I first wrote a defense to BYU’s 1984 National Championship about a year ago on my college football blog. While I don’t intend to make this topic a habit, I have found additional information that I feel strengthens BYU’s case. The discussion a year ago on this topic also helped me see some holes in my arguments as well as areas that needed clarification that I will address. Although repetitious, as long as there are critics to the 1984 national championship, this topic will always be relevant. Therefore, for the second time, I am going to get defensive and justify BYU’s 1984 National Championship.
1. BEAT THE NUMBER 3 RANKED TEAM.
To start the year, BYU went on the road to Pittsburgh, the number 3 ranked team, and won. Critics like to point out that Pittsburgh finished the year a disappointing 3-7-1, but they forget to point out that Pitt returned 15 starters from 1983 and 11 Pitt players were drafted in the next three NFL drafts, including 1983 All-American Bill Fralic (second overall pick, 1985) and Chris Doleman (fourth overall pick, 1985). Why wouldn't you rank a team with so much pro talent number 3? On opening day in 1984, the Pitt team (known then as “the Beast in the East”) believed that it was number three and played with that confidence. By losing, that confidence was shattered.
This was a pattern for Pitt football under Head Coach Foge Fazio. In 1982, Pitt started the year 7-0 and was ranked number 1. After losing to Notre Dame the next week, Pitt only won two of its last four games to finish 9-3. In 1983, Pitt started the year 2-0, but then lost the third game. That was followed by a second loss. Pitt was able to escape the third game of the year with a one point win. College football is largely based on players’ mental psyche. You can have the most talented team ever assembled, but all that talent will be wasted if the players have some psychological issues. Unfortunately for Pitt, an opening game upset loss in 1984 bruised that psyche for the entire season leading to such a disappointment.
Some other examples of the importance of players’ mental psyche include the BYU defense in 2008. BYU opened the season 6-0, and the defense held those six opponents to 61 total points, including 11 consecutive scoreless quarters. TCU lit up the defense for 32 points in the next game. For the rest of the year the defense was not the same. Mental psyche is also a factor come bowl season. Teams who were dominant during the season play flat and lose to inferior competition.
Two other impacts of the BYU win were that 1) it exposed some weaknesses in Pitt that other teams were able to exploit, and 2) it boosted the confidence of Pitt’s other opponents by showing that Pitt was not a team to fear.
On paper, Pitt was worthy of the number 3 ranking, but the intangibles of the game undid the 1984 squad. Rather than criticize BYU for what Pitt failed to do the rest of the season, BYU should be credited for what it did. BYU went into a hostile environment to start the year and beat a recognized national power with a quarterback making his first career start. To add to the pressure of this game, it was the first college football game broadcast live by ESPN.
For those that still think it was so easy for BYU to beat a 3-7-1 team, just ask South Carolina (10-2) who lost 38-21 to Navy (4-6-1) or Oklahoma (9-2-1) who lost 28-11 to Kansas (5-6). Those scores don’t look like it was a fluke that those teams won, and I don’t think Navy or Kansas had two players drafted in the first round of the next NFL draft, let alone 11 players taken in the next three drafts combined. Both South Carolina and Okalhoma were in the hunt for the national championship late in the year.
2. BEAT TULSA.
BYU routed Tulsa 38-15 in the third game of the season. While Tulsa might not sound impressive, Tulsa finished the year with its fifth consecutive Missouri Valley Conference championship, which required the Golden Hurricane to beat a 9-0 Indiana State team. The BYU schedule is often criticized, but it did include a conference champion.
3. WON ITS BOWL GAME.
BYU played Michigan in the Holiday Bowl. Critics argue that this was a 6-5 Michigan team that BYU beat only 24-17. Well, Michigan was ranked number 3 earlier in the year, and beat number one ranked Miami. Then injury struck. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan’s starting quarterback broke his arm. Considering the fact that Michigan finished 1985 ranked number 2, the Harbaugh injury goes a long way in explaining Michigan’s poor won-loss record. While the Michigan offense was mediocre, the Michigan defense was strong (only two opponents scored more than 21 points).
During the first quarter, BYU lost its quarterback Robbie Bosco to injury for a series. He returned and played the rest of the game with an injured knee, to go with his already injured ankle and ribs. This injury forced BYU to adjust by using the shotgun formation, which it had rarely done during the year. True champions overcome injuries.
