Each holiday season the editor of these pages takes particular delight in requesting that "Playing Football" turn its attention to the college teams participating in the New Year's Day bowl games. He knows the selections have become a humbling experience, annually, for the writer.
I see no reason why the 1979 picks should be any different.
College teams confuse me. How is it, for example, that Penn State and Alabama are playing for the national title in the Sugar Bowl?
Should Penn State win and emerge as the only major undefeated team in the country, the championship is obvious. But why, if Alabama upsets Penn State, should the Tide be accorded the No. 1 ranking over USC?
I saw USC play Alabama in Birmingham on national TV early this fall. The Trojans were clearly the superior team, by a greater dimension than the final score indicated.
Why, if 'Bama beats Penn State and USC defeats Michigan in the Rose Bowl, shouldn't Southern Cal be voted the national title? They beat Alabama at Birmingham, decisively. 'Nuff said. I'm sure USC has no chance, whatever happens.
The Penn State-Alabama contest in New Orleans is now rated pick 'em, after having opened with the Nittany Lions as a one-point favorite. The money is moving the right way, I'm afraid. My sentimental selection is Penn State; logic dictates Alabama.
Chuck Fisina and the Penn State offense became more conservative as the season progressed. Fusina's receivers are mediocre. His running game is ordinary. The strength of this team is the defensive line, but Alabama's offense is stronger than that of any opponent the Pennsylvanians have faced this season.
I hope I'm wrong. No one outside the Alabama boundaries wants to see Bear Bryant beat Joe Paterno. But the only advantage I can see the Lions enjoying is the coaching-and it's not enough.
The game may have started to pass the Bear by years ago, but he still recruits as many top athletes as any school in the country. Make it Alabama, agonizingly.
USC has the tools needed to handle Michigan. The Trojans are favored by five in Pasadena and they should cover. Their defensive line can shut down Michigan's running game, leaving Rick Leach on his own to finally live up to all his press clippings.
Rarely has there been a quarterback so overrated. Leach's records are a tribute to longevity at the position-he was a starter as a freshman-as much as to his talent.
The Trojans must guard against their own complacency as much as anything Michigan can muster. Too many times, late this season, USC has blown or nearly blown comfortable leads. The USC "prevent" defense is pathetic. Indeed, if the Trojans resort to that in the final quarter, even Leach could stage a comeback.
Monday's other games command less attention. Notre Dame is a 3 1/2-point favorite in the Cotton Bowl against Houston, while Oklahoma is rated 11 1/2 points superior to big Eight Conference Rival Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
Anyone backing the Irish is paying the price for supporting a team with a hugh national following. This line probably should be "even," but the pricemakers know that there always is Notre Dame money ready to show. I'll respond by taking Houston and hopping for the best, which means losing by 20-17 is acceptable.
Oklahoma might bury Nebraska. Just why the Orange Bowl committee invited the Cornhuskers escapes me. All the incentive rests with the Sooners, who have something to prove after having fumbled 10 times in Lincoln, thereby blowing the national championship.
As any reader of this annual piece knows, one might do well to go against all four of my college selections. There are fans in the area who swear by this approach. But nobody loses all the time, where the point spread is involved. This could be the New Year's Day when the Long March Back begins, which is what I say every year at the end of this piece.