Although the above vignettes are fanciful, there are elements of truth in each, and we will return in a moment to inspect them. But first let us ponder the importance of the preseason polls in which the coach and the reporter took part.
Last year Arkansas won 10 of 11 regular-season games, losing only to No. 1 Texas 13-9 when the Longhorns scored the game's only touchdown in the final quarter. And yet entering the bowl games, the Razorbacks were ranked sixth behind four other teams with 10-1 records and never had a chance to become No. 1. Granted someone had to bring up the rear, but why Arkansas? Well, it's really very simple. The Razorbacks began the season ranked, as Lou Holtz put it, "76th or something." Certainly they weren't in either the AP or UPI preseason Top 20 as the other 10-1 teams had been. As one AP voter sheepishly admits, "I wasn't even aware of Arkansas until halfway through the season."
Sometimes there is little question which team should get the award, as in 1976 when Pittsburgh was the only 12-0 team in the country. Some may have suspected that USC, beaten only by Missouri in an opening-game upset, was stronger, but virtually everyone agreed that Pitt deserved the honor. Last year, however, no team was unbeaten, and five—Notre Dame, Texas, Alabama, Penn State and Arkansas—wound up 11-1. What made the voters, most of them at least, pick Notre Dame No. 1? There are five basic rules, unwritten rules to be sure, for winning a national championship, and the Irish followed them all. They are:
1) Get yourself on national television, more than once, if possible, and when you do, win.
2) If you must lose a game during the season (and one is the limit), do it early.
3) Don't let the athletic director talk you into dropping Kansas State and adding Oklahoma, even if it's for 1985.
4) Win by as big a number as possible, and be ready to justify it later.
5) At bowl time, play the highest-ranked team you can find, unless you are already No. 1, in which case play someone respectable but beatable.
Let's take these five rules as they applied to Notre Dame last year. The Irish appeared on national television three times, defeating defending national champion Pitt 19-9 in the opening game of the season, beating traditional rival USC 49-19—a victory from which they would have gotten even more mileage if USC had not lost three other games last year—and, finally, whipping No. 1 Texas 38-10 in the Cotton Bowl, the performance that put them on top. Three appearances on TV against Top 20 teams, three wins. Total score: 106-38. Pollsters are impressed by what they see on television, live or taped, and Notre Dame was indeed impressive.
The sole Irish loss came in their second game of the season, to Mississippi 20-13 in Jackson. This was their only tactical mistake of the season. If you are a Northern team, you should never play a day game in Mississippi—or Texas or Alabama—in September. The temperature in Jackson was near 90, hotter on the field. Notre Dame wilted. But at least it lost early and had time to recoup. Look at Texas. When the bowl games were over, it had an 11-1 record, the same as Notre Dame, Alabama, Penn State and Arkansas, but it had violated Rules 1 and 2, losing on national television and losing late in the season. In its final poll, AP ranked the Longhorns fourth, UPI fifth.