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The 1978 college football season belonged to USC and Alabama

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This! This was a beautiful season of football!

For a while there, it seemed like the entire point of this series was for me to diss on 1980s football scheduling and bowl matchups. And they were bad! But 1978 was a wonderful year from a scheduling standpoint. Consider:

  • USC and Alabama played in Week 3, and USC finished the regular season with Notre Dame.
  • Alabama had already played Nebraska and Missouri when USC came to Birmingham.
  • Notre Dame played Missouri and Michigan to start the year, then finished with USC.
  • Oklahoma played Texas in non-conference, then got Missouri and Nebraska ... and then Nebraska again!
  • Penn State got Ohio State early, romped over a good Maryland team in November, then faced Alabama.
  • Texas, forever on the doorstep, got Oklahoma in Dallas, Arkansas at home, Houston on the road, and Maryland in El Paso.
  • Nebraska got Alabama in the opener, then finished Oklahoma-Missouri-Oklahoma.
  • The bowls were almost perfect! AP #1 Penn State vs. #2 Alabama, #3 USC vs. #5 Michigan, #4 Oklahoma vs. #6 Nebraska. The Big 8 rematch thing was a little weird, but still! Great!

The connectivity was high, which means the ratings have less to deduce on their own. But in the end, the AP still had to get weird and select Alabama over the USC team it lost to in Birmingham. There was an obvious case for the Tide (among other things, Alabama's loss was much better than USC's to Arizona State), and both teams were phenomenal -- a couple of steps ahead of everybody else -- but the ending was still a little bit blurry. Such was always the case pre-BCS (and often post-BCS).

