Anyone who understands anything about college football knew for certain that Penn State would beat Notre Dame last Saturday. After all, the Nittany Lions were ranked 18th in the Associated Press poll, had often been unimpressive despite their 7-2 record, were led by a quarterback, junior Tony Sacca, who looked miserable in games against Alabama and West Virginia that Penn State was lucky to win, and were coached by a sometimes pessimistic Joe Paterno, who mused, "I don't know whether we're physically capable of matching up with the Irish. They may be one grade higher, talentwise, than anybody in the country."
At the same time, the 8-1 Irish were ranked No. 1 by the AP, were playing a demanding schedule, were led by the sensational flanker-tailback Raghib Ismail, and featured four All-Americas, more than any other team. Oddsmakers considered all this and made Notre Dame a solid seven-point favorite.
The reason, of course, that all signs pointed to a Penn State win was that this is screwed-up 1990. Topsy-turvy 1990. What is supposed to happen in 1990, does not. Texas coach David McWilliams calls this college football season "complete chaos." Illinois coach John Mackovic says, "I can't recall a wilder year." Losers win, winners lose. Up is down in 1990, and down is up.
So it seemed fitting that in the gloaming at South Bend, with the game tied at 21, Penn State "hero" back Darren Perry would intercept a horribly errant Rick Mirer pass with 59 seconds to go and run it back to the Irish 19. And it seemed perfectly logical that an unheralded Penn State freshman kicker named Craig Fayak would calmly drill a 34-yard field goal with eight seconds left to win the game 24-21. It was significant that Ismail missed the entire second half after aggravating a badly bruised right thigh just before intermission. Whether Ismail has the ball or not, the fact that he might get it intimidates the opposition. But injuries are no excuse. That's football, and what college football is this year is an incredibly wacky adventure.
For example, on Oct. 13, Arizona, a 21½-point favorite over lowly Oregon State, was ripped 35-21. One week later, Iowa State, a 23½-point underdog to Oklahoma, traveled to Norman and beat the Sooners, 33-31, for the first time since 1961. With two Saturdays left in the season, seven major games have been won by teams that were underdogs by 17 points or more. Stanford fullback Tommy Vardell, who scored four touchdowns on Oct. 6 as the 17½-point-underdog Cardinal upset then No. 1-ranked Notre Dame 36-31 in South Bend, says, "Maybe the poor teams are just sick of losing."
Georgia Tech, which had lost 16 straight games in the ACC until midway through last season, is 9-0-1, the only undefeated major team in the land, and No. 3 in the AP poll. For the first time in its history, Virginia was No. 1, for three straight weeks, before being unceremoniously dumped, first by Georgia Tech, 41-38 on Nov. 3, then last Saturday, 35-30 by Maryland, which had been 5-5 and ready to shop for a new coach. Kansas State, the school with the worst record in the history of major college football, finished at 5-6; the Wildcats had a total of three wins from 1986 through '89.
Rice, beaten 17-16 by Baylor last Saturday when the Owls failed on a two-point conversion with 1:03 left, also ended its season 5-6. The Owls won only two games last year and were winless in '88. North Carolina finished 6-4-1, a five-win improvement over last year. Texas, 8-1 with two games left to play, is coming off a 5-6 year. Temple, 1-10 last season, beat Pitt and Rutgers over the last two weeks to run its record to 6-4 with one game left.
Auburn, Alabama, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Pitt and UCLA were all picked to finish in the Top 20 in the AP preseason poll. Today, not one is there.
How strange are things? Three weeks ago, against then-undefeated Houston, TCU's backup quarterback Matt Vogler passed for an NCAA-record 690 yards.
How strange are things? New No. 1 Colorado has won the Big Eight championship for the second year in a row. It's the first time that a team other than Nebraska or Oklahoma has won outright titles back-to-back in the conference since Missouri did, in 1941-42.