillips from the team for allegedly assaulting his ex-girlfriend early Sunday morning and the arrest on Saturday morning of Phillips's backup, Damon Benning, on similar charges involving a 19-year-old woman. And the Nittany Lions, who struggled early against Texas Tech but have the makings of a powerhouse, are asking for leniency from those who do the ranking.
Despite the loss of three players who were picked in the top nine in the NFL draft, Penn State this year figured to match the stirring offensive production of 1994, when the Lions, led by Ki-Jana Carter, Kerry Collins and Kyle Brady, averaged 47.8 points and more than 520 yards a game. Four offensive line starters were back, along with both wide-outs and a fourth-year junior with experience at quarterback, Wally Richardson. Yet in the week leading to the opener against Texas Tech, Paterno warned, "We're not very good," and it seemed like funny stuff. JoePa doing poor mouth. Cue the laugh track.