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Coach John Robinson is not shy about talking—yea, rhapsodizing—over his Rose Bowl-bound Southern California team. "Let's face it," he says, "these are not average human beings. They're amazing, and they're the most serious group I've ever been around. They even listen to me. But what we have had to learn is how to survive while hearing every day that there is no way we can possibly lose a game because we have all these great players. The problem, of course, is: flattery is seducing."
Nobody knows about seduction better than USC. While the Trojans were rolling along toward their widely conceded ninth national championship, a dreadful thing happened on the second Saturday in October: they got tied 21-21 by unranked Stanford (5-5-1).
Abruptly, the "most impressive college football team I've ever seen" (former Michigan State Coach Duffy Daugherty) was perhaps not even the most impressive college football team on the West Coast in 1979. And what with a bevy of teams—most notably Alabama and Ohio State—playing deep into the season without a loss or a draw, the once-tied Trojans limped along in oblivion, which is what a No. 3 (AP) or No. 2 (UPI) ranking is considered to be at Southern California.
But they didn't ever lose, finishing with a 10-0-1 record. And pollsters sometimes reward perseverance. Thus, the Trojans go to their Jan. 1 date in Pasadena against undefeated, untied, No. 1-ranked (AP) Ohio State with a second chance to prove what is widely suspected—that they are the best in the land. This will be the first time since 1969 that the Rose Bowl has matched a pair of unbeatens (the situation was identical then, with USC having a tie and Ohio State being undefeated: the Buckeyes won), and just about everyone is delighted at the prospect of a national champion being crowned in Pasadena, especially NBC.
But hold on. While the Rose Bowl seems to have the battle for No. 1, the Sugar Bowl game between Alabama and Arkansas cannot be ignored in the national championship equation. If the Rose Bowl ends in a tie and Alabama wins, Alabama is No. 1. If Arkansas wins, everybody takes a saliva test. If Ohio State wins big, it's No. 1. And while it is a stickier call, it appears that if USC wins and Alabama wins, the Trojans will get to wear the championship crown.
Arkansas Coach Lou Holtz is his usual off-the-wall self in discussing how to defend against Alabama's potent wishbone offense. "The problem is: even if you break the wishbone, you don't always get the big end," Holtz says. "They control the ball so much that if we don't bring a ball of our own, we might not get to hold one."
Nobody, however, poor-mouths better than Alabama's Bear Bryant. He says, "I'm not 50% the coach I was 15 years ago. But in the middle of the season, I thought this would become the best team I've ever been around. But then we had all these crippling injuries. Still, these players have been a great joy to me." Yes, indeed. For Alabama is undefeated and was the unanimous choice for No. 1 after USC suffered its Stanford calamity.
The Tide retained that distinction until the final regular-season poll earlier this month, when the writers who ballot in the AP poll summoned the courage to vote the facts, which are: Alabama played such a light schedule—it included the likes of 5-6 Virginia Tech, 1-10 Wichita State and 0-10-1 Florida—that the Tide had little chance to prove its supremacy. Or disprove it. Therefore, it was dropped to No. 2, and Ohio State moved to the top. However, in the UPI—or coaches'—poll, Alabama impressed enough voters to retain its No. 1 spot. Last year AP named Alabama national champs, and UPI picked USC. There could be more split vision this year.
Anyway, for those of you who aren't going to be in the country on New Year's Day, here's the way it will go:
Southern Cal will dismantle Ohio State, behind Heisman winner Charlie White, the nation's leading rusher, with 180.3 yards a game, and a marvelous offensive line anchored by All-America Guard Brad Budde, who correctly says, "Without us, you wouldn't hear of Charles White." The game will prove to the talented and tenacious Bucks that even if the rest of the state of California is laid-back and mellow, the Trojans aren't. The win should give USC the national championship. And that holds true even if Alabama puts Arkansas away in New Orleans. What could upset this scenario would be one of those stirring come-from-behind wins for the Tide, which would: 1) establish the fact that Arkansas is a worthy opponent; 2) establish Alabama as a team with heart as well as personnel; and 3) allow the writers who voted for USC in the final season poll to get back on Bear's good side—he has likened the turncoats to "that Ayatollah fella."