In the game, BYU committed 6 turnovers, yes you read that right, 6 turnovers. One turnover was a fumble at the goal line negating a sure seven points, and another was a fumble deep in BYU territory.
Yes, BYU could have made a statement by winning 38-3, but it didn’t. However, what BYU did do—win despite playing with its star QB injured and despite turning the ball over 6 times—may be just as impressive, and it exemplifies what makes a champion: to overcome all obstacles and find a way to win no matter what. Kind of like the 2002 Ohio State National Championship team; they didn’t win pretty, but they did win.
4. CONSENSUS NUMBER 1.
More recently (2003, 1997, 1991 and 1990) the major college football polls could not agree who was number 1, even when only one team was undefeated (1990). BYU, however, was a consensus number 1. The Associated Press, the United Press International (UPI), Sports Illustrated, CNN-USA Today, the Football Writers of America all voted BYU number 1. Why should we dispute a championship that so many experts agreed on?
5. WON-LOSS RECORD.
In 1984, BYU was 13-0 and the only undefeated team in the country. Why the controversy? The dictionary defines champion as: a person who has defeated all opponents in a competition or series of competitions, so as to hold first place. The only team in 1984 that “defeated all opponents” was BYU. The University of Washington (11-1) and the University of Florida (9-1-1) are popular alternatives for critics to replace BYU as the best team in 1984. While I don’t think it is necessary, let’s take a closer look at Washington and Florida to see the flaws in their claims for the national championship.
Washington supporters, explain this to me. If Washington was worthy of the national championship in 1984, why didn’t they play in the Rose Bowl? Answer: Washington wasn’t the Pac-10 champion. Why wasn’t Washington the Pac-10 champion? Washington was unable to beat USC, however, a 7-5 Notre Dame team could. Washington played USC on November 10. Both were undefeated in the conference with only one other conference game to play. It was very clear that the winner would go to the Rose Bowl. Even though Washington could not win this game when the Pac-10 title was on the line, they deserve to be national champions instead of a team that won all its games? I disagree. I take additional comfort in knowing that BYU crushed Washington 31-3 the very next year.
The University of Florida had two blemishes on the field to go with its off the field blemishes—NCAA rules violations. Even if the Gators were voted number one, any reputable poll would have stripped Florida of the title, just as the Southeastern Conference did. Even if we put all that aside, have you seen the game by game results for Florida in 1984? Sure they ended with a nine game win streak, but it wasn’t very impressive. Don’t attack BYU’s non-conference schedule if you want to argue Florida’s case. Plus, no other SEC team finished with less than 3 losses. Not quite the power conference back then. A vote for Florida as national champion is a vote for bigotry.
As I said, attacking the fine seasons that Washington and Florida had should not be necessary to defend BYU’s claim on the national championship. However, some people just can’t grasp how significant it is to finish the year undefeated, even when BYU was the only team to do it. In 1984, there were 110 teams playing division 1-A football. BYU was the only team to win all games played. One out of 110 equals 0.909%. That’s pretty exclusive company. If it was so easy for BYU to post an undefeated, untied record in 1984, why didn’t anyone else do it? The truth is that it is very difficult for a team to post a perfect record. That is why in 2008, with 10 more teams added to the pool, still only one team finished undefeated. That equals 0.833% of the teams. Some years no team finishes unblemished. Anyone remember 2007? Not only was it impossible for a team to finish undefeated, we had a two loss national champion. It is clear to see that going undefeated is very difficult, so crowning a team the national champion on this merit alone is setting a high standard. The point is when you do something that no one else can do, you deserve something that no one else has. That is what the title “National Champion” does.
6. The USA Today College Football Performance Formula Has BYU Number 1.
What is the USA Today College Football Performance Formula? Glad that you asked. To quote The USA Today College Football Encyclopedia, this formula is "a specific three-leveled mathematical calculation developed to measure the achievement of every team's season since 1953. ... The Formula combines three measurable statistics, with two of them adjusted to the level of opposition, and adds them up to assign a decimal measurement. This figure permits readers to compare teams within a given season and to compare teams from different seasons. What follows are the three features that are totaled arithmetically to form a team's Formula:
- "Winning percentage (including bowl result) of the measured team, with wins over lower categorized teams counting as partial wins.
- "Opponents' winning percentage (including bowl results) in all other games not contested against the team being measured.
