The 1985 New Year's Day bowl picture is as screwy as a bunch of grub worms in a giant tin can. The principals in the Orange Bowl -- second-ranked Oklahoma and No. 4 Washington -- have enjoyed billing their offering as one for the national championship, but the contest at best is a pseudo-classic. No matter how much rough and tumble prevails Tuesday night on the floor of the Orange Bowl, the entire effort may prove to be little more than a fabulous showcase for also-rans.
It has been 10 years since the nation's No. 1 college football team did not participate in the season finale, which now features five games and runs about 11 hours. The day begins with the Cotton (WDVM-TV-9) and Fiesta (WRC-TV-4) Bowls at 1:30 p.m., followed by the Rose Bowl (WRC-TV-4) at 5 p.m., and the Orange (WRC-TV-4) and Sugar (WJLA-TV-7) bowls at 8 p.m.
The 95 or so members of top-ranked Brigham Young, winners over Michigan in the Dec. 21 Holiday Bowl, will remain at the old homestead in Provo, Utah, huddled around their television sets like the 110 million other celebrants of this great New Year's tradition.
At a press conference in the Omni International Hotel today, Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer said, "If you win, Don, I'll vote for you," in the United Press International coaches' poll.
Washington Coach Don James, sharing the podium and a brilliant storm of TV lights, sipped from a glass of soda and said, "And if you win, I'll vote for you, too, Barry."
In all likelihood, the Sooners (9-1-1) have a chance at passing BYU in the polls only if they win convincingly against the Huskies (10-1), who are playing in their first Orange Bowl. Washington can jump to the top spot by overwhelming the Sooners, which means winning by at least three touchdowns. That seems highly unlikely considering the strength of Oklahoma's defense, which ranks first nationally against the rush, allowing 68.8 yards on the ground.
Earlier this week, a contingent of Oklahoma players avoided answering difficult questions pertaining to the polls by countering with a question of their own: "Should the national championship be earned or rewarded?"
BYU, a member of the less-than-formidable Western Athletic Conference, finished the season as the only undefeated team in Division I-A, but a weak schedule and a veritable war against 6-5 Michigan in the Holiday Bowl has everyone and the kitchen sweep wondering about the Cougars' top ranking. A 13-0 record and 24-game winning streak apparently is not enough for some coaches and pollsters.
Switzer overdramatized his plight when he said, "Everybody keeps saying that Oklahoma is going to win this football game with Washington. Gentleman, that's not true, not yet at least. I'd take a one-point victory and not give a damn about the polls. We're concerned about winning the football game. That's all that matters."
He later loosened the grim buckle folding his visage in two angry parts and said the Sooners should be ranked first if they win. "If I don't fight for us," he asked rhetorically, "who will? Who has the responsibility to defend the team when an official's call affects the outcome of a game or season? I think I do. I'm the coach . . . I know you can beat the drum so much that it breaks the eardrums and falls on deaf ears. But you have to stand up for what you believe. And I have."
James, on the other hand, wonders why his Huskies have been relegated to second-class contenders in this fight for the back door. Washington has lost only to USC, the Pacific-10 champion; Oklahoma fell to lowly Kansas and tied Texas, which got blown out, 55-17, against Iowa in the Freedom Bowl.
"All I know is that all the votes should go to the winner of our game and to BYU," James said. "But I'm still wondered why we are taken less seriously for a shot at the title than is Oklahoma."
Tony Casillas, the all-America nose guard for Oklahoma, said he was "not at all impressed" with BYU. Neither was Paul Sicuro, the Washington quarterback, who added, "The distraction of the controversy over who's No. 1 has not yet driven us crazy. But it's getting pretty close to that. I know we have a chance for the championship, but we've got to play a great team first and win. I just hope we'll be relaxed enough to go out there and enjoy the game."
The final week of the college season has created controversial storms other than the one now settled over the Orange Bowl. A committee member of the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, where Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie will lead No. 9 Boston College (9-2) against unranked Houston (7-4), was quoted by an Atlanta newspaper columnist as saying, "Half of these Houston people will come up here and eat at a convenience store, and the other half will be trying to hold it up."
That drew more copy in some newspapers than did the end of Flutie's heroic college career, which is a loss of incalculable significance to both Boston College and the college game. Flutie is the leading passer in major college history with 10,579 yards, but has never been on a winning bowl team.
Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne, preparing to play Louisiana State (8-2-1) in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, was asked several times about his recruiting efforts more than a decade ago. Booker Brown, a former offensive lineman at USC and in the National Football League, accused Osborne of violating at least six major NCAA rules, which, he alleged, included giving Brown $300 cash spending money during a recruiting visit to the Lincoln campus. Brown also contended Osborne promised him guaranteed tickets sold for $1,000 above face value per season and an automobile if he signed with the Cornhuskers.
