In wild 1984 season, title paths crossed for Nebraska, BYU

COLUMNIST TOM SHATEL

Once upon an autumn, long before the Playoff Age, there was 1984.

It was the year that would have made a classic playoff.

Six teams played hot potato with the No. 1 ranking that season. At the end, Nebraska, Washington, Florida, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Boston College and Brigham Young were bunched together in chaos.

BYU ended up with an unthinkable national championship, the crown jewel of the proud program that comes to Lincoln on Saturday.

The Cougars had Nebraska, in part, to thank.

The game Saturday is the first meeting on the field between BYU blue and Husker red. But their paths intersected long ago — in 1984.

And I had a front row seat to the history.

I've been an Associated Press Top 25 voter only a handful of times. The first time: 1984, back when it was a Top 20.

What a fascinating year to vote. What an impossible year to vote. It was the mad, mad, mad, mad, mad season of college football.

Right out of the box, No. 1 Auburn lost to No. 10 Miami in the Kickoff Classic. The Huskers, ranked No. 2 despite losing their star-studded backfield and Outland Trophy winner, ascended to No. 1.

"A lot of people thought we'd lost our chance at the national title the year before, but we came back and had another shot that year," said Harry Grimminger, a guard on the 1984 team and now an assistant principal at Millard West High School.

In the third week, Big Red took a salty defense, stout offensive line and I-back Jeff Smith to California and validated the ranking with a 42-3 blasting of UCLA.

The Huskers and Smith landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated: "Big Red Machine." They were back.

And then they weren't, thanks to a shocking 17-9 loss the next week to Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. But it turned out that wasn't the end for NU.

BYU, meanwhile, began its remarkable journey unranked.

In a world of options, veers and wishbones, BYU was known as the space-age passing attack that won the Western Athletic Conference each year and played wild games in the Holiday Bowl. In 1984, BYU was replacing three first-round picks, including quarterback Steve Young.

The Cougars opened by winning at No. 3-ranked Pittsburgh, in the first live regular-season college football game on ESPN. Few heads turned. Then the Cougars went about their WAC business as the rest of the sport stood on its head.

For an AP voter, it was a good year to have an eraser. And a generous phone plan.

This may come as a surprise to some, but there was no Internet in 1984. Sit down, there's more: There were only a handful of games on TV each week.

Back then, the NCAA regulated how many times each school could appear on TV. That was the same year Oklahoma and Georgia took the NCAA to the Supreme Court to allow schools to appear as many times as they wanted — and keep the money.

Oklahoma beat the NCAA. Kansas was another matter that season.

What that meant for an AP voter was you spent a lot of time calling writers who covered top 10 teams or saw them play.

Thanks to my job as a Big Eight beat writer at the Kansas City Star, I fell into some important games.

When Nebraska lost to Syracuse, Texas moved up to No. 1 — for two weeks. The Longhorns dropped after tying rival Oklahoma 15-15 in their annual Cotton Bowl brawl.

Washington then moved up to No. 1, followed by OU at No. 2. Was this a Sooner revival by Barry Switzer, whose program had slipped since 1980?

For one week. In one of the strangest games I've ever covered, OU went to Lawrence, Kansas, and lost to an undermanned Kansas team, 28-11, as an OU freshman named Troy Aikman had a tough day replacing the injured quarterback Danny Bradley.

It was an epidemic. Washington coach Don James looked like he had the team, until the Huskies fell flat in a 16-7 loss to USC.

That opened the door for the Huskers to climb back to No. 1. This was Tom Osborne's third shot in one calendar year. Was it fate?

His old friend, BYU coach LaVell Edwards, wondered. The Cougars had steadily gone through the WAC and moved up to No. 3. Maybe in another day, undefeated BYU would have been No. 1 as opposed to giving NU another shot.

But this was the Stone Age, not Playoff Age. Nebraska was Nebraska. In a limited TV world, few voters had ever seen BYU play and even fewer had watched a WAC game.

Except this voter. Coincidentally, I had covered the Missouri-BYU Holiday Bowl game the year before, a thriller won by the Cougars when Steve Young handed off and circled around to catch a touchdown pass in the final minutes.

That was a good Mizzou team, tied for second in the Big Eight behind mighty Nebraska in 1983. BYU held its own and did not get pushed around. In my mind, BYU had game.