- "Adjusted scoring margin per game (x .01 so as to not assign too much numerical importance to the factor) of the measured team."
In 1984, the number one ranked team was ... BYU with a formula score of 1.6611. Number 2 was Florida at 1.6139. Washington came in at number 3 with a score of 1.6044. Not only did BYU have a higher formula score than Washington and Florida, BYU's 1.6611 mark was higher than 1983 national champion Miami (1.6396) and 1980 national champion Georgia (1.6161). Interestingly, while Miami and Georgia were voted by the media and the coaches as number one in 1983 and 1980, respectively, they did not have the highest performance formula score in those years. In 1980, Georgia was number 5 according to the performance formula (behind 1-Pittsburgh, 2-Florida State, 3-BYU, and 4-Nebraska). As for the 1983 results, Miami came in number 4 (behind 1-Nebraska, 2-Auburn, and 3-BYU). I have never once heard anyone, anywhere say that the 1980 Georgia team or the 1983 Miami team did not deserve their national championships. As evidenced by the formula results, they did not play the toughest schedule, and some other teams could have made a strong claim against them. Maybe there was controversy at the time, but after a few years passed, everyone seemed to accept it and move on. It is time for the BYU critics to accept it and move on as well.
While I feel this slams the door shut on any SOS argument, since we are on the subject here are some general thoughts I have about SOS. Just like I felt the criticism of Washington and Florida were unnecessary, I think it is unnecessary to bring up schedule strength. To let you know how I feel about using SOS as an argument, I group SOS in with the BCS as college football villains. SOS is merely a convenient way for the elite to brush away any threat to their supremacy. It is so convenient to say “BYU didn’t play any tough opponents, so they don’t deserve a national championship.” If SOS was so great, then there is no way TCU would have lost to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl last year (2009). The SOS for TCU (before the game) was 66; the SOS for Boise State was 102. Sorry, but SOS is overrated. I will start to accept SOS as a valid way to judge how good a team is or isn’t when I can see some correlation between the SOS and a team’s final record. In 2009, Sagarin gave Boise State (14-0) a SOS rank of 96, gave Idaho (8-5) a SOS rank of 95, and gave New Mexico State (3-10) a SOS rank of 94. Why does the record for these three teams differ so much when they all had similar SOS? Easy, SOS tells us nothing about how good a team is. It tells us nothing about who will win when two teams play each other. What SOS does tell us is that whatever your competition is, it is hard to go undefeated. SOS is not a valid argument for or against a team being crowned the national champion.
A close relative to SOS is looking at opponents’ win-loss record. First of all, it seems counter intuitive to judge how good a team is by the win-loss record of its opponents rather than the team in question’s win-loss record, but I will indulge those in this camp as well. If you want to argue that BYU does not deserve the national championship because of the win-loss record of its opponents, then here is what you need to do to prove it. Compare BYU’s perfect 13-0 to the win-loss record of other teams in college football that played opponents with an equal or worse win-loss record as BYU’s opponents (61-85-3) in 1984. Then when you are done, you can expand that comparison to all the years before and after 1984. While I am interested in the details of your findings, I already know what the conclusion of your findings will be. You will conclude that opponent win-loss records have no correlation to a team’s final win-loss record.
Using SOS and opponents’ win-loss record to build a case against a team’s accomplishments is an insult. It is the same as saying that one team’s loss(es) are better than another team’s win(s). It is the same as saying you would rather have a “pretty” loss than an “ugly” win. It is the same as saying that Bob Beamon was not really a great long jumper because when he set the world record by jumping 29 feet 2 1/2 inches he did it in Mexico City, with an elevation over 7,000 feet. We all know that people can jump farther in altitude, so he can't really jump that far, it was just because he was in Mexico City. He should do that at sea level before we recognize it as the world record.
I am stating that for BYU to finish with a perfect record was an accomplishment worthy of the national championship. If you disagree, then the burden of proof is on you to show that BYU’s perfect 13-0 record was not a significant accomplishment. Pointing to SOS, opponents’ win-loss record, Washington, and Florida is simply diverting our attention away from the real issue. The fact is it takes a very special team to finish a season undefeated and untied, regardless of the competition. Injuries, weather conditions, team chemistry, and a myriad of other variables beyond the team’s control all go into it. When a team achieves this rare feat, they and their fans should be able to celebrate it without having to make excuses or justifications to anyone.