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In 1985, most of the best college football teams blew it

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This was Bo Schembechler's chance.

The first half of the 1980s was a constant shuffle from one title contender to another, but the only role Michigan had really played in the title race of late was in nearly beating eventual national champion BYU in the Holiday Bowl the year before. The Wolverines were still solid and still bowled every year, but after an incredible run in the 1970s, they had finished in the top 5 just once between 1979-84.

In 1985, they very likely had the best team in the country. After just barely missing out on a few different title chances in the 1970s, this was Bo's time. Quarterback Jim Harbaugh was an incredible playmaker, and UM beat five ranked teams -- three to start the season and two to finish it. But they lost via last-second field goal to No. 1 Iowa (highlights above, full game here), and the offense failed to make the trip to Champaign in a 3-3 tie. (That game was both lucky and unlucky -- Michigan lost a fumble at the Illinois 9 late in the game, and then Illinois hit the crossbar on a potential game-winning field goal with seconds left.)

This was a year when you could have a blemish and still win the national title. But Michigan had two ... or at least, 1.5. And that was too much to overcome. This was, per Est. S&P+, the best Schembechler team. Stupid Hayden Fry...

Michigan's blemishes opened the door

The second-best team in the country, per Est. S&P+, underwent a complete identity change midseason. On October 19, in a loss to Miami, OU quarterback Troy Aikman was injured and lost for the season, so after tinkering with more of a pro-style look to suit AIkman's strengths, Barry Switzer turned the offense over to freshman Jamelle Holieway and went full-on Wishbone again. And after averaging just 20.5 points per game through four games with Aikman, the Sooners averaged 36.1 thereafter. They pummeled Nebraskasurvived an ice bowl against Oklahoma State, and rolled past a flawed, undefeated Penn State team in the Orange Bowl to win the title.

In my first book, I wrote this about that Orange Bowl game.

I loved that 1985 Oklahoma team. Then seven, I was addicted to the brash, sometimes ridiculous personalities, and the talent level was simply ridiculous – linebackers Brian Bosworth, Dante Jones and Paul Migliazzo; nose tackle Tony Casillas; defensive back Rickey Dixon; and of course all of the wishbone talent you could possibly want: quarterback Jamelle Holieway, fullback Lydell Carr, halfbacks Spencer Tillman and Patrick Collins. The buzz entering the season was about how Barry Switzer had adapted his offense to account for the star talent of quarterback Troy Aikman. But when Aikman broke his ankle against Miami in the fourth game of the year, adaptation went out the window. Switzer inserted Holieway, a true freshman, into the lineup, and Oklahoma wrecked shop.

I used to have a VHS copy of this game. My grandparents had two VCRs and did a lot of recording, which was pretty crazy (and felt a little illicit) in 1986. I watched this tape so much I remember the commercials. Does anybody remember a show called Blacke’s Magic? It starred Barney Miller’s Hal Linden and M*A*S*H’s Harry Morgan. It was about a retired magician (Linden) who uses his tricks to solve crimes. It lasted just 12 episodes. I’m sure it was terrible. But NBC pushed it multiple times during the telecast. I remember that. I also remember the perfect play-action bomb from Holieway to magic tight end Keith Jackson, and I remember Carr eventually finding room to run up the middle. I was never an unabashed Oklahoma fan like a lot of my friends and family, but I did love this particular team.

The Sooners might not have been the best team, but they were the best with just one blemish.

