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Bowl teams floundered to the end of the season. Florida, Georgia (Tangerine), Texas Tech (Peach) and Oklahoma State (Fiesta) lost two of their last three. On the final Saturday, the Alabama-Notre Dame rematch was soured when the Irish were stunned by USC 55-24 on national television. Houston, headed for the Astro-Bluebonnet, was done in by Tulsa, headed nowhere. When it was all over, Georgia and Oklahoma State had lost five games, North Carolina and Texas Tech had lost four and 10 teams had lost three. The cumulative winning percentage of everyone involved is .745, the lowest since 1945.
Worse, the early commitment slammed the door on fast finishers, some of them new blood trying to get a reputation in a got-to-have-a-reputation world. Tulsa won its last seven in a row. Arizona won four straight and finished 9-2. Boston College won its last six, out-scoring opponents 270 to 27, and inspiring Holy Cross' Ed Doherty to say, "This is the best Boston College team in history, and it should be representing New England in some bowl." Arizona, like Tulsa, was ignored, and New England remains unrepresented.
It is no secret that NCAA officials have long favored a playoff system that included the bowls. They have been regularly rebuffed. Coaches object, conferences object, schools object. The bowls won't buy such a plan because it would be the death of them. ("What will we do those three or four years waiting for our turn for the championship game?" says William H. Nicholas of the Rose Bowl.) The NCAA's response has been to act abused and petulant, and to elevate itself above the problem.
Says Assistant Executive Director Tom Hansen: "We get sick and tired of people griping about early selection. If the bowls find themselves in chaos...they deserve what they are getting." Continuing this shortsighted assessment, Hansen says the reason "we had so much difficulty [in the past] enforcing bowl-bid legislation was that our membership didn't think [it] important enough to justify the imposition of penalties." Failing to observe a selection date, he says, "just doesn't equate with such violations as changing a player's transcript or giving him a free apartment."
In an obvious attempt to ward off future disappointments, the Orange Bowl next year will begin a tie-up with the Big Eight. At that time, its probation over, Oklahoma will be out of the doghouse. The Big Eight will have its champion in a bowl, and perhaps a runner-up or two in other postseason games.
No such salvation awaits Michigan. In recent non-action, the Pac-8 reaffirmed its will to do nothing about bringing its bowl policy into the last half of the 20th century. The Big Ten shuffles along similarly, adhering to what one Midwestern columnist describes as a "policy to constrain rapid advancement toward anything practical and intelligent."
The Rose Bowl's "exclusivity" clause (league runners-up are not allowed to go anywhere) does little to serve college football and, beyond the much trumpeted fact that the Rose pays more, does even less for those Big Ten and Pac-8 teams that are down the ladder of success. Exclusivity, so zealously guarded by bowl sponsors and NBC-TV, encourages a dubious status quo and continuing frustration among the also-rans.
Both leagues are top-heavy. USC is the only Pac-8 team of bowl caliber this year; Michigan and Ohio State have been the only Big Ten contenders the past three, although this year Michigan State came close. The weak got weaker. The Big Ten barely broke even in games outside the conference this fall (16-13-1), although that is an improvement over recent years. The Pac-8 was the only prestige conference that was a loser against outside competition (13-17-2). The Southeastern Conference, by contrast, won 40 and tied two of 50 out-of-league games, an .820 percentage. Eight of its 10 teams had winning records and seven are in bowl games. Much of the same is true of the Southwest Conference, where champion Baylor and also-rans Texas Tech and Texas (not to mention soon-to-be-member Houston) are all in bowls.
Big Ten and Pac-8 coaches who want change argue that exclusivity hurts their recruiting, their alumni support and their attendance. Bob Blackman of Illinois says he has had "kids tell me, 'I know your school may be a little better, but when I visited Ohio State every one of the guys I talked to had on a Rose Bowl ring.' If a kid goes to a Big Eight school, he has a 50-50 chance to go to a big bowl. In the Big Ten, he has a 10% chance."