One can't help feel a bit sorry for LaVell Edwards, coach of the do-rights at Brigham Young University, the top-ranked football team in both the Associated Press and United Press International polls. Although his Cougars, at 12-0, are the only undefeated team in Division I-A, Edwards finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having to justify his team's claim of the college football summit.
"A lot of people think it's not warranted," Edwards said last week in a telephone interview. "I've received several calls from people who were either very cynical or full of questions. I tell them to look at the ballots. We swept it, didn't we? I don't think it was even close."
To be sure, in last week's UPI coaches' poll, the Cougars received 30 of 40 first-place votes, creating a clean and decisive margin between them and the other front-runners. Next best was Oklahoma State, now 9-2, followed by Oklahoma (9-1-1), each with two first-place votes. Texas was ranked fourth, before losing to Baylor and slipping to 7-2-1, trailed closely by Washington, which had held the No. 1 slot much of the season before losing to Southern California, 16-7, two weeks ago. The Huskies drew only one first-place vote despite winning big last week against Pacific-10 rival Washington State and finishing 10-1.
"I don't feel cheated," Washington Coach Don James said the other day. "I guess I'm never surprised by these things. I recognize people have their opinions and I respect that . . . But I must admit, this week, I voted for our own interests."
In other words, James voted his own team No. 1, but later said, "The day after New Year's, that's the one I bank on. It's not only more important, it's also final."
The questioning of BYU's newly acquired sovereignty has much to do with the school's affiliation with the Western Athletic Conference. The members of this less-than-formidable group generally fare poorly against even average nonleague opponents. BYU, enjoying an impressive 23-game winning streak, finished its season yesterday with a 38-13 nonconference victory over 1-10 Utah State and has played only four teams with winning records. None of its opponents is nationally ranked.
The best of those teams was Hawaii, which is 6-3 and the conference runner-up. BYU struggled to beat the Rainbows, 18-13.
"I don't feel it's fair for me to have to justify where we are," Edwards said. "I don't have to because I don't do the judging. We've all had tough games to overcome, and our team has met every challenge so far. Look at Nebraska losing to Syracuse and Washington to USC. I don't know what more we'd have to do to be No. 1. We've done everything in our power and we've done it without ever playing to a national television audience."
BYU's commitment, as WAC champion, to play in the Dec. 21 Holiday Bowl further muddles the picture. In the last 18 years, the nation's No. 1 team has always played in a major bowl. New Year's Day 1985, though, promises to be just an anticlimax unless Michigan, at 6-5 evidently the best challenger the Holiday Bowl in San Diego could scrounge up, should beat BYU.
Brigham Young's rise to dominance is remarkable when one considers it has not performed on national major network television. Most pollsters and fans in the East have not seen the Cougars play, a situation Edwards says "is really very unfortunate. I don't know of this ever happening before -- a team claiming the top spot without having been seen -- but I think it shows that we've caught the people's fancy. They're curious about us and see us as some kind of mystery team. I hope this opens the way for a national TV game next season, and a little more respect."
Those who contend BYU is undeserving of its position in the polls point to the 1969 and 1973 Penn State teams that went undefeated but failed to win national championship respectability. In order to be taken more seriously as a contender for the title, Coach Joe Paterno strengthened his schedule and proved his team good enough to compete against better opponents. As a result, the Nittany Lions won the national title in 1982.
Edwards feels a great sense of loyalty to the Holiday Bowl, and it appears unlikely that BYU will sever its ties to the WAC and pursue a more challenging independent schedule, even though such a move would improve the school's recognition.
Regardless of BYU's record, many college football observers argue, Oklahoma, which beat Oklahoma State, 24-14, yesterday to win the Big Eight championship, should have the inside track to the national championship. Oklahoma will play Washington in the Orange Bowl, a game that will feature powers from conferences with good reputations. It will be viewed by a national audience, a factor Coach Pat Jones of Oklahoma State considers "a definite luxury," especially considering the Holiday Bowl is the property of an independent network and will play to a limited audience.
"The polls this week didn't surprise me. I usually don't pay much attention to them, but at this point, it's something you can't ignore," said Jones. "I really believe, though, that the story will find its end between the white lines. I really believe it'll be decided there, on the football field. Everything seems so crazy. It's not like last year when Nebraska was entrenched in the top spot all year. No one's ever been through anything like this.
"I hate to sound negative toward BYU, because I admire what LaVell Edwards has done out there. But when they opened up the season and beat Pitt, which was ranked way up high back then, I don't think it was quite equal to what we did against Arizona State."
Before falling to Oklahoma yesterday, Oklahoma State lost only to Nebraska, 17-3, and opened the year with a shocking 42-point victory over Arizona State, then ranked first in several reputable polls.
Earlier in the week, Sun Devils Coach Darryl Rogers said BYU "is exactly like Arizona State used to be." He later elaborated, "I didn't mean that in a degrading way . . . They're in the WAC, just like we were, and they're a fine team. They schedule one or two tough opponents early in the season and load up against them. They then get noticed and stay pretty high in the polls the rest of the year."
Oklahoma has played three top-ranked teams -- Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma State -- without losing. The lone blemish on their record is Kansas, which beat them when quarterback Danny Bradley was sidelined with an injury. Oklahoma overpowered Nebraska, 17-7, with Bradley running the wishbone.
Sooners Coach Barry Switzer said, "We lost to Kansas because we were forced to play with a third-team quarterback who also happens to be a true freshman and only 17 years old."
When asked if he thought BYU deserved its top ranking, Switzer said, "No one knows. They play excellent football, and they're fun to watch . . . A lot of points have been scored against them, but they certainly make up for it on offense. Robbie Bosco can really throw the football, can't he?"
According to Jim O'Brien, the Pittsburgh sports information director, Coach Foge Fazio ranks BYU No. 1 and Oklahoma No. 2. Pitt's all-America offensive tackle, Bill Fralic, has said Oklahoma's defense was "quicker as a unit and probably better" than BYU's.
But the best team in the country right now may be Florida, 8-1-1 with one game left, against Florida State. The Gators, ranked seventh in the UPI poll, won the Southeastern Conference but are ineligible to play in the Sugar Bowl because of recruiting violations. They have, however, been most impressive in winning their last eight games. And their schedule is beastly to ponder: seven teams with winning records, six of them probably going to bowls.
Another team slighted in the polls is Maryland, which has won eight of its last nine, the last three against nationally ranked Miami, Clemson and Virginia. The Terrapins finally slipped into the UPI rankings at No. 19 and 18th in AP; they probably deserve to be five or six notches higher.
Switzer, accustomed to such battles of the polls, claims his perspective remains constant.
"It's a system," he said, "that's all. What can anyone expect of a system? Even when you'd like to think things could change in your favor, you're better off not concerning yourself with it that much . . . I have a vote in the coaches' poll, but I let the SID take care of it. I don't even know who we voted for this week, and I don't really care. I'm too busy with too many things."