S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
1 USC 12-1 26.6 99.60% 31.4 6 4.8 1
2 Alabama 11-1 25.8 99.49% 34.3 3 8.5 3
3 Notre Dame 9-3 21.6 98.41% 31.2 8 9.6 5
4 Oklahoma 11-1 20.9 98.14% 37.4 1 16.5 34
5 Penn State 11-1 19.9 97.63% 28.4 12 8.5 4
6 Texas 9-3 18.7 96.84% 26.9 20 8.3 2
7 Nebraska 9-3 18.5 96.70% 36.8 2 18.3 52
8 Houston 9-3 17.3 95.76% 32.7 5 15.4 25
9 Michigan 10-2 16.1 94.55% 27.9 14 11.8 7
10 Arkansas 9-2-1 15.4 93.73% 27.8 16 12.4 11
11 Florida State 8-3 14.3 92.21% 30.8 9 16.5 37
12 Stanford 8-4 14.0 91.75% 29.8 11 15.8 30
13 Washington 7-4 13.9 91.73% 26.3 25 12.3 9
14 Clemson 11-1 13.8 91.55% 27.7 17 13.9 14
15 Michigan State 8-3 13.0 90.18% 33.0 4 20.0 65
16 Missouri 8-4 12.3 88.89% 31.3 7 19.1 57
17 Central Michigan 9-2 12.2 88.75% 26.6 23 14.4 16
18 SMU 4-6-1 11.4 87.07% 30.8 10 19.4 62
19 Maryland 9-3 11.0 86.35% 23.3 41 12.3 8
20 East Carolina 9-3 10.5 85.14% 22.8 43 12.4 10
21 Mississippi State 6-5 10.0 84.07% 24.9 29 14.8 20
22 Florida 4-7 10.0 84.01% 26.5 24 16.5 33
23 Ball State 10-1 9.8 83.62% 20.0 74 10.2 6
24 North Texas 9-2 9.2 82.09% 24.0 38 14.8 19
25 UT-Chattanooga 4-2-1 9.1 81.87% 27.0 19 17.9 47
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
26 UCLA 8-3-1 9.1 81.70% 22.6 46 13.5 13
27 Texas Tech 7-4 9.1 81.62% 27.9 15 18.9 54
28 Georgia 9-2-1 9.0 81.58% 24.4 33 15.3 23
29 NC State 9-3 8.6 80.34% 24.6 31 16.0 31
30 BYU 9-4 8.4 79.95% 24.2 37 15.7 28
31 Southern Miss 7-4 8.2 79.16% 22.1 52 14.0 15
32 Rutgers 9-3 7.7 77.91% 24.3 36 16.5 36
33 LSU 8-4 7.7 77.81% 23.5 40 15.8 29
34 Arizona State 9-3 7.6 77.45% 28.1 13 20.5 74
35 Pittsburgh 8-4 6.9 75.48% 22.2 51 15.3 22
36 Ohio State 7-4-1 6.9 75.43% 26.6 22 19.7 63
37 Baylor 3-8 6.5 74.06% 24.5 32 18.0 48
38 Purdue 9-2-1 6.4 73.80% 19.5 83 13.0 12
39 Louisiana Tech 6-5 6.3 73.62% 22.0 54 15.6 26
40 Cincinnati 5-6 6.1 72.88% 25.9 27 19.8 64
41 Miami-OH 8-2-1 6.1 72.64% 21.5 60 15.4 24
42 Yale 5-2-2 5.0 69.03% 19.8 77 14.8 21
43 Utah State 7-4 4.7 68.05% 24.8 30 20.1 66
44 Holy Cross 7-4 4.6 67.67% 25.7 28 21.1 80
45 Texas A&M 8-4 4.4 66.90% 21.9 55 17.5 44
46 California 6-5 4.2 66.08% 26.0 26 21.8 86
47 Arizona 5-6 4.1 65.77% 22.5 49 18.4 53
48 South Carolina 5-5-1 4.0 65.49% 21.0 64 17.0 40
49 Tulsa 9-2 4.0 65.32% 24.4 34 20.4 72
50 Dartmouth 6-3 4.0 65.31% 21.3 63 17.3 42
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
51 North Carolina 5-6 4.0 65.30% 20.9 66 17.0 39
52 Navy 9-3 3.7 64.33% 18.4 90 14.8 18
53 Wyoming 5-7 3.6 63.83% 22.6 47 19.0 56
54 Utah 8-3 3.4 63.35% 22.8 44 19.4 61
55 Brown 6-3 3.1 62.21% 22.4 50 19.3 60
56 Kentucky 4-6-1 2.6 60.02% 18.6 86 16.1 32
57 Auburn 6-4-1 2.3 59.22% 20.7 67 18.3 51
58 New Mexico 7-5 2.2 58.78% 21.5 59 19.3 59
59 Miami-FL 6-5 1.9 57.57% 18.5 88 16.6 38
60 Georgia Tech 7-5 1.5 55.90% 22.5 48 21.1 79
61 Tennessee 5-5-1 1.3 55.04% 21.5 58 20.3 70
62 Oklahoma State 3-8 0.9 53.75% 20.1 73 19.2 58
63 Iowa State 8-4 0.8 53.26% 17.3 99 16.5 35
64 Hawaii 6-5 0.3 51.19% 24.3 35 24.0 97
65 Appalachian State 7-4 0.2 50.81% 27.7 18 27.5 120
66 UL-Monroe 6-4-1 0.2 50.61% 15.9 105 15.7 27
67 Temple 7-3-1 -0.2 49.31% 20.0 76 20.1 68
68 Oregon 2-9 -0.3 48.97% 17.3 98 17.6 45
69 UNLV 7-4 -0.3 48.80% 17.7 96 18.0 49
70 Western Michigan 7-4 -0.4 48.32% 16.7 102 17.1 41
71 McNeese State 7-4 -0.8 46.64% 20.3 70 21.1 81
72 Washington State 3-7-1 -0.9 46.57% 26.8 21 27.7 123
73 Western Carolina 6-5 -0.9 46.27% 21.3 62 22.3 87
74 UT-Arlington 5-6 -1.0 46.14% 20.0 75 20.9 78
75 Louisville 7-4 -1.0 46.13% 22.8 45 23.7 93
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
76 Arkansas State 7-4 -1.1 45.71% 13.3 122 14.4 17
77 Colorado 6-5 -1.3 44.67% 19.1 84 20.5 73
78 Furman 8-3 -1.7 43.15% 20.9 65 22.7 88
79 Oregon State 3-7-1 -2.1 41.62% 16.8 101 18.9 55
80 Ole Miss 5-6 -2.4 40.44% 17.9 93 20.3 71
81 Richmond 3-8 -2.7 39.51% 15.5 108 18.2 50
82 Duke 4-7 -2.9 38.67% 14.6 114 17.5 43
83 Cornell 5-3-1 -3.0 38.42% 18.4 91 21.3 82
84 Syracuse 3-8 -3.2 37.67% 20.6 68 23.7 92
85 Indiana 4-7 -3.5 36.45% 21.8 56 25.3 110
86 Bowling Green 4-7 -3.6 36.07% 22.8 42 26.4 117
87 Rice 2-9 -4.2 33.79% 23.7 39 27.9 125
88 San Jose State 7-5 -4.5 32.74% 19.7 80 24.2 99
89 San Diego State 4-7 -4.9 31.35% 20.3 71 25.1 108
90 Colorado State 5-6 -5.1 30.61% 19.5 82 24.6 103
91 Virginia Tech 4-7 -5.1 30.59% 15.0 112 20.1 67
92 Pacific 4-8 -5.7 28.43% 19.1 85 24.8 105
93 Memphis 4-7 -5.8 28.28% 19.7 79 25.5 112
94 Harvard 4-4-1 -5.9 27.84% 20.5 69 26.4 116
95 Kansas State 4-7 -6.1 27.35% 21.7 57 27.7 124
96 Wisconsin 5-4-2 -6.2 26.74% 19.6 81 25.9 113
97 William & Mary 5-5-1 -6.5 25.98% 11.3 135 17.7 46
98 TCU 2-9 -6.6 25.56% 17.9 94 24.5 101
99 Fullerton State 5-7 -6.8 24.83% 21.4 61 28.2 126
100 Wake Forest 1-10 -7.4 23.15% 13.5 119 20.8 76
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
101 Colgate 3-8 -7.5 22.91% 12.8 126 20.3 69
102 Princeton 2-5-2 -7.5 22.67% 13.4 121 20.9 77
103 Kansas 1-10 -7.6 22.57% 17.5 97 25.1 107
104 Tulane 4-7 -7.6 22.45% 14.1 115 21.7 84
105 Northern Illinois 5-6 -7.7 22.08% 19.8 78 27.5 121
106 New Mexico State 6-5 -7.9 21.65% 22.0 53 29.9 132
107 Villanova 5-6 -8.1 21.04% 15.8 106 23.9 94
108 West Texas A&M 3-8 -8.3 20.45% 20.2 72 28.5 127
109 The Citadel 5-6 -8.5 19.92% 15.4 109 23.9 95
110 UL-Lafayette 3-8 -9.1 18.21% 11.6 134 20.7 75
111 Drake 4-7 -9.2 17.96% 17.0 100 26.2 115
112 Long Beach State 5-6 -9.2 17.89% 16.2 103 25.5 111
113 Pennsylvania 2-6-1 -9.3 17.67% 13.4 120 22.7 89
114 Ohio 3-8 -9.6 16.87% 11.8 132 21.4 83
115 Iowa 2-9 -10.2 15.42% 13.8 116 24.0 96
116 Columbia 3-5-1 -10.3 15.29% 14.7 113 25.0 106
117 Minnesota 5-6 -11.0 13.71% 16.2 104 27.2 119
118 West Virginia 2-9 -11.2 13.27% 18.6 87 29.8 131
119 Marshall 1-10 -11.9 11.74% 12.4 127 24.4 100
120 Eastern Michigan 3-7 -12.4 10.84% 11.8 133 24.2 98
121 Illinois 1-8-2 -12.4 10.77% 12.9 125 25.3 109
122 Kent 4-7 -12.6 10.55% 12.2 130 24.7 104
123 Toledo 2-9 -12.8 10.22% 11.8 131 24.5 102
124 VMI 3-8 -12.8 10.16% 9.0 137 21.8 85
125 Army 4-6-1 -12.9 10.02% 13.6 117 26.5 118
126 Virginia 2-9 -13.0 9.80% 10.5 136 23.5 90
127 Wichita State 4-7 -13.6 8.79% 17.9 92 31.5 133
128 Southern Illinois 7-4 -13.9 8.26% 12.2 129 26.1 114
129 Lamar 2-8-1 -14.2 7.86% 15.1 111 29.3 130
130 Fresno State 3-8 -15.1 6.65% 17.7 95 32.8 135
131 Illinois State 2-9 -15.3 6.44% 12.2 128 27.5 122
132 Boston College 0-11 -15.7 5.97% 13.2 123 28.8 129
133 Northwestern State 5-6 -15.7 5.93% 13.0 124 28.7 128
134 Indiana State 3-8 -15.8 5.79% 7.8 138 23.6 91
135 Vanderbilt 2-9 -16.0 5.52% 18.5 89 34.5 137
136 UTEP 1-11 -16.4 5.14% 15.8 107 32.2 134
137 Air Force 3-8 -19.0 2.92% 15.2 110 34.2 136
138 Northwestern 0-10-1 -21.5 1.62% 13.5 118 35.0 138

Your hypothetical Playoff race

As always, here's your end-of-regular-season AP poll. How would the Playoff have shaken down?

1. Penn State (11-0)
2. Alabama (10-1)
3. USC (11-1)
4. Oklahoma (10-1)
5. Michigan (10-1)
6. Nebraska (9-2)
7. Clemson (10-1)

Assuming Nebraska's out, and assuming Penn State's in, that leaves five teams for three spots. That Alabama beat four teams that had been ranked 11th or better in AP at the time (and lost only to USC) means the Tide are almost definitely in. So then you've got USC (best win, worst loss), Oklahoma (wins over Texas and Missouri, loss to Nebraska, Big 8 runner-up), and Michigan (wins over three ranked teams, home loss to Michigan State).

I have to figure that USC is in, meaning it's OU vs. Michigan. This would have been an interesting test of the vaunted "conference title bump." Michigan State was good, but OU definitely had the better loss (by three points at NU) than Michigan (by nine points at home to MSU). UM had beaten more ranked teams but hadn't beaten anybody as good as Texas.

I think the committee follows the AP's lead here and gives the bid to OU. Nebraska's end-of-regular-season loss at home to Missouri is every bit as costly in this playoff world as it was in real life.

So we get 1 Penn State vs. 4 Oklahoma and a 2 Alabama-3 USC rematch. Or maybe it's PSU-USC and Bama-OU to avoid rematches. So then we might get USC-Oklahoma instead of Alabama's Sugar Bowl goal line stand against PSU. My first reaction: It would actually stink to lose that moment. My second reaction: Oooooooooooooh, Billy Sims vs. Charles White for the national title. I'm in.

Other thoughts:

  • Missouri's 1978 season really was a stunner, memorable enough to make my book. The year started with a road win over the defending national champion, three top-five opponents (and two No. 1s) in the first four weeks, wins over Nebraska and LSU to finish up ... and injury-addled losses to Colorado and Oklahoma State in the middle.
  • Northwestern: still really, really bad. Vanderbilt, too. And Boston College (just six years before Flutie's Heisman year). And Virginia. And Illinois. And WVU. All of these teams ranked below Columbia and The Citadel.
  • It seems like every MAC team had a great couple of years at some point in the 1970s. The 1997-80 period was CMU's time -- they went 38-5-1, and their 1978 team lost only to Ball State ... and Alcorn State. D'oh. As mentioned previously, I'm not including lower-division or subdivision opponents in these ratings because I don't have enough information about those teams to differentiate who was and wasn't good. Alcorn State went 5-4-1 that year, and while some of their losses were to excellent teams (Grambling, Jackson State, tc.), losing to Alcorn probably meant CMU wasn't really a top-20 team. Counting that game would have tamped them down a bit. (Chattanooga, meanwhile, played a lot of lower-division teams, but their results hold up. I think they'd have still been at least top-30 or top-35 counting those.)
  • SMU lost by five to Penn State, by 14 to Houston, by 19 to Texas, by three to A&M, by three to Texas Tech, and by 13 to Arkansas; meanwhile, the Mustangs tied Ohio State and beat TCU, Florida, Baylor, and Rice by a combined 109 points (granted, half of that margin came from the Rice game). They were better than their record. So, too, was Florida, which held its own against SMU, LSU, Alabama, and Georgia.

Next up: 1977 and Notre Dame's sudden (and legitimate) greatness.