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Never in collegiate football history has a team been snubbed as shabbily as Southern Methodist was last Saturday, when this year's bowl invitations were "officially" tendered. SMU isn't disappointed, and SMU isn't hurt. SMU is furious and bitter. And rightfully so.
The 9-1 Mustangs, who beat Arkansas 17-0 Saturday to remain at No. 7 in SI's ranking, could have been invited to any of four major bowls—the Sugar, Orange, Cotton or Fiesta—but, outrageously, they weren't. Truth be told, they weren't even seriously considered. Therefore SMU will play in the Sun Bowl in El Paso on Christmas Eve. With its $400,000 payout to each team, the Sun ranks near the bottom of the bowl hierarchy, above only the California, which pays $143,000. In all, nine teams ranked below SMU will take home more bowl bucks than the Mustangs.
It's not the money that irks the Mustangs, however, it's the principle. No wonder SMU Tight End Rickey Bolden blew up last week when it was clear his team was being passed over by the major bowls. "This team doesn't deserve this," said Bolden. "We're talking about getting seriously shafted."
Why wasn't SMU invited to a big bowl with megabucks? And, conversely, why will Georgia (ranked ninth), Michigan (11th), Ohio State (16th), Pitt (18th) and UCLA (unranked) all be playing on Jan. 2? Is the Mustangs' record deceiving? Are they really not all that good? Consider this: With a record of 30-2-1 over the last three years, SMU is the winningest team in the nation in that span. The two defeats were to Texas—by a total of five points. Consider also that last season the Mustangs beat Pitt in the Cotton Bowl and wound up No. 2 in the final polls. Consider as well that SMU has the best young running tandem in college football and that its defense, ranked second in the country, handed Arkansas its first shutout in 125 games. No, SMU can play and the bowl people know it. The Mustangs, like a number of other teams, have a different problem.
Howard David, senior vice-president of the Mizlou network, which with ESPN will telecast five bowls, puts it bluntly. SMU lacks "marquee value," says David. One Orange Bowl committee member even speaks of the "SMU syndrome" to describe teams that deserve major bowl bids but get passed over because they lack sufficient national appeal. "Can you name one player on SMU?" says the Orange Bowl man. "What kind of natural following or tradition does SMU have compared with, say, an Oklahoma or an Alabama? No one on the committee would admit it publicly, but the overriding concern when it comes to inviting teams is TV ratings."
In a matter of weeks this fall, Eric Dickerson, the finest rookie runner to enter the NFL since O.J. Simpson, became a full-fledged superstar. But for all that a lot of fans knew of Dickerson's superb SMU career, he could as well have come out of Southern Maine Vocational Technical Institute. Likewise, how many people are aware that this year Mustang sophomore Reggie Dupard and freshman Jeff Atkins are among the nation's leaders in rushing and that both are averaging better than six yards a carry? In a driving rain on Saturday, Dupard gained 175 yards, including a 60-yard TD run, while Atkins rushed for 91 yards.
Fortunately, some good may come of the Great SMU Snub of 1983. It provides compelling evidence that a college football playoff system to determine a national champion should be instituted. Not discussed, not considered seriously, but instituted. No more excuses. The fans and the players may just be mad enough and involved enough to make it happen at last. The fans have been restive anyway this season because the Orange Bowl's contract with the Big Eight Conference and the Cotton Bowl's deal with the Southwest Conference prevent No. 1 Nebraska from meeting No. 2 Texas. Any system that keeps the best from meeting indicates the need for a new system.
No wonder that before facing Arkansas SMU Coach Bobby Collins asked in anguish, "Tell me, what have we got to do to get into a big bowl? Tell us and we'll do it. I try to explain it to my players, but it's hard because I don't understand it myself. To think they're going to be denied the chance to play in a major bowl because of politics and pressure from television people."
The heavy hand of TV was especially visible throughout this year's bowl-selection process. Pitt, for example, has become a reasonably sound team, but what are the Panthers doing in the Fiesta Bowl ahead of 10th-ranked Florida, Iowa (12th) and SMU? "We were just trying to get the best game," says Fiesta Bowl Executive Director Bruce Skinner. Baloney. Pitt is expected to deliver the huge Eastern television market for NBC. And why do you think the Liberty Bowl coveted a Notre Dame-Boston College matchup, even after the Irish had lost their last three games to finish at 6-5?
Is Notre Dame more deserving of a bowl than, say, 8-3 East Carolina, which missed beating Miami, Florida, and Florida State—all bowl teams—by a total of 13 points? In fact, the Pirates, who are ranked 19th, didn't receive a bid from any of the 16 bowls. Neither did Virginia Tech, which swamped Virginia 48-0 on Saturday to finish at 9-2.