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Last Friday Nebraska Football Coach Tom Osborne was distractedly shuffling papers around his desk as he talked about his team. "We're not unbeatable," he said, "but we're pretty good. I guess to be great, though, to be No. 1, a team has to be able to play poorly and still win. You've got to be able to survive a fumbled kickoff or something like that. And you have to be a little bit fortunate."
Then Osborne put his squad on a plane for Columbia, Mo., where the next day the Cornhuskers played poorly against Missouri—among other things, they blew a 14-point lead in an eight-second span—and fumbled a kickoff. But they were a little bit fortunate, winning 23-20. Which makes them great? Perhaps. Which makes them No. 1? Perhaps.
After all, for a team hot on the trail of a national championship—as 8-0 and No. 2-ranked Nebraska most certainly is—overcoming adversity is second in importance only to winning every game. Indeed, among the nation's six most notable undefeated teams—all of which are holding up their index fingers with some justification—three of them had to show championship mettle Saturday to win. No. 6 Florida State required two second-half touchdown passes by backup Quarterback Wally Woodham and an eight-yard run by Mike Whiting with 1:38 to play to get past Cincinnati (2-6) 26-21. No. 4 Houston needed two final-period TDs—a 14-yard run by Terald Clark and a seven-yard pass from Delrick Brown to Leon Felder—to defeat TCU (2-6) 21-10. And Nebraska required a miracle, getting it when Missouri (4-4), on the last play of the game and with the ball on the Huskers' 11, disdained a near-certain game-tying field goal in favor of a vain attempt to score the winning touchdown. Three weeks ago Alabama, which seemingly has a death grip on the No. 1 spot, got behind 17-zip to (then 4-1) Tennessee (now 4-3) before rallying; No. 5 Ohio State has had to stage frantic comebacks against both Minnesota (now 4-4-1) and UCLA (now 3-5).
And the No. 3 Southern Cal Trojans, the seemingly invincible golden boys who were supposed to run off with the national title, failed to halt a second-half surge by unranked Stanford four weeks ago and paid for it with a 21-21 tie. The Trojans were summarily dropped from the No. 1 spot in both major polls—the AP, in which writers vote, and the UPI, in which coaches vote—and now have only the slimmest chance of reclaiming the ranking before the end of the regular season.
With six undefeated teams holding down the top six positions in the AP poll, only one thing is certain: to be No. 1 this year a team must wear some shade of red. Alabama wears crimson while Houston, Nebraska and Ohio State are arrayed in scarlet; USC wears cardinal; and Florida State's color is garnet.
But among those wearing the requisite color, who really is No. 1?
The wire services say Alabama. Bill Dooley, coach of Virginia Tech, whose team has been rocked two years running by the Tide, says, "There's no difference between drowning in the Pacific and drowning in the Atlantic, but this year's Alabama team is better than last year's. I'd vote the Tide No. 1." Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder ranks USC tops, followed by 'Bama, Ohio State and Nebraska. Mort Olshan, editor and publisher of The Gold Sheet, viewed by many as the bible of football information, also plumps for Southern California. "We feel USC would be favored over any team in the country if the game were played right now," he says.
"I don't know," says Osborne. "I think it's like four blind men trying to describe an elephant. It depends where you're standing." That's what he says; he votes, however, for his Cornhuskers. At Florida State, Coach Bobby Bowden says, "Everybody is closing the gap on everybody."
All talk about No. 1 must start with Alabama. When USC faltered, then-No. 2 'Bama was promoted into the top spot. "It's nice to be No. 1," says Tide Coach Bear Bryant, "but it doesn't mean a hill of beans at this stage of the game. Yet, being No. 1 is like courting a girl. Once you get your hands on her, you never want to let her get away." Bryant knows. Just last season, half of the old girl got away—the UPI half, which went to USC—although the AP awarded the Tide its version of the national championship.
While all coaches are given to saying that it's not important where a team starts in the rankings but where it ends up, that's not true. To the contrary, the most significant factor in the final ratings may be the preseason poll. Witness the enviable position Alabama finds itself in: