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Douglas S. Looney
November 26, 1990
This most exciting and madcap of college football seasons has produced upstarts and upsets aplenty
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November 26, 1990

The Mighty Keep Falling

This most exciting and madcap of college football seasons has produced upstarts and upsets aplenty

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How strange are things? Fifteen different teams have received first-place votes in the AP poll this year. Three of the top six—No. 3 Georgia Tech, No. 5 Florida and No. 6 Texas—were not even in the Top 25 at the start of the season.

What's clear is that the day is past when next year's Top 20 can be composed, with certainty, of teams in the current year's Top 20. There will never be another Oklahoma, which won 47 straight games from 1953 to '57. There will never be another Washington, which between 1908 and 1916 went 58-0-3. The disarray of 1990-and the bedlam it portends—can be attributed to 11 factors, some of which have been at work for a fair length of time, some of which are suddenly converging and hitting with full fury.

Scholarships. The scholarship limit of 95, reduced from 100 last year, was designed to even things out, and it seems to be working. Schools can sign only 25 players a year instead of 30, and can keep a maximum of 95. Thus talent is more spread out.

Television. Everybody gets to watch everybody else on the tube. High school athletes, who used to be exposed only to teams in their state, or, at most, their region, now see teams from all over the country, and they get wanderlust. High school coaches learn how to coach better, players learn how to play better, and the result is everybody is doing things more alike. Ergo, the gap between haves and have-nots is narrowed.

Offense. Dave Nelson, the secretary of the NCAA Rules Committee, says, "Offense is dominating the game. Defense used to be the thing. It's not anymore." Today there is more passing, with more sophisticated passing attacks and much greater accuracy. In 1940 passers completed only 3896 of their attempts, and two of the best quarterbacks of the pre-World War II era, TCU's Davey O'Brien and Sammy Baugh, failed to average even 50% for their careers. Today's average for all Division I-A passers is 54.6%. The nation's leader in completion percentage, Stanford quarterback Jason Palumbis, is on the money 68.6% of the time.

Nelson believes that it is more difficult to play good defense consistently because of the array of passing offenses—and that this makes for more unpredictable outcomes. A team nearly always sticks with its offensive plan for the entire season, during which the attack is honed to a fine edge. Defensive coordinators, on the other hand, must come up with a different strategy virtually every week. Offenses are so hot that if a team is averaging 31 points per game this season, it isn't even in the Top 20 in that category.

More passing also leads to more plays. In 1940 an average of 112 plays a game were executed. In 1989 that figure had climbed to 142. That means "more chances for something weird to happen," says Nelson. And when a beleaguered defense does succeed in stopping an opponent short of the goal line, another equalizer comes to the fore....

The field goal. In 1958 there were 103 field goals. Last year there were 1,389. "It really hurts the defense," says Nelson, "to play very well and still give up half a touchdown." Last season teams made a record 69% of their field goal tries, including 50.6% of 40 yards or more. Nearly every team has a fellow who, with one swing of the foot, can undo the heroics of 11 stalwart defensive players. This is the stuff of upsets.

Coaching stability. A lot of once-mediocre schools are finally catching on to the fact that having a revolving door at the coach's office is not so smart. Consider this: At Colorado, Bill McCartney, who was hired in 1982, promptly went 2-8-1, 4-7 and 1-10. The school stuck with him, and last season the Buffaloes played Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl for the national championship (the Irish won 21-6). On Jan. 1, Colorado will be back in the Orange Bowl for a rematch with the Irish, with the national title possibly at stake once again, and McCartney is in the first year of a shiny new 15-year contract.

At Oregon, Rich Brooks is completing his 14th year as head coach. In four of his first six years, his teams won two games, but last season the 7-4 Ducks went to the Independence Bowl (where they beat Tulsa 27-24), and this season's 8-3 squad will play in the Freedom Bowl.

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