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In 1980, Georgia became one of the least likely champions in college football history

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Vince Dooley's Georgia Bulldogs were coming off of a 6-5 season and based their hopes on a freshman running back. That is not a sentence that should ever be followed with "...and then they won the national title."

While we all focus on BYU as the least likely/deserving/good national champion of the 1980s, the decade actually started with one of the least [your choice of adjective] we'll ever see. The Dawgs beat three Est. S&P+ top-20 teams by a combined 15 points. And hey, they did win all three of those games, and only one was at home. But they also played four teams ranked between 30th and 59th and won those four games by a combined 22. They finished the season having played just three teams that finished better than 6-5.

The SEC wasn't very good in 1980, with four of 10 teams ranking outside of the top 50. Plus, six-game conference schedules meant that you might miss a couple of the better teams in your given conference. Of the five best non-UGA teams in this relatively watered-down SEC, the Dawgs played just two, missing No. 5 Alabama, No. 22 Mississippi State, and No. 42 LSU.

Still, Georgia didn't lose. Everybody else did.

This was a crazy year that featured phenomenal teams playing brutal schedules; I don't included SOS rankings in these tables, but Penn State ranked first in SOS, Florida State second, USC fifth, Pitt ninth, and Nebraska 17th.

FSU beat Nebraska and Pitt in back-to-back weeks but lost to Miami right before that, Nebraska lost to FSU but beat Penn State, Penn State lost to NU and Pitt, Pitt lost to FSU but beat Penn State. Meanwhile, after playing poorly and losing to both Stanford and Texas in the early-going, Oklahoma caught fire late, handing UNC its only loss (41-7), then beating both Nebraska and Florida State.

Because a) there was no playoff, and b) Georgia didn't lose, none of these great teams finished as champion. College football seasons used to be so ... incomplete.

That said, while I marvel at how mediocre this Georgia team may have been, I also marvel at the season the Dawgs had. There's a reason they're ending up in my book. Herschel Walker ran over Bill Bates, and UGA beat Tennessee by 1. Scott Woerner returned a punt and an interception for touchdowns, and the Dawgs beat Clemson, 20-16. Walker was hurt against Ole Miss, so Carnie Norris and Buck Belue combined to rush for 250+ in a 28-21 win. Walker outrushed eventual Heisman winner George Rogers, 225-174, and Rogers lost a late fumble in a 13-10 UGA victory. Lindsay Scott's famous 92-yard catch and run beat Florida, 26-21. And Walker separated his shoulder against Notre Dame, then rushed for 150 yards anyway.

Would Georgia have won two games in a College Football Playoff? Almost certainly not. In this era, the ending wouldn't have been as happy. But wow, what a season this was, and it was almost made more awesome and amazing by how flawed the team itself was. This was the third-best Georgia team of the Herschel Walker era, but it was the one that secured Vince Dooley a title.

