clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

In 1981, college football was ruled by teams from Pennsylvania and South Carolina

New, 12 comments

Numbers are anti-social. Maybe that's why I like them. You come up with a decent way of measuring or evaluating something, and your own opinions, or those of the prevailing conventional wisdom, go out of the window. According to my Est. S&P+ method, the best team of the 1980s wasn't 1983 Nebraska or any of the Miami teams or, for that matter, any of the 10 national champions at all -- it was a two-loss Penn State team.

Paterno's Nittany Lions faced six of the top 16 teams in the country per Est. S&P+ and finished those six games with a plus-75 scoring margin. That pretty much secured them of the top spot. Unfortunately for their title prospects, those points weren't distributed very well. They lost to Alabama and Miami by a combined 18 and beat Pitt, WVU, and Temple by a combined 87.

There was some high-quality football on the East coast in 1981. Pitt started the season 11-0, West Virginia went 9-3, and while Temple went just 5-5, that included losses to Penn State, Pitt, and Georgia (all top-5 teams) and wins over Syracuse and Cincinnati.

(Temple also gets by on a technicality -- because non-Division 1 games were rare, and it's impossible for me to get a good feel for which non-D1 teams were good or bad, I don't count them from this era. That's good for Temple, which managed to lose to Delaware, 13-7. So yeah. The Owls probably weren't really a top-15 team.)

But while there were good eastern teams scattered around, Penn State made a point to show it wasn't impressed with usurpers. Temple fell 30-0, WVU fell 30-7, and in one of the most resounding statements of all-time, PSU went to face No. 1 Pitt two days after Thanksgiving and won, 48-14. A single game like that can define an entire rivalry.

Because of those slip-ups, however, the Nittany Lions weren't a contender for the title. And since they so thoroughly destroyed a team that was, they all but handed the national title to Clemson.

Clemson was very good, with an occasionally interesting offense and a spectacular defense. The Tigers destroyed teams in the trenches with All-American defensive tackles Dan Benish and Jeff Bryant and Freshman All-American William Perry. Plus, they had All-American linebacker Jeff Davis and All-American safety Terry Kinard. They allowed just 105 points in 12 games and held seven opponents to eight or fewer, including 10-win Georgia and UNC teams. They were a deserving champion, even if they technically may not have been the truly best team. The best team still can't lose two games, at least not in 1981.

S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
1 Penn State 10-2 26.9 99.63% 35.7 1 8.8 2
2 Pittsburgh 11-1 23.0 98.90% 34.2 4 11.2 9
3 Clemson 12-0 20.8 98.07% 28.0 17 7.2 1
4 Nebraska 9-3 20.7 98.03% 30.7 5 10.0 5
5 Georgia 10-2 19.5 97.41% 30.4 6 10.8 8
6 SMU 10-1 18.3 96.60% 30.0 8 11.6 10
7 Miami-FL 9-2 17.6 96.03% 26.5 22 8.9 3
8 Arizona State 9-2 17.1 95.55% 35.3 2 18.2 53
9 UCLA 7-4-1 15.5 93.81% 28.5 15 13.1 14
10 Texas 10-1-1 15.2 93.52% 25.1 30 9.9 4
11 Michigan 9-3 14.3 92.34% 28.7 14 14.4 25
12 North Carolina 10-2 14.0 91.77% 28.9 11 14.9 30
13 Alabama 9-2-1 13.8 91.52% 25.5 27 11.7 11
14 Southern Miss 9-2-1 13.7 91.39% 24.0 35 10.3 7
15 West Virginia 9-3 12.9 90.09% 24.7 32 11.8 12
16 Temple 5-5 12.4 89.24% 26.0 24 13.5 18
17 Oklahoma 7-4-1 12.2 88.78% 28.4 16 16.2 38
18 USC 9-3 12.1 88.62% 25.4 28 13.3 16
19 BYU 11-2 11.6 87.68% 35.1 3 23.5 98
20 Florida 7-5 10.9 86.13% 24.2 34 13.3 17
21 Houston 7-4-1 10.3 84.81% 22.3 49 12.0 13
22 Hawaii 9-2 9.8 83.49% 26.5 23 16.7 43
23 Washington State 8-3-1 9.4 82.64% 24.7 33 15.3 33
24 Arkansas 8-4 9.4 82.45% 27.4 18 18.0 51
25 Notre Dame 5-6 9.2 82.09% 22.4 48 13.2 15
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
26 Missouri 8-4 8.8 80.96% 22.5 47 13.7 20
27 Wyoming 8-3 8.5 80.20% 29.2 10 20.7 69
28 Mississippi State 8-4 8.4 79.85% 18.7 79 10.3 6
29 Washington 10-2 8.3 79.55% 23.0 42 14.7 28
30 Yale 9-1 8.1 78.95% 25.6 26 17.5 46
31 Tulsa 6-5 7.7 77.97% 26.6 21 18.9 60
32 Iowa 8-4 7.3 76.63% 21.0 61 13.7 19
33 Ohio State 9-3 7.2 76.31% 30.3 7 23.1 95
34 Texas A&M 7-5 7.0 75.74% 23.6 38 16.6 42
35 Maryland 4-6-1 6.3 73.49% 22.5 46 16.2 39
36 Navy 7-4-1 6.1 72.78% 21.3 57 15.3 32
37 Florida State 6-5 6.0 72.56% 27.0 20 20.9 72
38 San Jose State 9-3 5.8 71.82% 29.6 9 23.8 100
39 South Carolina 6-6 5.2 69.87% 21.2 58 16.0 37
40 Cincinnati 6-5 5.1 69.44% 18.8 77 13.7 21
41 Syracuse 4-6-1 4.7 67.85% 25.7 25 21.0 74
42 McNeese State 7-3-1 4.2 66.29% 23.3 40 19.1 62
43 Toledo 9-3 4.2 66.21% 20.4 68 16.2 40
44 Miami-OH 8-2-1 3.9 65.19% 18.0 87 14.0 23
45 Stanford 4-7 3.4 63.36% 28.8 13 25.4 115
46 Southern Illinois 7-4 3.4 63.30% 20.5 65 17.1 45
47 Virginia Tech 7-4 3.0 61.89% 17.8 88 14.8 29
48 Holy Cross 6-5 3.0 61.71% 23.6 37 20.7 68
49 Boston College 5-6 2.9 61.29% 24.8 31 21.9 86
50 Central Michigan 7-4 2.9 61.20% 17.5 92 14.6 27
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
51 Auburn 5-6 2.7 60.69% 17.3 93 14.6 26
52 Oklahoma State 7-5 2.5 59.68% 18.4 82 15.9 36
53 West Texas A&M 7-4 2.4 59.48% 22.1 51 19.7 67
54 Illinois 7-4 2.3 59.01% 27.4 19 25.1 112
55 Utah 8-2-1 2.0 57.77% 25.1 29 23.2 96
56 Arkansas State 6-5 2.0 57.71% 16.2 103 14.2 24
57 Baylor 5-6 1.9 57.65% 23.6 39 21.6 83
58 San Diego State 6-5 1.9 57.33% 24.0 36 22.1 88
59 Wisconsin 7-5 1.8 56.94% 21.2 59 19.4 64
60 Tulane 6-5 1.7 56.70% 17.0 97 15.3 35
61 Utah State 5-5-1 1.7 56.59% 17.0 98 15.3 34
62 Kansas 8-4 1.5 55.82% 16.6 100 15.2 31
63 NC State 4-7 1.1 54.46% 18.9 76 17.8 49
64 Dartmouth 6-4 1.0 54.02% 18.6 80 17.6 48
65 Duke 6-5 0.9 53.39% 20.4 67 19.6 66
66 Wichita State 4-6-1 0.5 52.15% 22.3 50 21.8 85
67 UL-Monroe 5-6 0.5 51.93% 21.5 55 21.0 73
68 Iowa State 5-5-1 0.1 50.36% 18.5 81 18.4 55
69 California 2-9 0.0 49.80% 22.0 53 22.0 87
70 Indiana State 5-5-1 -0.3 48.72% 18.3 83 18.6 56
