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If 'Bama isn't beaten or tied, it will end the season as national champ—never mind that a persuasive case can be made that the Tide is only the third-or fourth-best team in the country. It's a lockout, because 'Bama was the No. 2 preseason choice in the AP poll. As soon as USC was tied, Alabama moved to the top, there to remain until it slips up. Even if Nebraska finishes 11-0, which means it must beat Oklahoma on Nov. 24, the only chance the folks in Lincoln would have to legitimately shout "We're No. 1" would be for the Huskers to play—and beat—Alabama in the Orange Bowl. That's a possibility. Which is more than Ohio State has. Even if the Buckeyes roll on, beating Michigan and finishing 11-0, No. 1 is a pipe dream in Columbus. It matters not a whit that both Oklahoma and Michigan are tougher than any three teams put together on Alabama's schedule. 'Bama got there first.
Bob Devaney, athletic director at Nebraska, correctly says that the best way to get to be No. 1 is to start out there in September and win every week. If not, then a team must wait for the team or teams ahead of it to be beaten. The voting is by rote. It's like a very conservative corporation in which the vice-president invariably becomes president even though the treasurer might be far better qualified.
Which, in a year like this, is too bad. That's mostly because, simply put, Alabama has a creampuff schedule. The Tide has not had, and will not have, a rigorous test of its considerable skills during the regular season. Its opponents have a cumulative record of 21-33-2, a winning percentage of .393; the NCAA has added up the numbers and found that Alabama is playing only the 106th most difficult schedule in the country. (See box on page 40 for how the Top Six undefeateds have compared so far this season.) This is understandable, because 'Bama has rushed out to do battle with the likes of Wichita State and Virginia Tech. Bryant, a man given to mumbling when sensitive issues are brought up, mumbles, "I make no apology for Wichita State." Well, he should.
In fairness, Alabama doesn't always go for the runts. Last year, for example, both Southern Cal and Nebraska were on the Tide's schedule. But in their places this season are Wichita State (1-8) and Georgia Tech (2-5-1). After blitzing another newcomer, Baylor, 45-0, Bryant grumped, "Our offense never established that much consistency." So, you can see, it's not always wise to take everything Bryant says at face value.
Another reason for Alabama's soft schedule is the weakened condition of the SEC this year. The conference's members—save 'Bama—are playing their poorest football in recent memory. The team with the league's best record aside from Alabama is Georgia (4-0 in the SEC, but 0-4 in non-conference games), which lost 31-0 to Virginia, an ACC also-ran, last Saturday. Georgia and Alabama will not play each other this season. If Georgia defeats its two remaining SEC opponents, the Bulldogs, who have not been to the Sugar Bowl since 1977, will get the tickets to New Orleans this year, because 'Bama has been there more recently.
All of which is terribly unfair to the Tide players, who wouldn't call in sick if asked to meet Nebraska or Ohio State out behind the stands some afternoon this fall, or anywhere on New Year's Day. Alabama has been beset with injuries, including one to its best offensive player, Running Back Major Ogilvie, who has been out two weeks with a muscle pull in his pelvis. But the Crimson Tide is good and deep. Emory Bellard, the Mississippi State coach, says, "You don't lose much when injuries hit you and you replace a horse with a horse."
Tide offensive coordinator Mai Moore admits, "It doesn't seem we have a weakness. Which I can't explain, because we don't have a lot of great players." Junior Defensive Tackle Byron Braggs says, "If you need a reason for our success, it's Coach Bryant." Yup, some things never change. One is that Bryant will mess up pronouncing the names of his players; the other is that he sure gets them to play. The Tide defense, for example, is giving up only five points per game.
That figure was only slightly exceeded in Saturday's 24-7 conference victory over Mississippi State, the Tide's 21st straight SEC win. It was also its 17th victory in a row, the longest streak in or out of conference in the nation. 'Bama's star of the game was Steadman Shealy, who ran for 190 yards to break the school's quarterback rushing record set by Pat Trammell in 1959. One State player, Defensive Back Kenny Johnson, was unimpressed. "They're not No. 1 in my mind," he said. "The writers and coaches may not think they can be beat, but they can." Bryant agreed, saying, "We won, but I'm not too sure we beat them." Whatever, the fact remains that it's not Alabama's fault that Mississippi State isn't ranked.
Alabama isn't the only high-ranked team with a weak schedule. Ohio State's opponents are just marginally better, with a 28-40-2 record, which means the Buckeyes are playing only the 103rd hardest schedule in the country. Nebraska opponents are 28-30-1, and Devaney admits, "We can point to Alabama's schedule but we can't really defend ours." True. The major blights on the Husker slate this year are Utah State and New Mexico State.
Tradition also has a lot to do with determining who's No. 1. Voting for 'Bama is sort of a knee-jerk reaction. A lot of folks from places other than Alabama think that Bryant holds unfair sway over the media and coaches, that he is so powerful and mystical that those who vote in the polls believe he can look them in the eye and tell how they voted. Even better proof of the tradition theory is the example of Ohio State, where what is now being called the Reign of Terror of Woody Hayes has ended after 28 seasons. Hayes' successor is the amiable Earle Bruce. The Buckeyes weren't highly regarded at the start of the season—they weren't even ranked by the AP—but they probably would have been had King Woody still been on the throne. "Heck, we have a lot of talent," says Ohio State Guard Ken Fritz, "but I guess people didn't think any coach could put this team back together in one year."