S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
1 Florida State 10-2 27.4 99.59% 33.3 5 6.0 1
2 Nebraska 10-2 26.9 99.53% 37.6 2 10.8 9
3 Pittsburgh 11-1 26.0 99.40% 34.2 4 8.3 4
4 Penn State 10-2 22.0 98.34% 31.0 7 8.9 6
5 Alabama 10-2 21.1 97.95% 29.3 11 8.2 3
6 BYU 12-1 20.4 97.56% 43.0 1 22.6 82
7 USC 8-2-1 19.0 96.68% 27.6 15 8.6 5
8 Oklahoma 10-2 18.3 96.19% 34.4 3 16.1 28
9 Notre Dame 9-2-1 17.0 95.01% 24.1 37 7.1 2
10 Michigan 10-2 15.9 93.77% 26.7 21 10.8 10
11 North Carolina 11-1 15.5 93.28% 25.5 31 10.0 7
12 Miami-FL 9-3 15.1 92.85% 25.7 28 10.6 8
13 UCLA 9-2 14.3 91.64% 27.2 19 12.9 14
14 SMU 8-4 13.5 90.44% 28.3 13 14.7 22
15 Ohio State 9-3 13.0 89.53% 30.2 9 17.2 39
16 South Carolina 8-4 13.0 89.49% 29.3 10 16.4 30
17 Georgia 12-0 12.6 88.81% 25.9 27 13.3 17
18 Missouri 8-4 12.3 88.33% 27.3 18 15.0 24
19 Baylor 10-2 12.2 88.04% 25.9 25 13.7 19
20 Florida 8-4 10.1 83.66% 23.5 41 13.3 18
21 Oregon 6-3-2 9.6 82.44% 25.5 30 15.9 26
22 Mississippi State 9-3 9.5 82.04% 27.6 17 18.1 47
23 Boston College 7-4 9.5 82.00% 22.7 50 13.2 16
24 Maryland 8-4 9.2 81.19% 20.2 74 11.0 11
25 Arizona State 7-4 9.0 80.90% 28.5 12 19.5 64
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
26 Houston 7-5 8.9 80.48% 21.8 57 12.9 15
27 Washington 9-3 8.5 79.47% 26.4 22 17.9 42
28 Purdue 9-3 8.4 79.16% 27.6 16 19.2 60
29 Stanford 6-5 8.2 78.69% 30.9 8 22.6 85
30 Tennessee 5-6 7.1 75.44% 23.8 40 16.7 32
31 McNeese State 10-2 6.9 74.83% 24.9 33 17.9 44
32 Southern Miss 9-3 6.6 73.89% 23.0 48 16.4 31
33 Texas 7-5 6.2 72.47% 23.1 46 16.9 35
34 Furman 9-1-1 6.1 72.36% 26.2 23 20.1 69
35 Virginia Tech 8-4 6.1 72.13% 17.6 93 11.6 12
36 Wake Forest 5-6 6.1 72.10% 24.1 38 18.1 46
37 Navy 8-4 6.0 71.97% 18.5 87 12.4 13
38 Rutgers 7-4 5.8 71.19% 22.7 51 16.9 34
39 Kansas 4-5-2 5.6 70.76% 20.0 78 14.4 21
40 Syracuse 5-6 5.1 68.81% 22.0 55 17.0 36
41 Iowa State 6-5 4.9 68.26% 21.9 56 17.0 38
42 LSU 7-4 4.6 67.28% 20.7 68 16.1 29
43 Arkansas 7-5 4.2 65.92% 23.3 42 19.1 55
44 UNLV 7-4 4.2 65.80% 31.3 6 27.1 121
45 North Texas 6-5 4.2 65.68% 25.6 29 21.4 74
46 West Virginia 6-6 3.9 64.80% 26.8 20 22.8 87
47 Utah 5-5-1 3.7 63.97% 27.8 14 24.1 99
48 The Citadel 7-4 3.6 63.61% 22.7 49 19.1 57
49 Clemson 6-5 3.5 63.36% 21.7 59 18.2 49
50 NC State 6-5 3.4 62.80% 21.4 62 18.0 45
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
51 Auburn 5-6 3.2 62.21% 23.1 47 19.9 67
52 Villanova 6-5 3.1 61.88% 17.2 98 14.1 20
53 Central Michigan 9-2 2.9 61.20% 17.8 91 14.9 23
54 Louisville 5-6 2.8 60.76% 18.5 86 15.7 25
55 Ball State 6-5 2.8 60.49% 21.2 65 18.5 52
56 Long Beach State 8-3 2.7 60.20% 22.1 53 19.5 63
57 Yale 8-2 1.6 56.33% 17.6 94 16.0 27
58 Tulsa 8-3 1.6 56.23% 20.8 67 19.1 58
59 Ole Miss 3-8 1.5 55.94% 24.9 34 23.3 90
60 Miami-OH 5-6 0.9 53.40% 20.1 75 19.2 61
61 Western Michigan 7-4 0.6 52.46% 19.0 83 18.4 51
62 Utah State 6-5 0.5 51.86% 25.9 26 25.4 113
63 Northern Illinois 7-4 0.2 50.61% 17.8 92 17.7 40
64 San Jose State 7-4 -0.2 49.30% 26.0 24 26.2 117
65 Texas A&M 4-7 -0.2 49.16% 18.6 84 18.9 53
66 Texas Tech 5-6 -0.5 47.95% 16.3 106 16.9 33
67 Brown 6-4 -0.7 47.49% 23.1 45 23.8 96
68 Wyoming 6-5 -0.8 46.97% 25.1 32 25.8 114
69 Rice 5-6 -0.9 46.68% 17.3 97 18.1 48
70 Appalachian State 6-4-1 -1.0 46.30% 18.2 88 19.2 59
71 Tulane 7-5 -1.0 46.11% 21.3 64 22.3 78
