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Don't ask Nebraska fans about Penn State's 1982 national title. Just don't do it.

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1982 is far enough back in time that most of us probably don't have a default reaction to it. It was just a year that happened.

Ask Nebraska fans about 1982, however, and you might need to backup a few steps. They're gonna rage.

You can watch the whole game here. (If you want to start with PSU's game-winning drive, click here.) The loss still gnawed at Tom Osborne decades later. And it basically decided the 1982 national title on September 25. Granted, that wasn't actually decided until the end -- Georgia was unbeaten until Penn State beat the Dawgs for the title in the Sugar Bowl -- but without any truly elite (i.e. 99th percentile) team, PSU and NU were the class of 1982, and they played the tightest game imaginable, decided by a last-second score (and aided by a couple of calls that were between iffy and atrocious).

Of course, Penn State fans probably weren't particularly interested in hearing from others about bad breaks or judgment calls. This was Joe Paterno's 17th year in charge in Happy Valley; PSU had gone undefeated three times and finished second, second, and fifth in the polls. They were 11-1 on three other occasions and never finished higher than fourth.

Independence and sometimes iffy schedules meant that the Nittany Lions never really stood out in the pollsters' eyes, whether they should have or not (and we'll explore that as we come to those seasons in this series). That they needed a break to finally get a ring didn't matter -- they got a ring.

The 1982 season was in the middle of a fascinating transfer of power in college football. It was Bear Bryant's last year at Alabama, and while he fielded another top-10 caliber squad, it was ONLY top-10 and not top-3 or so. It was also John Robinson's last year at USC; after a run of just three losses in three seasons (1978-80), the Trojans were settling into a less dominant role. OU under Barry Switzer was falling into a funk as well.

Just look at the conference champions:

  • Pac-10: UCLA, not USC (and with Arizona State not far behind)
  • SEC: Georgia, not Alabama (though UGA had been awesome for three years at that point)
  • ACC: Clemson, with UNC and Maryland coming up strong
  • SWC: SMU, not Arkansas or Texas or Texas A&M

Sure, Nebraska was finding fifth gear, and Penn State was usually strong, but after the 1970s, when the CFB oligarchy (Alabama, USC, Ohio State, Michigan, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Penn State, Texas) completely controlled the sport, this was a time of change and instability in the ruling class. This turbulence is represented by this: perhaps the best team of the decade as a whole (Nebraska) never actually won a national title. But Penn State won two, Clemson, Georgia, and BYU won one, and Miami suddenly became a dynasty. Odd.

