Howard University's understanding that it will have to upgrade its schedule to have any upward mobility in the Division I-AA poll illustrates the Catch-22 of college football regardless of division: While traditional powers can soften their schedules without forfeiting credibility -- and thus ensure their perpetual standing in the top 15 -- the only way for up-and-coming programs to gain instant credibility with the voters is to play an insurmountable, killer schedule.
Syracuse provides a shining example of this. For the first time in almost 30 years, the Orangemen have a chance at finishing undefeated and winning the national championship. Except they can't win the national championship even if they do finish undefeated. They can't get high enough in the polls to play for the national championship. If today the NCAA requested petitions for a playoff system, the first 250,000 signatures would come from the Carrier Dome.
As things stand now, both the winner and the loser of the Oklahoma-Nebraska game will be ranked above Syracuse. So will Miami. So, for that matter, will Notre Dame, should Notre Dame defeat Miami. And so will Florida State and UCLA, teams with one loss each.
These things conspire against Syracuse. One, it gave no indication it would pop out like a jack-in-the-box. Its record over the last 10 seasons is 50-59-1. You can't surprise voters like that. Brigham Young would never have been ranked No. 1 in 1984 if it hadn't already had a string of top 15 teams and nationally celebrated quarterbacks like Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon and Steve Young.
Two, Syracuse's schedule isn't frightening enough. Besides the standard respectable Eastern independents like Penn State and Pitt (with BC and West Virginia still ahead), Syracuse has I-AA Colgate, nondescript Miami of Ohio, 1-8 Navy and 1-8 Virginia Tech. The only time the Orangemen ventured out of the time zone was to play Missouri, a mediocre 4-5 team. Voters can hide behind the wide skirts of that schedule and downgrade Syracuse as a team that's unbeaten only because it rarely plays anybody. Had Syracuse beaten, for example, Notre Dame or Georgia, it would be ranked No. 4 now. With no Big Games left in sight, Syracuse is one Big Win short of a shot at the national championship.
On the other side of the mattress are the traditional powers who know that, owing to familiarity, voters will cut them a break no matter who they schedule. To give itself the cushiest possible ride to the national title, Clemson lined up eight home games, including I-AA Western Carolina, 41-0 conquerors of mighty Mars Hill, then messed up by losing to 3-6 North Carolina State. Two of Penn State's first three games were against Cincinnati and Bowling Green. Third was Alabama, but Penn State had the advantage, playing at home. Nobody likes to go to Penn State. Years ago Tommy Prothro said, "Washington State and Penn State should have to play each other every year. It's impossible to get to either place." Alabama found the way in and, more surprisingly, out, upsetting Penn State.
"If you want to be ranked," advises Beano Cook, ESPN's mahatma of college football, "the No. 1 thing is scheduling, No. 2 is coaching and No. 3 is having the material. The way to win the national championship is either by scheduling, or playing in the AFC East."
Benefits accrue to incumbency. Were Syracuse 8-1 now, it wouldn't be in the top 10. But at 8-1, Ohio State, Michigan, USC, Alabama, Texas and Georgia would all be tied for No. 4.
Look at the top three. Oklahoma opened with North Texas State. Obviously rusty, the Sooners won by only 55. North Carolina was next in Norman and paid a 28-point price for its ambition. The Sooners then went on the road, to fierce Tulsa, then 0-3, and escaped in a 65-0 dogfight. Other than beleaguered Texas, Oklahoma has since embalmed five Big Eight opponents, 239-39. Boldly, Nebraska scheduled three fine teams in succession -- UCLA, Arizona State, South Carolina -- and beat them all. Since then, the Cornhuskers have drycleaned five Big Eight teams, 229-15. Nebraska and Oklahoma are so far superior to the rest of the conference, it's hard to know how many, if any, of the Lesser Six are better than Vanderbilt.
Who made Miami's schedule, Jiffy Lube? The Hurricanes have six tune-ups in a row. They've plastered the first four -- Maryland, Cincinnati, East Carolina and Miami of Ohio -- by 157 points. Next comes everybody's pin cushion, Virginia Tech, and Toledo. This is a joke, right? South Carolina and Notre Dame are for real, but Miami doesn't get to them until after the bowl bids.
These three teams have so dominated the college season that for all intents and purposes -- and assuming neither loses today -- next week's Oklahoma-Nebraska is the first Big Game since Florida State-Miami on Oct. 3. It's a Very Big Game, in fact, The Biggest since the same rivals played under the same circumstances 16 years ago. Not since 1971, when Johnny Rodgers and Nebraska dueled Jack Mildren and Oklahoma in what Beano Cook emphatically declares was "the greatest college football game ever played, period," have unbeaten No. 1 and No. 2 teams met so late in the regular season. That was The Game of The Decade in the 1970s. This is the first Game of The Decade (non-bowl division) in the '80s.
The winner will go to the Orange Bowl to play for the national championship. If Miami remains undefeated, that game will also match unbeaten Nos. 1 and 2 in this season's second Game of The Decade (and Miami's first since playing Penn State in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl). It's a select table for these Games of The Decade. Syracuse didn't make its reservation early enough.