SI Vault
John Underwood
January 14, 1985
...that with the help of scholarship limits, anything-goes pass-blocking rules and quarterbacks like Doug Flutie (22), Bernie Kosar (20) and Robbie Bosco (6), many college teams accustomed to the slag heap have sailed by traditional powers. Result: the wackiest season ever and BYU No. 1
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January 14, 1985

And So It Came To Pass...

...that with the help of scholarship limits, anything-goes pass-blocking rules and quarterbacks like Doug Flutie (22), Bernie Kosar (20) and Robbie Bosco (6), many college teams accustomed to the slag heap have sailed by traditional powers. Result: the wackiest season ever and BYU No. 1

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Edwards, chairman of the board of Passers Unlimited even before the rule changes, is the proud possessor of a 24-game winning streak, currently major-college football's longest. Every season save two since 1976 his Cougars have led the nation in passing, yet he has never had a quarterback who was heavily recruited. Not Bosco, not Steve Young in 1980 not Jim McMahon in '77, not Marc Wilson in '75, not any of them. Nor has he had a receiver who survived the cut in the pros (the Raiders' Todd Christensen was a fullback at BYU).

The current pass-blocking (holding) rule allows offensive linemen to push straight ahead or to either side with extended arms, which makes it difficult for the referee to tell whether a hand is pushing or holding. When the rule went into effect in 1980, BYU broke the 400-yard barrier with a record 409.8-yard-per-game passing average. This year the Cougars averaged 346.2 as Bosco led the free world in passing yardage with 3,875 and was second only to Flutie in passing efficiency (Kosar finished third).

If you missed the significance of all this, you were probably among those several million sportswriters who also didn't notice that BYU's win over Michigan by only seven points was a fluke—the difference could easily have been 21 points. You probably had to be there to see it: Even when Bosco was hurt and briefly replaced—his immobility upon his return forced him to take snaps mostly from the shotgun—BYU still moved the ball and, not surprisingly, continued to play good defense. The glitch that kept the score respectable for Schembechler was six turnovers by the Cougars, who were no doubt nervous about their imminent coronation.

In any case, the shame of it was that the Holiday was played early, on Dec. 21, and wasn't on network TV. Although it made the remaining bowls irrelevant as far as the disposition of No. 1, it gave coaches like Barry Switzer of Oklahoma time to try to debunk BYU's achievements and schedule. "They play in the worst conference in the country," said Switzer while insisting his 9-1-1 Sooners should be No. 1 if they could whomp Washington.

Alas, Old Barry and Old Oklahoma and its fumbling wishbone offense wilted under the harsh white light of network prime-time exposure in the Orange Bowl on New Year's night, losing 28-17 to Don James's Washington team, a nimbler blend of offense and defense. Convincing enough, certainly, to warrant the 11-1 Huskies getting the No. 2 spot in the final wire-service rankings and No. 3 in SI's. James himself is a former quarterback with every quarterback's desire to light up the sky. But, ironically, the one ingredient the Huskies lacked was a good passer—they used two quarterbacks against Oklahoma, with minimal impact. The rub in football at any level, of course, is that outstanding passers aren't easy to come by. Flutie is the first to win the Heisman Trophy in 13 years.

The very best teams still play the whole game, and if most coaches had their druthers they would play it the way Nebraska does—the strong running making the passing work, the strong defense making the whole thing work. Florida was the best team in the country this year cast in that mold. Oklahoma State seemed on the verge of being as good. Washington could have been, if it had had a little more firepower. The Huskies threw for only 119 yards against Oklahoma, suffered three interceptions, lost a fumble and were successful on only three of 13 third-down conversions. Hardly the work of champions.

The Oklahomas of college football have suffered most from the parity/passing axis, of course, because as much as their fans hate to admit it, parity has brought them down within reach of the masses. There are two explanations for this fall from grace. One is that the forward pass is as common to their routine as a total eclipse. The other is the "30-95" rule put in by the NCAA in the mid-'70s to limit scholarship allowances to 30 a year and eventually to 95 overall. Before that, coaches at the big-budget schools could fill their corrals with talent, leisurely sift through to find the best and then let the rest mildew on the bench. Johnny Majors won the 1976 national championship at Pittsburgh by bringing in 75 players in 1973, among them a running back named Tony Dorsett.

Those days are long gone, but the impact of their departure still jars coaches. Now, says Bowden, "instead of going out and signing the 10 best running backs on your list, you close your eyes and pick two and hope to gosh you've done right." Giving a growing 18-year-old a scholarship is, of course, far riskier than drafting a 22-year-old adult into the pros. So it's a crapshoot now, and schools with lesser reputations are much more aggressive when recruiting the best players, knowing they have a chance to steal a few. The culls no longer mildew on your bench; they come back and beat you in somebody else's uniform.

Thus has parity breathed new life into the lungs of so many moribund football programs and brought the high and mighty back to earth. And thus have teams like Southern Cal, Alabama and Texas struggled to keep up appearances, while the Oklahomas, clinging to the wishbone even when they can no longer stock it three-and four-deep with talented players, risk embarrassment when they poke fun at another team's pedigree or schedule.

Those who throw stones at the Cougars for playing stiffs and derelicts (New Mexico, Utah State, Colorado State, et al.) do so from glass houses. No one was safe. Oklahoma lost to Kansas, which lost to Vanderbilt, which lost to Tulane, which lost to Pittsburgh—which lost to BYU. Washington lost to USC, which lost to Notre Dame, which lost to Air Force—which lost to BYU. Florida lost to Miami, which lost to Boston College, which lost to Penn State, which lost to Pittsburgh—which lost to BYU. The bottom line, as one bemused BYU professor noted in charting the above, was that "everybody has lost to somebody who has lost to somebody...who has lost to BYU." But nobody beat anybody who beat BYU. Case dismissed.

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