Last season UPI, Street and Smith's and Playboy also picked Auburn to finish No. 1, while SI put the Tigers fourth. They wound up 14th in SI's, AP's and UPI's final Top 20s. (Street and Smith's and Playboy rank teams only in the preseason.) SI's No. 1 choice for '84, UCLA, ended up ninth (SI), ninth (AP) and 10th (UPI). Arizona State and Texas, the preseason picks of Sport and The Sporting News, respectively, didn't make anybody's final Top 20. The highest preseason ranking BYU received was No. 12 by Street and Smith's. The Sporting News and Sport had the Cougars 19th and 20th, respectively, while they were nowhere to be found in AP's, UPI's or SI's preseason Top 20s.
The other side of the coin, the brighter side, is more pertinent to defining what has happened. The five teams that have won the title in the brave new '80s were all first-time winners. Admittedly, Georgia and Penn State were certifiable giants, but Clemson, Miami and BYU rushed in from far out of the limelight. How far out? Well, like BYU, neither Clemson nor Miami got a mention in AP's preseason Top 20 in the year of its ascension, and only a few pats on the head from the other selectors.
You can be sure that had never happened before, either. Instead, the charts are aglow with fresh faces. See Virginia in SI's Top 20. See Boston College, Oklahoma State, South Carolina and Illinois in there, too. See Iowa in the Top 10 and Maryland and SMU in the Top 5. See Army and Kentucky winning bowl games last year.
The catalysts for this exquisite chaos are well known: 1) the 30/95 rule (which limits schools to 30 scholarships a year and 95 altogether) that was in place by 1977; 2) the 1975 rule limiting coaching staffs to eight assistants and one head coach (which hurt the big schools not only on the practice field but also on the recruiting trail); 3) the liberalized passing and blocking rules (1976-83) that opened up the game; 4) the ever-growing demands—most recently from college presidents—for moral and academic reform that may have made coaches more wary about recruiting misfits and morons no matter how well they play the game. The bottom line: Recruiting is infinitely tougher but decidedly fairer and, at last, no longer elitist.
The full consequences of these developments are still undetermined, but one thing is sure: Gone are the dominatin' days of a dozen or so big-budget schools with enormous resources and traditions and warlords for coaches. To be sure, these advantages will always be a factor. Because football is a coach's game, the best coaches at the best schools will continue to have an edge. But that edge is now much less pronounced and as such will likely make the dynasty a dinosaur. Goodby, good luck, good riddance.
No one is saying that a little dynasty now and then wasn't fun. When Frank Leahy's Notre Dame teams won four national titles in the '40s, they were the focus of insatiable curiosity. Fans across the country hovered around their radios each Saturday to follow the Irish's latest battle with the Lilliputians. A dozen or so fans reportedly suffered heart attacks while listening to SMU's near-miss in 1949, when Kyle Rote ran Notre Dame dizzy, but not dizzy enough.
Oklahoma was a terrific attraction in the '50s, when the Sooners were winning three national titles and 47 straight games under Bud Wilkinson. But the '50s was also a period when the game returned to one-platoon play—what Bryant used to call "real football." In real football a good coach can win with fewer players, provided the few are dedicated enough. The '50s thus enjoyed what we are enjoying now, for much the same reasons: teams rising that had never risen. Syracuse, LSU, Maryland and Auburn won their only national championships in that decade.
One-platoon football was phased out in 1964, and with the restructuring came an unprecedented era of oppressive greatness. Great coaches at great football schools (Darrell Royal at Texas, Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame, John McKay at Southern Cal, etc.) won with numbing regularity. The annual rankings were, more than ever, a restricted club as the "great programs" self-perpetuated. If Oklahoma wasn't winning the Big Eight, Nebraska was. If Michigan didn't win the Big Ten, Ohio State did. If Alabama wasn't atop the national heap, Notre Dame was.
Dominance by a few splendid teams spread too long over time and territory is boring. Utter dominance is depressing. Football's Great Depression, by that reckoning, would be the '70s, when a final ballot not crammed with what The New York Times called "that old Gang of Nine" was a rarity. The nine made geniuses of prognosticators and jokes of the opposition (see chart), thoroughly dominating AP's final Top 20. Note how few blanks. Note how few double digits. Note how many 1s.
The only team to break through was Pittsburgh under Johnny Majors, who used a recruiting technique roughly equivalent to saturation bombing—a tactic that, thankfully, is no longer within the rules. Majors gorged the Panther freshman class of 1973 with 73 recruits. One of them was Tony Dorsett. Pitt won the national championship in 1976.