72 Colgate 5-4-1 -1.3 45.13% 24.1 39 25.3 111
73 Michigan State 3-8 -1.3 45.04% 22.1 54 23.4 93
74 Minnesota 5-6 -1.6 43.69% 20.1 76 21.7 75
75 Washington State 4-7 -1.8 42.90% 24.5 36 26.3 118
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
76 Cornell 5-5 -2.2 41.42% 16.7 101 19.0 54
77 Ohio 6-5 -2.3 41.23% 17.8 89 20.1 70
78 Wisconsin 4-7 -2.3 41.19% 14.7 115 17.0 37
79 UT-Chattanooga 6-1 -2.4 40.66% 22.6 52 25.1 107
80 Bowling Green 4-7 -2.6 40.16% 15.7 108 18.3 50
81 UL-Monroe 7-4 -2.8 39.27% 20.5 70 23.3 91
82 East Carolina 4-7 -3.1 38.25% 21.5 61 24.6 103
83 Virginia 4-7 -3.2 37.86% 16.7 102 19.9 66
84 Oklahoma State 3-7-1 -3.2 37.72% 19.1 82 22.3 79
85 Dartmouth 4-6 -3.3 37.33% 17.5 95 20.9 73
86 Kentucky 3-8 -3.6 36.54% 18.5 85 22.1 77
87 Drake 8-3 -3.7 36.03% 21.6 60 25.3 110
88 Indiana 6-5 -3.7 35.94% 20.4 71 24.1 100
89 Toledo 4-7 -4.0 34.97% 15.1 112 19.1 56
90 Hawaii 8-3 -4.1 34.48% 19.5 79 23.6 95
91 Richmond 5-6 -4.2 34.26% 19.4 80 23.6 94
92 Arizona 5-6 -4.4 33.39% 20.1 77 24.5 102
93 Army 3-7-1 -4.5 33.03% 20.3 72 24.8 105
94 UL-Lafayette 7-4 -4.8 32.19% 12.9 124 17.7 41
95 Colorado State 6-4-1 -4.8 32.17% 23.2 44 28.0 123
96 Iowa 4-7 -5.0 31.44% 15.3 111 20.3 71
97 Illinois 3-7-1 -5.1 31.11% 23.3 43 28.4 125
98 Wichita State 5-5-1 -5.2 30.63% 16.8 100 22.1 76
99 Temple 4-7 -5.3 30.57% 17.1 99 22.3 80
100 Indiana State 6-5 -5.3 30.29% 17.8 90 23.2 89
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
101 Georgia Tech 1-9-1 -5.3 30.26% 14.2 117 19.6 65
102 California 3-8 -5.4 30.16% 21.1 66 26.4 119
103 West Texas A&M 5-6 -5.6 29.37% 21.3 63 26.9 120
104 Duke 2-9 -5.9 28.53% 20.3 73 26.1 116
105 Harvard 7-3 -6.2 27.44% 11.7 132 17.9 43
106 New Mexico 4-7 -6.6 26.19% 24.5 35 31.1 130
107 TCU 1-10 -6.9 25.10% 16.4 105 23.4 92
108 Kansas State 3-8 -7.2 24.29% 12.0 129 19.3 62
109 Princeton 6-4 -7.3 24.10% 15.3 110 22.6 84
110 Air Force 2-9-1 -7.7 22.97% 14.9 113 22.6 83
111 VMI 3-7-1 -7.7 22.94% 12.3 126 20.0 68
112 Illinois State 4-7 -8.5 20.46% 12.0 128 20.6 72
113 Holy Cross 3-8 -8.5 20.45% 13.9 118 22.4 81
114 New Mexico State 3-7-1 -8.8 19.64% 16.4 104 25.3 109
115 William & Mary 2-9 -9.4 18.17% 13.3 122 22.7 86
116 Fullerton State 4-7 -9.5 17.89% 20.7 69 30.2 128
117 Southern Illinois 3-8 -9.5 17.85% 15.5 109 25.1 106
118 Fresno State 5-6 -9.6 17.61% 14.4 116 24.0 97
119 Louisiana Tech 5-6 -11.2 14.00% 11.9 130 23.1 88
120 San Diego State 4-8 -11.4 13.60% 13.3 123 24.6 104
121 Western Carolina 3-7-1 -11.6 13.07% 13.8 119 25.4 112
122 Vanderbilt 2-9 -11.7 12.94% 16.5 103 28.2 124
123 Colorado 1-10 -12.1 12.02% 21.8 58 33.9 137
124 Kent 3-8 -12.3 11.75% 13.8 121 26.0 115
125 Cincinnati 2-9 -12.4 11.53% 11.6 133 24.0 98
126 Pacific 4-8 -13.2 10.04% 16.3 107 29.5 127
127 UT-Arlington 3-8 -13.6 9.47% 19.3 81 32.8 136
128 Memphis 2-9 -15.2 7.13% 9.2 135 24.4 101
129 East Tennessee State 2-9 -15.3 6.90% 12.1 127 27.4 122
130 Pennsylvania 1-9 -16.1 5.93% 12.4 125 28.5 126
131 Marshall 2-8-1 -16.7 5.35% 8.6 137 25.2 108
132 Oregon State 0-11 -17.4 4.66% 13.8 120 31.2 132
133 UTEP 1-11 -17.8 4.26% 14.8 114 32.6 134
134 Northwestern 0-11 -19.5 2.97% 17.4 96 36.9 138
135 Lamar 3-8 -20.9 2.18% 11.7 131 32.6 135
136 Eastern Michigan 1-9 -21.8 1.76% 9.8 134 31.6 133
137 Columbia 1-9 -22.5 1.46% 8.6 136 31.2 131
138 Arkansas State 2-9 -23.9 1.03% 6.7 138 30.7 129