S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
1 Penn State 11-1 22.0 98.58% 35.7 3 13.7 11
2 Nebraska 12-1 21.0 98.19% 36.8 2 15.8 20
3 USC 8-3 18.9 97.04% 29.7 12 10.8 3
4 Florida State 9-3 17.8 96.25% 37.1 1 19.2 41
5 UCLA 10-1-1 17.3 95.80% 35.0 4 17.7 35
6 Pittsburgh 9-3 15.7 94.19% 25.7 30 9.9 2
7 Georgia 11-1 15.4 93.75% 28.4 20 13.1 8
8 Maryland 8-4 15.3 93.64% 32.4 6 17.1 29
9 North Carolina 8-4 14.2 92.20% 27.8 23 13.6 10
10 Alabama 8-4 14.0 91.87% 30.3 10 16.3 24
11 Arizona State 10-2 13.7 91.41% 25.1 34 11.4 4
12 Oklahoma 8-4 13.5 91.18% 28.4 19 14.9 15
13 Texas 9-3 13.4 90.96% 28.7 17 15.3 16
14 Michigan 8-4 12.9 90.04% 29.3 13 16.5 25
15 LSU 8-3-1 12.8 89.87% 30.4 8 17.7 34
16 West Virginia 9-3 12.0 88.37% 25.4 32 13.4 9
17 Ohio State 9-3 11.7 87.82% 29.0 15 17.3 31
18 Washington 10-2 11.6 87.71% 28.6 18 17.0 28
19 Clemson 9-1-1 11.3 86.93% 25.9 29 14.6 13
20 Florida 8-4 11.2 86.80% 27.4 25 16.2 22
21 Arkansas 9-2-1 11.0 86.30% 23.8 38 12.9 7
22 Notre Dame 6-4-1 10.9 86.26% 22.7 44 11.7 5
23 BYU 8-4 10.6 85.54% 29.9 11 19.3 42
24 Southern Miss 7-4 10.3 84.78% 27.0 27 16.7 27
25 Arizona 6-4-1 10.3 84.69% 29.3 14 19.0 40
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
26 Miami-FL 7-4 10.1 84.37% 22.9 42 12.8 6
27 Auburn 9-3 9.9 83.92% 24.6 35 14.6 14
28 SMU 11-0-1 9.5 82.90% 26.2 28 16.7 26
29 Stanford 5-6 8.8 81.02% 32.9 5 24.1 77
30 Tulsa 10-1 7.4 76.94% 28.2 22 20.8 54
31 Illinois 7-5 7.0 75.79% 27.2 26 20.2 49
32 New Mexico 10-1 7.0 75.71% 30.8 7 23.8 73
33 Mississippi State 5-6 5.5 70.87% 25.5 31 20.0 48
34 Fresno State 11-1 5.4 70.64% 28.9 16 23.5 70
35 Boston College 8-3-1 4.7 67.90% 23.0 40 18.3 37
36 Utah 5-6 4.1 66.06% 21.7 51 17.5 33
37 Bowling Green 7-5 4.1 66.05% 21.4 55 17.2 30
38 Wisconsin 7-5 3.9 65.28% 24.4 36 20.5 51
39 Vanderbilt 8-4 3.7 64.44% 24.2 37 20.5 52
40 California 7-4 3.7 64.38% 22.4 45 18.7 39
41 Iowa 8-4 2.7 60.70% 20.4 67 17.7 36
42 Western Michigan 7-2-2 2.7 60.54% 12.2 107 9.6 1
43 San Diego State 7-5 2.5 59.83% 27.5 24 25.0 85
44 Duke 6-5 2.4 59.42% 28.4 21 26.0 88
45 Kansas State 6-5-1 2.4 59.30% 17.7 82 15.3 17
46 Air Force 8-5 1.9 57.40% 30.4 9 28.5 97
47 Missouri 5-4-2 1.6 56.25% 19.1 78 17.5 32
48 San Jose State 8-3 1.5 55.99% 25.3 33 23.8 72
49 Tennessee 6-5-1 1.4 55.46% 22.4 48 21.0 56
50 NC State 6-5 1.2 54.96% 22.4 47 21.1 59
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
51 Temple 4-7 1.2 54.60% 20.5 65 19.3 43
52 Ole Miss 4-7 0.6 52.42% 21.7 52 21.1 57
53 Miami-OH 7-4 0.2 50.70% 14.3 98 14.2 12
54 Cincinnati 6-5 0.1 50.21% 20.8 61 20.8 53
55 Toledo 6-5 -0.1 49.43% 15.8 91 16.0 21
56 Iowa State 4-6-1 -0.2 49.10% 19.6 74 19.8 45
57 Oklahoma State 4-5-2 -0.3 48.66% 22.9 41 23.3 68
58 South Carolina 4-7 -0.9 46.50% 21.2 57 22.0 64
59 Central Michigan 6-4-1 -1.1 45.64% 18.8 79 19.9 47
60 Michigan State 2-9 -1.3 44.82% 19.5 75 20.8 55
61 Hawaii 6-5 -1.3 44.76% 20.8 62 22.2 65
62 Oregon 2-8-1 -1.7 43.08% 13.8 100 15.6 18
63 Indiana 5-6 -2.0 42.28% 19.6 73 21.6 60
64 Navy 6-5 -2.8 39.13% 18.3 81 21.1 58
65 Syracuse 2-9 -3.2 37.34% 15.3 93 18.5 38
66 Houston 5-5-1 -3.3 37.05% 19.6 71 23.0 67
67 Texas Tech 4-7 -3.4 36.67% 16.0 88 19.4 44
68 Wyoming 5-7 -3.6 35.81% 21.0 59 24.6 83
69 Baylor 4-6-1 -3.7 35.58% 20.6 64 24.3 79
70 Long Beach State 6-5 -4.1 34.01% 22.4 46 26.5 89
71 East Carolina 7-4 -4.4 33.14% 19.7 69 24.0 76
72 Northern Illinois 5-5 -4.4 32.89% 11.3 108 15.7 19
73 Colorado State 4-7 -4.4 32.87% 19.9 68 24.4 80
74 UL-Lafayette 7-3-1 -4.5 32.68% 17.2 84 21.7 62
75 Georgia Tech 6-5 -5.0 30.84% 21.6 53 26.6 90
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
76 Tulane 4-7 -5.4 29.38% 18.7 80 24.2 78
77 Wichita State 8-3 -5.6 28.89% 21.5 54 27.1 93
78 UNLV 3-8 -6.3 26.38% 23.2 39 29.5 101
79 Purdue 3-8 -6.5 25.94% 21.1 58 27.6 95
80 Virginia Tech 7-4 -6.5 25.85% 13.4 102 19.9 46
81 Kansas 2-7-2 -6.7 25.21% 16.0 89 22.7 66
82 Texas A&M 5-6 -6.8 25.01% 21.8 50 28.5 99
83 Southern Illinois 6-5 -7.0 24.26% 13.5 101 20.5 50
84 TCU 3-8 -7.8 21.73% 17.4 83 25.2 87
85 Minnesota 3-8 -7.9 21.43% 20.9 60 28.8 100
86 Oregon State 1-9-1 -8.0 21.12% 16.0 90 24.0 75
87 Colorado 2-8-1 -8.1 20.90% 16.9 85 25.0 86
88 Rutgers 5-6 -8.3 20.27% 16.2 86 24.5 81
89 Ball State 5-6 -8.4 20.06% 13.2 103 21.6 61
90 Kentucky 0-10-1 -9.0 18.43% 12.8 104 21.8 63
91 Louisville 5-6 -9.2 17.88% 22.7 43 31.9 108
92 Washington State 3-7-1 -9.3 17.55% 14.1 99 23.5 71
93 Wake Forest 3-8 -9.5 17.25% 19.1 77 28.5 98
94 Ohio 6-5 -9.6 16.92% 14.4 97 24.0 74
95 Eastern Michigan 1-9-1 -9.7 16.63% 6.5 113 16.3 23
96 Indiana State 5-6 -10.0 15.99% 14.6 95 24.6 82
97 Virginia 2-9 -10.0 15.95% 20.5 66 30.4 105
98 UTEP 2-10 -10.4 15.01% 19.6 72 30.0 102
99 Northwestern 3-8 -10.6 14.47% 21.4 56 32.0 109
100 Utah State 5-6 -10.8 14.02% 15.8 92 26.7 91
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
101 North Texas 2-9 -11.0 13.60% 16.1 87 27.1 94
102 Pacific 2-9 -11.1 13.48% 19.2 76 30.3 104
103 New Mexico State 3-8 -11.1 13.36% 19.6 70 30.8 106
104 West Texas A&M 3-8 -13.1 9.60% 21.9 49 35.0 112
105 Kent 0-11 -13.5 8.87% 9.8 110 23.3 69
106 Drake 4-7 -13.8 8.50% 20.7 63 34.5 111
107 Army 4-7 -14.2 7.88% 12.6 105 26.8 92
108 Rice 0-11 -14.9 6.87% 15.3 94 30.1 103
109 Memphis 1-10 -15.3 6.28% 12.4 106 27.7 96
110 Fullerton State 3-9 -15.8 5.73% 9.0 111 24.8 84
111 William & Mary 3-8 -19.4 2.62% 14.6 96 34.0 110
112 Richmond 0-10 -23.9 0.85% 7.8 112 31.8 107
113 Illinois State 2-9 -25.3 0.57% 10.1 109 35.5 113

