If you watch much college football on television, you've probably noticed that whenever the camera is aimed at the sidelines every athlete on the bench will grin and wag his index finger -- We're No. 1! They will do this even if their team's record is 2-7 and their coach is contemplating a new career at his cousin's used-car lot.
They can't all be right about who's No. 1, so who is to be trusted? The wire services -- the AP and the UPI -- of course. Each has its poll -- one of sportswriters, one of coaches -- which picks the real No. 1 from among all those thick-necked pretenders hamming it up on the sidelines. That is supposed to settle it. But this year, both have chosen Brigham Young University, since it is the only major college team to make it through its schedule undefeated. This has led to a credentials challenge from fans who argue that while BYU has beaten everyone it has played, it hasn't played many big-time teams.
Students on BYU's campus in Provo, Utah, retaliate by citing comparative scores, as in this hypothetical example: "We beat Syntopicon State, which beat Wyoming Central, which tied Kansas, which beat Notre Dame, which beat Ohio State, which beat Tecumseh Tech, which didn't beat anybody but has the biggest marching band this side of Red Square. Therefore, we're No. 1."
Obviously not everyone agrees. ABC-TV stirred up the malcontents last weekend by conducting a poll in which the viewers could phone in their answers to the question of whether Brigham Young should be rated No. 1. BYU lost.
Usually such a dispute would be settled by the annual toting up of the bowl games. A day or two after New Year's, everyone would sort out the winners and losers and the polls would come up with their final ranking of top teams. But BYU had a commitment to go to the Holiday Bowl, which is not played on New Year's Day but some time before Christmas, and if BYU should beat Michigan there, it would be the sixth team to do so this season, which wouldn't add much to its credentials.
This is a difficult situation that has brought calls for drastic reform in college football. But the country can probably live with it. The Russians don't know enough about football to take advantage of us in this time of self-doubt. Scholarship will continue to thrive in the classrooms and weight rooms at Provo and other campuses. The only real danger is that football fans will spend the winter fretting about whether justice has been done. If you are one of them, you might want to put things in perspective by asking yourself: Do I even remember who was No. 1 three years ago? If your answer is "yes," don't call us; call ABC-TV.