Who gets in?

A hypothetical College Football Playoff in 1980 would have been fascinating. Three teams were nearly shoo-ins, and I have no idea who gets the fourth spot.

Here are your end-of-regular-season AP rankings:

1. Georgia (11-0)
2. FSU (10-1)
3. Pitt (10-1)
4. OU (9-2)
5. Michigan (9-2)
6. Baylor (10-1)
7. Notre Dame (9-1-1)
8. Nebraska (9-2)
9. Alabama (9-2)
10. Penn State (9-2)
11. Ohio State (9-2)
12. USC (8-2-1)
13. North Carolina (10-1)

The top three are easy enough. UGA is unbeaten, FSU is 10-1 with wins over Pitt and Nebraska, and Pitt is 10-1 with only the FSU loss. And the fourth spot goes to ... ?

As mentioned, OU was smoking hot and would have stood a solid chance of getting the final Playoff bid because of the wins over North Carolina and Nebraska. But Baylor was the SWC champ with wins over SMU, Arkansas, and Texas (which beat OU) and had only one loss ... to San Jose State. San Jose State! (The Bears would get smoked by Alabama in the Cotton Bowl.) Notre Dame was 9-1-1 with wins over Alabama and Miami, a 17-point loss to USC ... and a tie against a dreadful Georgia Tech team. North Carolina had one loss but, it was by 34 points to OU.

You have a lot of drastically flawed one-loss teams (two of which were conference champions) and some amazing two-loss teams. I think OU gets the nod here, but losing 31-14 to Stanford at home, and then losing AGAIN, isn't a particularly good. That said, a 1 Georgia vs. 4 Oklahoma and 2 FSU vs. 3 Pitt Playoff is pretty damn strong, even if OU wasn't even the best two-loss team available. And if you're looking to avoid rematches, FSU-OU and UGA-Pitt would be good, too.

Other thoughts

  • Miami's 1983 run wasn't nearly as out-of-nowhere as we want to think it was. Howard Schnellenberger's Hurricanes ranked 12th, seventh, and 26th from 1980-82 and had a series of big wins -- they beat three ranked opponents (including FSU) in 1980, three in 1981 (including Penn State), and suffered three super-tight losses to ranked teams in 1982. The warning signs were there.
  • The Division 1-A/1-AA split came at a pretty interesting time, as the midsection of Division 1 was messy and crowded, and a lot of the soon-to-be 1-AA teams were doing pretty well: McNeese State (No. 31 here, with a tight loss to Southern Miss in the Independence Bowl), Furman (34), The Citadel (48), Villanova (52), Yale (57), Brown (67), Appalachian State (70), Colgate (72), Cornell (76), Chattanooga (79). Meanwhile, some teams that would stay in 1-A were playing anything but 1-A ball: EMU (136), Northwestern (134), UTEP (133), Oregon State (132), Memphis (128), Pacific (126), Cincinnati (125). One day it would be interesting to take a look at the decision-making behind some of the up-or-down moves. Like, did McNeese State consider sticking around at the 1-A level? And how close did EMU come to saying "Forget this."
  • BYU lost 25-21 to New Mexico on the first weekend of the season, then went nuts. The Cougars beat Wyoming 52-17, Utah State 70-46, UTEP 83-7, and scored at least 41 points in each of their last five games (including the famous 46-45 win over SMU in the Holiday Bowl). This was LaVell Edwards' craziest team (led by junior Jim McMahon), and one of his best.

Next up: Reviewing the strange, confusing 1980s.