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Before the final ballot, before the Jan. 1 bowls, 19 of the 60 media members who make up The Associated Press's college football poll told The Miami Herald that no matter what happened on New Year's Day, they weren't going to vote Brigham Young No. 1. One cited his own unwavering consistency: He hadn't voted the Cougars No. 1 all year and said, "and I'm not going to." Another reflected on Brigham Young's flyweight schedule and devised a mathematical formula to accommodate his bias: He would vote for unbeaten BYU only if "every other team lost twice." A third, who has never seen the Cougars in the flesh, based his convictions on a simpler prejudice: "I have no respect for BYU."
This, of course, could be considered typical of the whims of an electorate and called freedom of choice or even freedom of the press. It could also be called myopia and/or chronic dopiness. What it should not be called under any circumstance is enlightenment.
Thank god and the AP—also UPI and SI—for a majority opinion. BYU not deserving of No. 1? Stuff and nonsense. BYU not good enough to beat Oklahoma, or USC, or Washington, or Nebraska, or even black sheep Florida, probably the best of them all by season's end? Humbug. Why, BYU is probably even good enough to beat Doug Flutie.
BYU deserves to be No. 1 because it is undefeated—and no one else can make that statement—not because it stands helmet and shoulder pads above the rest. Nobody does anymore, not since parity became the principium of college football. That's what has made it fun and why trying to put a handle on the 1984 season was like trying to paint a moving car. College football has changed; the game is a brave new world where just about everybody is good enough to win the national championship.
But parity is just the overriding factor. The ultimate reason for BYU's prosperity could be titled "Passing"—with the subhead "How To Win Within The Rules As They Are Now Written." LaVell Edwards, the BYU coach, knows how. Boy, does he ever. So do Jack Bicknell at Boston College, Bobby Ross at Maryland, Bobby Bowden at FSU, Mike White at Illinois and a dozen others who are enlightened, to say nothing of Howard Schnellenberger, who carried Miami off the slag heap to the national title in 1983. (His successor at Miami, Jimmy Johnson, should have taken notes, at least on how to blend in some defense.)
Some coaches, of course, will never catch on. Michigan's Bo Schembechler, cast once again in the droll role of a sore bowl loser (12 bowl appearances, 10 losses), complained after BYU's 24-17 victory over his Wolverines in the Holiday Bowl that BYU "should be outlawed" because it is "the worst holding team in the United States of America." Eternally influenced by conservatives past and way past (one of whom, probably Jock Sutherland, once said that "passing is the coward's way out"), Schembechler wondered aloud in an angry postgame press conference how a team (BYU) could possibly throw all those passes (49, completing 35 for 371 yards) without drawing a single holding penalty. BYU's offensive line didn't block, it "tackled," said Bo.
Well, the lights are on at Schembechler's house, but nobody seems to be home. Passing is now the fastest way up in college football—the quick fix for an offense that doesn't have a unanimity of muscle, skill and depth to build along the classic lines. And passing has come sailing to the front in the 1980s because holding is exactly what every team that passes the ball is doing. Nobody calls it holding, of course, because in its present form it's mostly legal, and it's both a breathtaking advantage to offensive coordinators looking to get more receivers into pass patterns and extra time for the quarterback to throw to them.
Naturally it helps to have a Robbie Bosco at the helm if you're an Edwards, or a Flutie if you're a Bicknell, or a Bernie Kosar if you're a Schnellenberger/Johnson, but it should be remembered that not one of these superb quarterbacks was considered a top prospect in high school. None, in fact, was widely recruited. They bloomed because the time was right. The 1980 pass-blocking rule was in place ("Hopefully to stay for a while," says Bowden, who has grown weary of "the NCAA's constant tinkering"); innovative coaches were around to take advantage of that change; and swarms of skilled receivers were coming out of high school, many of them former quarterbacks. Jupiter aligned with Mars, with Pisces on the rise.
Thus do the heavens, and the polls, declare the glory of parity and passing. BYU's ascent marks the fifth straight year that the national championship has been won by a team that had never won it. Clemson did it in 1980, then Georgia, then Penn State, which was the first to pass for more yards than it gained on the ground. Then came two of the purest of passing teams, Miami in '83 and now BYU.
The statistical evidence to support the phenomenon is easily charted. In 1975 Division I teams averaged 119.6 yards a game passing. In 1979 the average had crept up to 139.3. But by 1983 it had achieved orbit—182.8 yards per game. Certainly, a greater number of talented pitchers and catchers could be credited with the advance, but more of a factor was the infusion of better passing attacks, coaches "taking advantage," a crucial point.