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The way this screwy college football season has been unfolding, it makes perfect sense that because a courageous gamble by Michigan came up short last Saturday, the Wolverines dropped out of the national championship picture and, in the process, helped to set up the latest Game of the Year. No, we're not talking about this Saturday's last tango between Notre Dame and Miami in South Bend, but about the Nov. 3 meeting between Virginia and Georgia Tech, those unbeaten titans from the ACC, the league where until now only Clemson has regarded football as something more than just a way to pass the time until they start pumping up the basketballs.
Yes, Virginia, there is a national championship in football, too, and maybe a splendid quarterback named Shawn Moore can do what Ralph Sampson never was able to do: bring a title home to Charlottesville. By romping past North Carolina State 31-0 last Saturday, the Cavaliers ran their record to 6-0 and inherited the top spot in the weekly AP poll. Michigan, which had moved to the top only a week earlier in the wake of Notre Dame's stunning 36-31 loss to Stanford, went for a two-point conversion with six seconds remaining against Michigan State and barely missed, giving the Spartans a 28-27 victory and knocking the Wolverines back down to No. 10.
So for the first time in the history of Virginia football, the Cavaliers are No. 1, for a week anyway. What's more, Clemson, a 20-7 victim of Virginia's on Sept. 8, is the only team to have even come close to making coach George Welsh's team work up a sweat. The Cavaliers are good, maybe even great, so let's let them enjoy this new and wonderful experience, at least until they play host to Georgia Tech, which is once again a ramblin' wreck after years of mediocrity. Unlike Virginia, the Yellow Jackets have an imposing football tradition. The Heisman Trophy, after all, was named for a fellow who once coached at Tech, and there was that 222-0 win over Cumberland in 1916, the biggest blowout in college history. Still, it is likely that no Tech team in the last 70 years has had a defense as good as the current one, which almost single-handedly beat Clemson 21-19 last Saturday in Atlanta to make the Yellow Jackets 5-0 and earn them a No. 12 ranking.
Afterward Tech coach Bobby Ross found himself saying hello to scouts from 10 different bowls. "It was great," Ross said, "because the only scouts we used to see after our games were Boy Scouts."
The bowl bird dogs, whose talent hunt officially began on Saturday, must have been deliriously happy when Florida and Oklahoma got stuck with their first losses last weekend, the Gators getting a 45-3 skinning by Tennessee (4-0-2) in Knoxville and the Sooners a 14-13 goring by Texas in Dallas. Those two games all but eliminated the ghastly possibility that the No. 1 spot might eventually be occupied by a team that was unable to play on New Year's Day because it was on NCAA probation. But what really made the scouts' day was the news of Michigan's loss.
The defeat, the Wolverines' second (they opened the season by losing to Notre Dame 28-24), not only forced Michigan to vacate the No. 1 address, but it also virtually guaranteed a Jan. 1 Poll Bowl that would match the two top-ranked teams. No matter what ABC's Keith Jackson might say to the contrary, the Rose Bowl, which matches the champions of the Big Ten and the Pac-10, now will play no part in deciding the national title, simply because no team from either of those conferences figures to have a good enough record to be ranked higher in the final polls than, oh, fourth or fifth. However, three bowls—the Orange, Sugar and Citrus—each have a chance of putting together a No. 1 versus No. 2 showdown.
At least give the Wolverines and rookie coach Gary Moeller credit for going down the way a top team should, trying to win instead of settling for a tie. After Michigan State quarterback Dan Enos engineered a 70-yard drive to give the Spartans a 28-21 lead with 1:59 remaining, the Wolverines stormed back to score on Elvis Grbac's pass to wideout Derrick Alexander. Moeller gathered his players around him and asked them what they wanted to do. Go for it, they said, and Moeller selected a pass play that he had saved for a "must" situation, calling for three wideouts and a back to flood the end zone.
As ace receiver Desmond (Magic) Howard began his route, he was bumped, then tripped from behind by Michigan State cornerback Eddie Brown. Howard stumbled as he turned to catch Grbac's pass, which hit him squarely on the numbers. He juggled the ball momentarily as he went down, then lost the handle on it. The officials ruled, justifiably, that Howard never had possession. But they also refused, inexplicably, to call Brown for interference, even though he owned up to it in postgame interviews.
"He [Howard] pushed me first, but I pushed him second, and it's always the second guy who gets caught," Brown said. "I thought maybe I'd see a flag. When I didn't, I got up and headed for the sideline just as fast as I could."
For Michigan State, of course, it was a matter of the breaks evening out. On Sept. 22, when Notre Dame was still No. 1, the Spartans had the Irish on the ropes in East Lansing, only to have Spartan cornerback Todd Murray let a pass bounce off his chest and into the arms of Notre Dame's Adrian Jarrell at the State two-yard line. Ryan Culver scored on the next series for a 20-19 Irish victory. It has been that kind of a season, in which so many teams are so evenly matched that a tipped pass or a bad call can cause major shifts in the rankings. Only Virginia has successfully avoided the vagaries of fate. The Cavaliers have averaged 48 points a game and ought to further pad their stats this Saturday at lowly Wake Forest.