But that was Missouri. Was BYU on the level of Nebraska or Washington? Hard to believe.

No matter. It was late November, the winds on the Plains had turned chilly and there was plenty of football left. For NU, that meant a visit from Barry Switzer.

The Sooners who had been stunned by Mike Gottfried's Jayhawks were a different bunch by late November. Their defense, led by a freshman linebacker named Brian Bosworth, had grown up. Big time.

Switzer had lost three straight to Osborne, and the Huskers were certainly favored at home. But that Sooner defense stood the test, all the way to a late goal-line stand when OU swarmed Jeff Smith on a fourth down pitch.

One year after falling short against Miami, the Huskers had it all set up: win and go to the Orange Bowl, against possibly South Carolina or Washington.

To say it still hurts 31 years later is an understatement.

"You know, you tend to remember the games you screwed up more than the ones you did well," Grimminger said.

"That was a hard-fought game. But we had a chance late. I can remember Scott Porter (fullback) busting on a trap play from the 10 down to the 1.

"On fourth down, we ran that old toss sweep, the old 49 sweep, to the left. I was going to pull and take the force defender. We got balled up on the perimeter, and I got cut by someone, and Jeff Smith never made it to the pylon.

"They stuffed us. That was a very talented OU team, with Tony Casillas. Boz was a freshman."

Reached this week by phone, Osborne said, "That was an embarrassing loss. We had them in Lincoln. That one still hurts."

That loss, along with South Carolina falling, opened the door for BYU history.

BYU was No. 1 followed by OU. Remember, this was the Stone Age: Teams were tied to bowl agreements. The Sooners were headed to the Orange. The WAC champ went to San Diego, though there were reports that BYU was trying to get out of its agreement to play in the Fiesta Bowl. That never happened.

Meanwhile, the Holiday Bowl feverishly tried to line up a big-time game. But its $500,000 payout was turned down several times, including by Boston College (with Heisman winner Doug Flutie).

So BYU's opponent was 6-5 Michigan, which had been ranked as high as No. 3 that season until a quarterback named Jim Harbaugh was injured.

The outrage was on. BYU was an uninvited guest at the big boy banquet. NBC's Bryant Gumbel spoke for many when he said, "Who has BYU played, Bo-Diddley Tech?"

I had BYU No. 1, based on its undefeated season, Oklahoma's loss to Kansas and unimpressive losses by No. 3 Florida and No. 4 Washington.

Then I braced myself for a wild New Year's Night.

I did not cover the Holiday Bowl. I watched it. BYU had six turnovers and still won 24-17 against a team that will not rank among Bo Schembechler's greats. Still, it was Michigan.

Afterward, Schembechler growled and called BYU "the worst holding team in the United States of America." The Cougars indeed had the rep, but that came off as sour grapes and another attempt to knock down the little guy.

OU's Switzer stumped his own case, saying a win over No. 4 Washington in the Orange Bowl should elevate the Sooners because BYU had beaten its schedule, but not the world.

So much for cases. The Huskies won the Orange Bowl. Afterward, perhaps thinking BYU would not stay No. 1, UW coach Don James directed a shot at Florida, intimating that the Gators did not do things on the up-and-up.

The morning after covering the Orange Bowl, I phoned my final Top 20 to the AP office in New York City. The AP guy on the other line said, "Well, who do you got?"

I began, "No. 1, BYU." I did it without hesitation. I'd do it again.

BYU had beaten two blue bloods, Pitt and Michigan. Meanwhile, the titans of the sport had spent the year slipping on banana peels. In any other year, playing in the WAC would have been problematic for the Cougars.

Like, say, 2015. "They beat a Michigan team that was not one of their better teams," said Osborne, a member of the College Football Playoff committee, "but they were the last man standing. They were undefeated, and at that time, being undefeated was what you looked at.

"Now, there's a lot of emphasis on strength of schedule, so who knows?"

BYU was the last non "major" conference team (or Notre Dame) to win a national title. In today's schedule strength climate, that's a streak that will likely last.

"BYU was a worthy champion," Osborne said. "Winning that title set them apart in college football."

Would Nebraska have liked to play them? As Grimminger said, after the OU loss, "I really didn't think much about (BYU)."

It would have been fun to see those Cougars play Nebraska. We finally get it, 31 years late.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1025, tom.shatel@owh.com twitter.com/tomshatelOWH

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