S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
1 Michigan 10-1-1 23.8 99.05% 30.2 11 6.3 1
2 Oklahoma 11-1 20.8 97.99% 30.1 12 9.3 2
3 UCLA 9-2-1 18.3 96.41% 33.2 3 14.9 16
4 Alabama 9-2-1 17.9 96.07% 29.7 13 11.8 6
5 Tennessee 9-1-2 17.2 95.46% 27.9 23 10.7 4
6 Air Force 12-1 16.4 94.68% 33.2 4 16.8 28
7 Auburn 8-4 16.0 94.25% 31.0 10 15.0 19
8 Florida 9-1-1 15.8 94.01% 28.2 20 12.4 9
9 Nebraska 9-3 15.8 93.97% 32.3 8 16.5 26
10 Iowa 10-2 15.8 93.95% 34.1 2 18.3 34
11 Miami-FL 10-2 15.5 93.69% 32.9 5 17.3 31
12 Texas A&M 10-2 14.7 92.55% 31.1 9 16.5 25
13 BYU 11-3 14.1 91.76% 29.5 15 15.4 20
14 Ohio State 9-3 13.4 90.63% 29.1 18 15.7 22
15 Maryland 9-3 13.2 90.35% 28.2 21 15.0 17
16 Penn State 11-1 12.3 88.71% 23.9 41 11.6 5
17 Georgia 7-3-2 12.2 88.45% 25.5 32 13.4 12
18 Notre Dame 5-6 12.1 88.41% 27.1 25 15.0 18
19 Arizona State 8-4 12.0 88.05% 24.8 36 12.8 10
20 Baylor 9-3 11.1 86.24% 24.0 39 12.9 11
21 Arkansas 10-2 10.7 85.49% 24.9 35 14.1 15
22 Florida State 9-3 10.5 84.93% 32.6 6 22.1 53
23 Georgia Tech 9-2-1 10.4 84.65% 20.1 67 9.7 3
24 Bowling Green 11-1 8.8 80.58% 28.5 19 19.7 42
25 Arizona 8-3-1 8.3 79.31% 20.6 63 12.3 8
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
26 Michigan State 7-5 8.2 78.93% 23.9 40 15.8 24
27 Fresno State 11-0-1 7.9 78.04% 32.3 7 24.4 67
28 Oklahoma State 8-4 7.3 76.35% 22.9 46 15.6 21
29 Minnesota 7-5 6.9 75.31% 24.1 38 17.1 29
30 SMU 6-5 6.9 75.29% 25.8 30 18.8 38
31 USC 6-6 6.3 73.40% 20.2 66 13.8 14
32 Colorado 7-5 6.3 73.22% 19.8 68 13.5 13
33 LSU 9-2-1 5.9 72.06% 17.9 84 12.0 7
34 Illinois 6-5-1 5.7 71.30% 29.5 14 23.8 62
35 Utah 8-4 4.9 68.64% 35.0 1 30.0 96
36 Texas 8-4 4.8 68.02% 24.4 37 19.7 41
37 Army 9-3 4.7 67.73% 25.8 29 21.1 47
38 Purdue 5-6 4.5 67.09% 29.3 16 24.8 71
39 Washington 7-5 3.9 64.87% 21.2 59 17.3 30
40 Washington State 4-7 3.3 62.63% 27.5 24 24.3 64
41 San Diego State 5-6-1 3.2 62.26% 29.1 17 26.0 76
42 Syracuse 7-5 2.5 59.73% 21.2 60 18.7 37
43 Miami-OH 8-2-1 2.0 57.65% 22.7 48 20.7 45
44 Clemson 6-6 1.9 57.59% 20.3 65 18.4 35
45 Kentucky 5-6 1.7 56.53% 19.2 73 17.6 32
46 Virginia 6-5 1.6 56.36% 22.0 57 20.4 44
47 Hawaii 4-6-2 1.5 55.89% 22.9 45 21.4 51
48 Kansas 6-6 0.9 53.44% 23.7 43 22.8 58
49 Central Michigan 7-3 0.4 51.60% 17.0 90 16.6 27
50 Oregon 5-6 0.4 51.58% 26.3 28 25.9 75
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
51 Mississippi State 5-6 0.1 50.55% 25.6 31 25.4 74
52 Navy 4-7 0.1 50.38% 21.9 58 21.8 52
53 West Virginia 7-3-1 -0.2 49.37% 15.6 100 15.7 23
54 Virginia Tech 6-5 -0.4 48.30% 22.3 54 22.7 56
55 Wisconsin 5-6 -0.6 47.80% 22.2 55 22.7 57
56 Ole Miss 4-6-1 -0.6 47.71% 22.3 53 22.9 59
