CORAL GABLES, FLA. -- The University of Miami, long the beneficiary of college football's you-pick-a-champ national title vote, experienced a strange reversal of fortune this season. After a midseason loss to Notre Dame, the Hurricanes regrouped. They played better, they lobbied louder. And in the polls, they fell faster.
"We won consistently and convincingly the last five games and we were still slipping in the polls," said defensive tackle Russell Maryland, the Outland Trophy winner as the nation's top interior lineman. "It's shocking when you lose ground like that."
Yet in the season destined to produce a grab-bag champion, perhaps even a champion with two losses, Maryland and Co. haven't quite relinquished the thought that, with a convincing win over No. 3 Texas in the Cotton Bowl, No. 4 Miami could claim its fourth national championship in eight years.
Recall that it was voters -- coaches in the case of United Press International, 60 members of the sports media for Associated Press -- who lifted the Hurricanes from No. 5 to No. 1 in their final votes after the 1983 season, after they beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. At the end of the 1989 season, Miami was voted No. 1 after beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, but only two weeks before the Hurricanes had been ranked No. 7.
After such equitable treatment, however, Miami suddenly felt obliged to campaign this season.
When Penn State upset top-ranked Notre Dame Nov. 24, Sam Jankovich, then the Miami athletic director, said Miami deserved to be No. 1 because its losses to Notre Dame (Oct. 20) and Brigham Young (Sept. 8) were on the road against top 10 teams. Miami, Jankovich reasoned, was playing the best football in the country, and it could beat any team on a neutral field.
"Lou Holtz said all along this wasn't one of his better teams," Jankovich said. Jankovich slowed the lobbying effort shortly before he signed on with the New England Patriots last week. Perhaps the pros -- where championships cannot be won with a public relations campaign -- provided a dose of perspective.
Still, Miami hopes to make a case on Jan. 1. The Miami Herald polled the 60 AP voters and found that Miami could emerge as No. 1 if top-ranked Colorado loses to No. 5 Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl; and if No. 2 Georgia Tech loses to No. 19 Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl; and if Miami beats No. 3 Texas.
Twenty-six voters said the Hurricanes would be No. 1. Sixteen said Notre Dame. Ten were undecided, seven selected Penn State and one chose Florida State. If all those things happened, however, Notre Dame, which climbed back to No. 5 in the final poll, might sneak past the Hurricanes depending on victory margins in the bowls.
Again, there is rumbling from the Hurricanes.
"Obviously Notre Dame beat us early in the season," Maryland said. "But when you lose to a team like Stanford and a team like Penn State at the end of the season, which wasn't ranked as high as we were, you shouldn't get voted No. 1."
Yet he allowed, "It's not looking good for us."
Maryland wasn't speaking for the entire team. Some Hurricanes have stretched their case right past Georgia Tech. A Miami victory, coupled with a Colorado loss, should be enough to vault over the Yellow Jackets, some players insist.
"Look at Tech's schedule," said Mark Caesar, a sophomore defensive tackle. "Their only claim to fame is against a three-loss Virginia. We can beat Georgia Tech on any given day."
Interestingly enough, the outcome of the polls almost will certainly involve something going wrong in South Florida. If Colorado fails to win in the Orange Bowl and Miami wins unconvincingly in the Cotton, No. 7 Penn State has designs of its own. The Nittany Lions have won nine straight games and face Florida State in the inaugural Blockbuster Bowl at Joe Robbie Stadium.
"If Notre Dame beats Colorado in the Orange Bowl," said Penn State Coach Joe Paterno, "we can yell as loud as Miami."
Miami did most of its protesting in the weeks after the loss to Notre Dame. In consecutive games against Texas Tech, Pitt, Boston College and Syracuse, Miami outscored its opponents, 165-29.
The week after the then-No. 2 Hurricanes' 33-7 triumph over Syracuse on Nov. 24, Miami fell to No. 3 behind Georgia Tech despite Tech not playing that week. In the AP vote, Miami had been leading Tech by 11 points, but wound up six points behind.
The next week, Miami beat unranked San Diego State, 30-28, but was so lackluster that now Texas moved ahead, leaving the Hurricanes in their present No. 4 position.
"There's nothing you can do about it," Maryland said philosophically. "A lot of things are going to have to happen, but the only thing we can worry about is beating Texas in the Cotton Bowl."
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Sept. 8 at BYU............Lost, 28-21
Sept. 15 at California.....Won, 52-24
Sept. 29 Iowa..............Won, 48-21
Oct. 6 Florida State.......Won, 31-22
Oct. 13 Kansas..............Won, 34-0
Oct. 20 at Notre Dame.....Lost, 29-20
Oct. 27 at Texas Tech......Won, 45-10
Nov. 3 Pittsburgh...........Won, 45-0
Nov. 17 Boston College.....Won, 42-12
Nov. 24 Syracuse............Won, 33-7
Dec. 1 at San Diego State..Won, 30-28