71 Arizona 6-5 -0.8 46.86% 20.4 66 21.2 77
72 Michigan State 5-6 -1.0 46.12% 22.8 43 23.8 99
73 Colgate 7-3 -1.0 45.94% 20.6 63 21.6 82
74 Drake 10-1 -1.2 45.36% 18.1 84 19.3 63
75 Purdue 5-6 -1.2 45.31% 21.4 56 22.6 91
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
76 UT-Arlington 6-5 -1.4 44.59% 19.9 71 21.2 79
77 Rutgers 5-6 -1.6 43.71% 14.9 109 16.5 41
78 Bowling Green 5-5-1 -1.7 43.32% 12.1 128 13.8 22
79 Vanderbilt 4-7 -1.7 43.22% 21.5 54 23.2 97
80 TCU 2-7-2 -2.0 42.22% 23.1 41 25.1 113
81 Louisville 5-6 -2.1 41.77% 14.9 111 17.0 44
82 Western Michigan 6-5 -2.3 40.78% 15.9 105 18.2 54
83 The Citadel 7-3-1 -2.5 40.00% 16.3 102 18.8 59
84 Kentucky 3-8 -3.0 38.35% 14.6 113 17.6 47
85 East Carolina 5-6 -3.4 36.61% 22.5 45 25.9 119
86 New Mexico 4-7-1 -3.5 36.52% 17.3 94 20.7 70
87 Harvard 5-4-1 -3.5 36.36% 17.8 90 21.3 80
88 Ole Miss 4-6-1 -3.5 36.34% 18.7 78 22.3 89
89 Tennessee 8-4 -3.7 35.63% 19.4 73 23.1 94
90 Furman 8-3 -3.7 35.55% 21.0 62 24.7 110
91 Louisiana Tech 4-6-1 -4.0 34.66% 16.8 99 20.8 71
92 Pacific 5-6 -4.0 34.42% 17.2 95 21.2 78
93 Lamar 4-6-1 -4.6 32.31% 14.9 110 19.5 65
94 Minnesota 6-5 -4.8 31.75% 22.1 52 26.9 122
95 Army 3-7-1 -5.4 29.69% 12.6 123 18.0 50
96 Richmond 4-7 -5.5 29.22% 19.0 75 24.5 107
97 VMI 6-3-1 -5.6 28.84% 13.2 122 18.8 58
98 Ohio 5-6 -5.7 28.59% 19.2 74 24.9 111
99 UNLV 6-6 -5.8 28.17% 28.9 12 34.7 133
100 Texas Tech 1-9-1 -6.1 27.10% 19.5 72 25.6 116
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
101 Colorado 3-8 -6.2 26.88% 18.0 86 24.2 102
102 Princeton 5-4-1 -6.4 26.29% 20.0 69 26.3 120
103 Kansas State 2-9 -6.4 26.22% 17.8 89 24.2 103
104 UL-Lafayette 1-9-1 -6.5 25.96% 14.6 114 21.1 75
105 North Texas 2-9 -6.6 25.67% 12.4 125 19.0 61
106 William & Mary 5-6 -6.7 25.14% 17.6 91 24.4 106
107 Air Force 4-7 -7.1 24.08% 15.7 107 22.7 92
108 Rice 4-7 -7.1 23.90% 20.6 64 27.7 124
109 Kent 4-7 -7.2 23.79% 11.0 132 18.2 52
110 UT-Chattanooga 4-0-1 -7.5 22.84% 13.6 120 21.1 76
111 Virginia 1-10 -7.5 22.76% 13.9 118 21.4 81
112 Fullerton State 3-8 -7.9 21.72% 16.1 104 23.9 101
113 Wake Forest 4-7 -7.9 21.68% 22.6 44 30.5 130
114 Oregon 2-9 -8.0 21.16% 14.2 115 22.3 90
115 Fresno State 5-6 -8.7 19.28% 21.1 60 29.8 128
116 Georgia Tech 1-10 -9.2 18.11% 15.1 108 24.3 104
117 Ball State 4-7 -9.4 17.49% 12.3 126 21.7 84
118 LSU 3-7-1 -10.4 15.07% 14.9 112 25.2 114
119 Long Beach State 2-8 -10.6 14.67% 13.8 119 24.4 105
120 Memphis 1-10 -11.2 13.29% 7.6 135 18.7 57
121 Northern Illinois 3-8 -11.9 11.88% 11.2 131 23.0 93
122 Indiana 3-8 -11.9 11.76% 13.9 117 25.8 117
123 Western Carolina 4-7 -12.0 11.63% 18.0 85 30.0 129
124 Appalachian State 3-7-1 -12.2 11.28% 12.5 124 24.7 109
125 Columbia 1-9 -14.1 8.08% 10.6 133 24.7 108
126 Brown 3-7 -14.4 7.52% 14.2 116 28.6 127
127 East Tennessee State 6-5 -14.6 7.29% 11.2 129 25.8 118
128 Colorado State 0-12 -15.8 5.77% 19.9 70 35.7 134
129 Cornell 3-7 -16.3 5.21% 12.2 127 28.6 126
130 New Mexico State 3-8 -16.4 5.18% 11.2 130 27.6 123
131 Pennsylvania 1-9 -17.1 4.47% 13.6 121 30.6 131
132 Illinois State 3-7 -19.5 2.61% 7.0 136 26.5 121
133 UTEP 1-10 -20.5 2.05% 16.6 101 37.1 135
134 Oregon State 1-10 -21.6 1.56% 17.2 96 38.8 137
135 Marshall 2-9 -21.7 1.54% 6.2 137 27.9 125
136 Northwestern 0-11 -21.9 1.45% 15.8 106 37.7 136
137 Eastern Michigan 0-11 -24.0 0.85% 8.3 134 32.2 132