57 Pittsburgh 5-5-1 -0.6 47.56% 17.3 86 17.9 33
58 Colorado State 5-7 -0.7 47.31% 23.9 42 24.6 69
59 Temple 4-7 -1.3 44.97% 19.8 69 21.1 46
60 North Carolina 5-6 -1.9 42.50% 18.4 78 20.4 43
61 Tulsa 6-5 -2.0 42.38% 26.5 27 28.4 87
62 Southern Miss 7-4 -2.0 42.37% 19.3 72 21.2 49
63 Boston College 4-8 -2.7 39.42% 20.6 64 23.4 60
64 Western Michigan 4-6-1 -3.3 37.43% 16.2 93 19.5 40
65 Texas Tech 4-7 -3.3 37.23% 21.1 61 24.4 66
66 California 4-7 -3.4 36.94% 20.9 62 24.3 65
67 Long Beach State 6-6 -3.7 35.86% 25.3 34 29.0 90
68 Stanford 4-7 -3.8 35.27% 23.5 44 27.3 82
69 Cincinnati 5-6 -4.2 33.91% 18.1 81 22.3 54
70 Memphis 2-7-2 -4.4 33.12% 17.9 83 22.3 55
71 South Carolina 5-6 -5.2 30.57% 22.6 49 27.8 83
72 Rutgers 2-8-1 -5.3 30.18% 16.0 95 21.2 50
73 Wake Forest 4-7 -5.4 29.61% 18.1 82 23.5 61
74 Illinois State 6-3-2 -6.1 27.46% 13.2 107 19.2 39
75 Pacific 5-7 -6.4 26.32% 19.6 71 26.1 77
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
76 Southern Illinois 4-7 -6.8 25.13% 22.6 50 29.4 93
77 Kent 3-8 -7.1 24.22% 19.7 70 26.8 80
78 Rice 3-8 -7.2 24.00% 25.5 33 32.7 104
79 West Texas A&M 6-3-1 -7.4 23.40% 26.8 26 34.2 107
80 Indiana State 4-6 -7.6 22.76% 22.1 56 29.7 95
81 New Mexico 3-8 -8.0 21.43% 28.1 22 36.2 109
82 Toledo 4-7 -8.1 21.40% 10.5 110 18.5 36
83 Wyoming 3-8 -8.3 20.60% 22.4 52 30.7 97
84 Northern Illinois 4-7 -8.4 20.52% 15.5 101 23.8 63
85 Houston 4-7 -8.5 20.13% 22.7 47 31.2 100
86 Indiana 4-7 -8.8 19.25% 22.5 51 31.4 102
87 Duke 4-7 -8.9 19.15% 15.8 99 24.6 70
88 UNLV 5-5-1 -9.0 18.84% 12.2 108 21.2 48
89 Drake 4-7 -9.1 18.57% 16.2 94 25.3 73
90 East Carolina 2-9 -9.2 18.38% 15.3 102 24.5 68
91 Ball State 4-7 -9.3 17.99% 17.4 85 26.7 79
92 Iowa State 5-6 -9.4 17.72% 16.8 91 26.2 78
93 Eastern Michigan 4-7 -9.6 17.13% 15.3 103 25.0 72
94 Vanderbilt 3-7-1 -9.7 16.99% 18.5 77 28.2 86
95 Oregon State 3-8 -10.1 15.90% 18.4 80 28.5 88
96 Fullerton State 6-5 -10.3 15.48% 19.1 75 29.4 94
97 Utah State 3-8 -10.7 14.51% 17.2 88 27.9 84
98 NC State 3-8 -11.2 13.56% 15.8 97 27.0 81
99 Missouri 1-10 -12.2 11.48% 18.9 76 31.1 99
100 Northwestern 3-8 -12.6 10.79% 16.5 92 29.1 91
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
101 Ohio 2-9 -13.1 9.80% 15.8 98 29.0 89
102 San Jose State 2-8-1 -13.3 9.48% 18.4 79 31.8 103
103 UTEP 1-10 -13.9 8.54% 19.1 74 33.0 105
104 Wichita State 3-8 -15.6 6.22% 15.1 104 30.7 98
105 UL-Lafayette 4-7 -15.6 6.22% 13.6 106 29.2 92
106 TCU 3-8 -17.1 4.65% 17.0 89 34.0 106
107 Tulane 1-10 -17.1 4.58% 14.2 105 31.3 101
108 Kansas State 1-10 -17.5 4.20% 10.5 109 28.1 85
109 New Mexico State 1-10 -19.2 2.94% 15.9 96 35.1 108
110 Louisville 2-9 -23.4 1.05% 17.3 87 40.7 110