Rematch!

Among the AP's preseason top 5 (Pitt, Washington, Alabama, Nebraska, UNC), only one team finished higher than ninth (NU), and Bama finished unranked (but only after beating the national champ). This was a pretty odd year in some ways, but though SMU would finish No. 2 in the AP poll, it was pretty clear from start to finish who the best teams in the country were.

The hypothetical Playoff would have been almost a no-brainer. Here's the top of the end-of-regular season AP poll:

1. Georgia (11-0)
2. Penn State (10-1 with a loss to Alabama) 
3. Nebraska (10-1 with a loss to PSU)
4. SMU (10-0-1 with a tie to Arkansas)
5. UCLA (9-1-1 with a loss to Washington)

UCLA's second blemish (a tie against Arizona) probably would have eliminated the Bruins, leaving a pretty clear top 4. I'm not sure about the order, though. Georgia's path through Herschel Walker's three seasons was odd -- the Dawgs went undefeated in 1980 with an incredibly flawed team, lost twice with a nearly flawless team in 1981, then went undefeated in the regular season again despite (as noted by the No. 7 ranking above) a few more flaws. They were undefeated here, and wins over Clemson, Florida, and Auburn would have probably gotten them the No. 1 seed, but they weren't incredibly dominant.

Where does SMU fall? With Arkansas No. 14 in the AP poll at the end of the regular season, the soon-to-be-on-probation Mustangs could have potentially snared the No. 2 seed. Is it possible that the two best teams would have ended up No. 3 and No. 4? I think so. I think we probably get 1 Georgia vs. 4 Nebraska and 2 SMU vs. 3 Penn State, then get a 3 vs. 4 rematch for the title.

A playoff structure would have been really, really kind to Nebraska.

Other thoughts:

  • Est. S&P+ was NOT impressed with SMU, and not because of my built-in "Screw Craig James" adjustment. (Well, not JUST because of that.) The Mustangs went 2-0-1 against teams in the Est. S&P+ top 25 but offset that with a six-point win over No. 66 Houston, a seven-pointer over No. 67 Texas Tech, a three-pointer over No. 69 Baylor, and a three-pointer over No. 84 TCU. The SWC was pretty damn bad this year (three good teams and a lot of dreck), and SMU was fortunate to not end up with a couple of losses. There's benefit to saving your best performances for the best teams, but SMU nearly blew it quite a few times against lesser opponents.
  • Look at No. 26 Miami, sneaking up on the country unsuspected.
  • I remember coming across a stack of old Street & Smith magazines at my mom's antique store one time in probably the early-1990s, snatching them up, and being really confused: "Wait ... Maryland was good? Like, just a few years ago?"
  • You'll notice at the bottom that we're back up to 113 teams here. 1-A had just formed, and the Missouri Valley and a few stragglers were testing out the waters. It didn't last long.

Next up: 1981, when there were 137 teams in a no-subdivisions Division I ... and Northwestern and Oregon State were still in the bottom five.