A 2-loss team gets in (maybe)

A hypothetical Playoff would have answered some interesting questions about great two-loss teams vs. decent one-loss teams.Here's your end-of-regular-season AP poll:

1. Clemson (11-0)
2. Georgia (10-1 with a loss to Clemson)
3. Alabama (9-1-1 with a loss to Georgia Tech)
4. Nebraska (9-2 with losses to Penn State & Iowa)
5. SMU (10-1 with a loss to Texas and ON PROBATION)
6. Texas (9-1-1 with a loss to Arkansas)
7. Penn State (9-2 with losses to Miami & Alabama)
8. USC (9-2 with losses to Arizona & Washington)
9. Miami (9-2 with losses to Texas and Miss. State)
10. Pitt (11-1 with an epic loss to Penn State)
11. UNC (9-2 with lsoses to Clemson & S. Carolina)
12. Washington (9-2 with losses to Arizona St. & UCLA)

How in the world do you make a selection here? Clemson and Georgia are obviously in, but who else? There are only two other one-blemish teams -- one isn't eligible (SMU) and the other just suffered a humiliating loss. How could you possibly justify taking Pitt over Penn State?

Meanwhile, You've got two good-not-great 9-1-1 teams in Alabama (which tied Southern Miss) and Texas (which tied Houston). Penn State was better than both and lost only to top-10 teams ... but one of those teams was Alabama!

This is nearly impossible, but unless the committee were to end up with some sort of hard-and-fast "no two-loss team makes it unless there are literally no good candidates otherwise" rule, I'm guessing we'd end up with 1 Clemson vs. 4 Penn State and 2 Georgia vs. 3 Alabama. It's either PSU or UT for that No. 4 spot, I guess. Nebraska has a case, too, but I figure the loss to PSU bumps the Huskers back in line.

Other thoughts:

  • An Alabama-Georgia semifinal would have been interesting because these two teams almost never played in this period. Between 1978-89, they faced off only twice. Meanwhile, UGA and Clemson played 10 times in that span.
  • You'll notice 137 teams above. This was the year before the 1-A/1-AA breakout, so Division 1 was a bit of a mess at the bottom. And yet, Northwestern and Oregon State still managed to finish in the bottom five. They were truly wretched, among the worst power conference teams ever. Or to put that another way, either team would have probably finished last in the Ivy League that year.
  • Also wretched: LSU. Jerry Stovall's Tigers barely beat Oregon State and No. 108 Rice, and their seven losses came by an average score of 28-9 despite playing only a few decent teams. (The SEC: not great in 1981.)
  • I mentioned the tie against Southern Miss as a tough blemish for Alabama to overcome, but ... Southern Miss was pretty damn awesmoe this year. That might not have been a fair statement. The Eagles also beat Mississippi State by one and completely destroyed Florida State, 58-14. If not for a dumb loss to Louisville, they'd have finished the regular season 10-0-1 with an interesting (but probably unconvincing) hypothetical playoff case.
  • Once again, the bowls weren't particularly helpful in determining the CFB pecking order. AP No. 1 Clemson did play No. 4 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, which wasn't bad. But otherwise you had 2 Georgia vs. 10 Pitt in the Sugar Bowl, 3 Alabama vs. 6 Texas in the Cotton, 7 Penn State vs. 8 USC in the Fiesta, and 12 Washington vs. 13 Iowa in the Rose. Georgia and Alabama both lost, so if Nebraska had beaten Georgia in the Orange Bowl, you'd have ended up with ... 10-2 national champion Nebraska maybe? Maybe Texas hops all of them? It would have been messy. But Clemson made sure that didn't happen.

Next up: 1980, which featured a slew of incredible teams ... none of which won the national title.