Your hypothetical Playoff

Unfortunately for Michigan, this would have probably been a pretty easy year for the Playoff committee, and the Wolverines still would have been left out. Here's the AP top 10 at the end of the regular season:

1. Penn State (11-0)
2. Miami (10-1)
3. Oklahoma (10-1) -- BIG 8 CHAMP
4. Iowa (10-1) -- BIG TEN CHAMP
5. Michigan (9-1-1)
6. Florida (9-1-1) -- NO POSTSESASON
7. Nebraska (9-2)
8. Tennessee (8-1-2) -- SEC CHAMP
9. BYU (11-2)
10. Air Force (11-1)

Penn State's in. With only a season-opening loss to Florida, Miami's in. With only a loss to Miami, OU's in. But while Iowa would go on to get roughed up by UCLA in the Rose Bowl in real life, the Hawkeyes almost certainly get the fourth spot here because of the head-to-head win over Michigan and the single blemish (a 22-13 loss to Ohio State, No. 17 at the time).

So we get 1 Penn State vs. 4 Iowa and 2 Miami vs. 3 Oklahoma. Numbers say that gives you an Iowa-OU title game, though, uh, we know how the Sooners tended to handle the Hurricanes at this time.

This was a really strange year when it comes to results vs. rankings. The four teams that would have made the Playoff were ranked second, 10th, 11th, and 16th while eight of the top nine would have been ruing missed opportunities.

Other thoughts

  • Just behind Michigan on the "ruing missed opportunities" list: UCLA. Terry Donahue's Bruins beat BYU in the season opener, tied Tennessee on the road, and rocked Iowa at the end of the year. But they managed to lose to mediocre Washington (39th in Est. S&P+) and USC (31st) teams.
  • Ray Perkins' best shot at Alabama came up four points short of something awesome. The Tide lost at Penn State by two, lost to Tennessee by two, and tied LSU in Baton Rouge. They beat Auburn, Texas A&M, and everybody else.
  • 5-6 Notre Dame at 18th? Gerry Faust's final Irish team lost by 8 at Michigan, by 6 at Air Force, and by 3 to LSU. Granted, they also got rocked by Purdue, Penn State, and Miami (really really rocked by Miami, 58-7), but they also beat Michigan State, USC, and Ole Miss by a combined 101-27. Strange year.
  • Tennessee lost by seven to Florida and tied UCLA and Georgia Tech. Florida, ineligible for the postseason, beat Miami, LSU, Tennessee, Auburn, and Florida State ... and tied Rutgers and lost to Georgia by 21. ?????
  • Hell, Air Force came up a touchdown short of an undefeated record, losing at BYU by seven. So many missed opportunities.
  • Look at the bottom 15: Louisville, Kansas State, TCU, Northwestern, Missouri, NC State ... lots can change in 30 years, I guess (except for that whole "Alabama and Oklahoma near the top" thing).

Next up: one of the reasons I wanted to do this series ... that crazy, mixed-up, confusing 1984 season.