Osborne, deeply angered, denied the charges. "I'm amazed that 11 or 12 years later all of a sudden the guy has a rush of conscience and such amazing recall," he said. Both Osborne and Brown say they have taken -- and passed -- lie detector tests supporting their sides of the story.
Nebraska, ranked fifth, beat the No. 11 Tigers two years ago in the Orange Bowl and holds a 3-0-1 career edge against LSU. It is the first time in four years that the 9-2 Cornhuskers are not playing for the national title. Switzer maintains that Nebraska has the strongest team in the country, even without last year's prodigious offensive threats. Gone are quarterback Turner Gill, receiver Irving Fryar and I-back Mike Rozier, the 1983 Heisman trophy winner. Jeff Smith, with 935 yards rushing, and Doug DuBose, with 1,040, have carried the ghost and load for the Cornhuskers this year.
LSU, under the direction of first-year Coach Bill Arnsparger, earned the Sugar Bowl berth after No. 3 Florida, the Southeastern Conference champion, was found guilty of violating NCAA rules. Junior quarterback Jeff Wickersham has passed for more than 2,000 yards for the second consecutive year. The majority of those passes went to all-America wide receiver Eric Martin, who is the SEC's career leading receiver. Garry James and Dalton Hilliard, the nation's No. 7 rusher with 1,268 yards, lead the Tigers' powerful ground game.
A few days before the Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix, the matchup between UCLA and Miami, last year's national champion, attracted a flood of negative attention when the Hurricanes' offensive coordinator struck a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. The incident blew over after Gary Stevens, the Miami aide, apologized for his actions after meeting with Coach Jimmy Johnson, who said, "I consider it a dead issue now."
To end the season, Miami blew a 31-point lead in a 42-20 loss to Maryland and allowed the last-play miracle by Flutie against Boston College. Quarterback Bernie Kosar's superior performances were undermined by a defense that gave up 89 points in the final two games, and reports of dissension among the coaches came to a bitter conclusion when two members of the defensive staff resigned.
Constant throughout this 8-4 season was the fine play of the veteran offensive line, an enormous and proud cadre of seniors who answer to names such as Blitzbusters, the Melting Pot and Yogi and the Bears. Tackle Dave Heffernan, in a moment of reflection, told reporters, "There's no question we want to go out with a lot of class and a big win. That's one of the things we'll remember most. Our last game together."
Of all the bowls on New Year's Day, the oldest has also been the most quiet, mainly because its outcome will have little to do with the final national standings. The Rose Bowl, celebrating its 83rd year, features Ohio State and USC, the best of the Big Ten and Pacific-10 conferences. The sixth-ranked Buckeyes (9-2) will showcase the extraordinary talents of Keith Byars, the junior tailback who finished second to Flutie in the Heisman balloting.
In the last 11 years, the Big Ten representative has managed to win two Rose Bowl games, a fact that should have Ohio State Coach Earl Bruce and his squad highly motivated. The Pac-10's dominance was most evident in the 1970s, when USC clinched three national titles by winning big in the Pasadena, Calif., classic.
The last contest of such magnitude was in 1979, when the Trojans beat Michigan to win the top ranking in the UPI poll. Alabama, under Coach Bear Bryant, won the majority vote for No. 1 in the Associated Press (writers') poll.
Whether the outcome of this New Year's Day football orgy will determine the national champion appears to have become a secondary concern for most of the Oklahoma and Washington players. Brian Bosworth, a freshman linebacker for the Sooners, once said he would kick any opponent who got in his way on the football field. This week, he has tried to watch what he says to the press, but has succeeded in infuriating the Huskies regardless.
Out of the lackluster spirit that generally invades the holiday bowl season, some Washington players have objected to press reports from the Oklahoma camp and have pasted them on their dressing room lockers, creating a belligerent ambiance for the same two teams that were made to share a party and a boat ride during the week of preparation.
Even Switzer insulted James and the Huskies to some degree by saying they were not the best team Oklahoma would face this year. "Nebraska was best," he said. "At least I can say that and face up to it. I think Washington is the second best team we've played, although I may be proved wrong Tuesday."
"Since when do you play the game in the newspapers?" Washington linebacker Tim Meamber wondered before practice the other day. "Talk, talk, talk. It's been a great year for us and everybody on this team wants to go out as champions. We worked hard and we came awfully far this year. I don't know if we'll be able to stop them, but we'll try like hell.
"The game and the national title should both be decided on the field, and that doesn't happen until Tuesday night."