And then there was SMWho, a 7-3 victor over Pitt in a cold and damp Cotton Bowl, the only undefeated major-college team after Penn State's defeat of Georgia, but still the Rodney Dangerfield of football, knowing its chance to be voted national champion was just about nil. Seemingly the least ruffled by Penn State's anticipated rise to the top, which was confirmed on Sunday, was Bobby Collins, who had jumped into the pressure cooker as coach of the 1981 Southwest Conference champions after Ron Meyer had moved on to the New England Patriots last January. As Collins explained it, he had set definite goals for his '82 squad, and the national championship just didn't happen to be one of them. "Our goals were to defend the championship and to go to the Cotton Bowl," said Collins. "Before our final game with Arkansas we were 10-0, but we hadn't accomplished a single goal."
Trailing 17-10 in that game, SMU had scored a touchdown with 3:09 to play. Unhesitatingly, Collins ordered a one-point kick for a tie rather than going for two points and possible victory. "And I've never had a second thought about that decision," he said. "That tie gave us our two goals. And today we did what we had to do: We beat an excellent team in a major bowl."
Each team came into the Cotton Bowl with potent offensive weapons, which were relatively unfamiliar to the other. For Pittsburgh, it was Quarterback Dan Marino throwing behind a line that looked as though it once might have been a chunk of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the run-oriented SWC, the SMU defense was experienced in stopping people coming at them, not over them.
The Pittsburgh defense was on equally foreign turf. Except for a brief look shown them by Florida State early in the season, the Panther defenders had no experience against the option offense. Now they faced the SMU option executed by Quarterback Lance McIlhenny and his alternating senior tailbacks, Eric Dickerson and Craig James, the famed Pony Express. Together, Dickerson and James had rushed for 2,631 yards and 21 touchdowns this season.
As the teams squared off, the Mustangs discovered that Panther Coach Foge Fazio had redesigned his offense. Abandoning its I formation, Pitt set up with only one back behind Marino and the fullback perched wide on one of the flanks. The strategy gave Marino the luxury of having four receivers with whom to flood SMU's half-man-on-man, half-deep-zone secondary coverage, at the expense of requiring the big Pitt offensive line to hold its blocks longer. In just nine plays, including a daring 12-yard run by Rick Dukovich, a safety, from punt formation, Pitt muscled its way to the Mustang one.
From there a straight, uncomplicated dive by Fullback Joe McCall was ordered. But McCall never got a firm grip on the handoff from Marino and the ball bounded away into the embrace of SMU's Wes Hopkins at the two.
Pittsburgh had worked for two weeks on six defenses to stop the SMU option, but mostly it relied on Cover 7, designed to force the Mustangs to run everything inside. "Our primary concern is to stop the pitch man and to force McIlhenny to run the ball," said Charlie Bailey, Pitt's defensive coordinator. "Then we'll unload on him, punish him."
SMU countered with its Power I, a variant of the normal option formation that unites Dickerson and James in the same backfield with one just off the I as the powerback. The Mustangs had worked on the formation all season, but they had saved it for their seventh game, against Texas, which they won 30-17. Then they packed it away until the Cotton Bowl.
Pitt wasn't surprised. Peep Short, the strong safety, simply played the power back as though he were a tight end. And on SMU's first possession, the very physical Panthers introduced the Mustangs, who had played the entire season within the borders of Texas, to another world of football. On SMU's initial drive, Pittsburgh was flagged for four penalties, the first two for personal fouls against McIlhenny, the third for grabbing a face mask. Another personal foul would come a short time later.
Aided by the 40 yards stepped off by the officials, SMU went to the Pitt seven on a drive that ate up 9:25. But then, as McIlhenny turned to hand off to Dickerson, he and the ball were separated by Tim Lewis, and Jay Pelusi recovered for Pitt at the 15.