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Football Version of the Final Four Is New Year's Day

December 29, 1985|From Associated Press

College football's version of the Final Four takes place on New Year's Day with four teams in the running for the national championship.

As 1985 draws to a close, the right to yell "We're No. 1" belongs to Penn State, the nation's only unbeaten and untied team.

Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer, who politicked loud and long for the national championship a year ago only to see the Sooners embarrassed by Washington, 28-17, in the Orange Bowl, is leaving the shouting this time to Miami Coach Jimmy Johnson.

"With everything we've accomplished this year, in my mind we will be the national champions if we beat (No. 8) Tennessee (in the Sugar Bowl)," Johnson has said on occasion--a hundred or so occasions. "Considering the teams we've played (Florida, Oklahoma, Florida State, Maryland) and our record on the road (6-0), there's no doubt we're the best team in the country right now."

Penn State (11-0) was ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the last five weeks of the regular season, can make it all academic by defeating No. 3 Oklahoma (10-1) in the Orange Bowl.

But if Oklahoma wins--or ties--everything will be up for grabs. The problem is that 10-1 and second-ranked Miami is the only team to beat Oklahoma. And the Hurricanes did it in Norman by a 27-14 score back in October.

In the previous 18 years in which the AP has conducted a post-bowl poll, the No. 1 team has lost its bowl game nine times (Oklahoma's 1974 champs were on probation and didn't go to a bowl). Five of those times, the team that beat No. 1 was voted the national champion. None of them, however, leaped over a team it had lost to earlier.

The only near-similarity occurred in 1978, when No. 2 Alabama defeated No. 1 Penn State 14-7 in the Sugar Bowl and won the national championship with an 11-1 record over 12-1 USC, which had whipped the Crimson Tide, 24-14, early in the season.

And in the midst of all the Penn State-Miami-Oklahoma fuss, fourth-ranked Iowa has been virtually ignored. The Hawkeyes take a 10-1 record into the Rose Bowl meeting with No. 13 UCLA, meaning that when the final gun sounds on the 1985 campaign, the top four teams in the final regular-season poll could all have 11-1 records.

The rest of the bowl picture will be for bragging rights. On Friday night, it was No. 12 LSU vs. Baylor in the Liberty Bowl.

The Saturday schedule had Arizona vs. Georgia in the Sun Bowl, No. 9 Brigham Young vs. No. 17 Ohio State in the Florida Citrus Bowl and No. 15 Alabama against USC in the Aloha Bowl, matching the two schools with the most bowl victories (21 for USC, 20 for Alabama).

On Monday, No. 18 Florida State meets No. 19 Oklahoma State in the Gator Bowl and Colorado faces Washington in the Freedom Bowl.

Tuesday finds No. 10 Air Force vs. Texas in the Bluebonnet Bowl, Army-Illinois in the Peach Bowl and Georgia Tech-Michigan State in the All-American Bowl.

To ring in 1986, No. 5 Michigan and No. 7 Nebraska square off in the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl and No. 11 Texas A&M tangles with No. 16 Auburn in the Cotton Bowl, followed by the Rose, Sugar and Orange Bowls.

It is ironic that what is being billed as the national championship game will take place in the Orange Bowl, which is Miami's home field during the regular season.

"This is what we play for, a chance to win a national championship," Switzer says. "Penn State is obviously a fine team. They are well-coached and will have the incentive of knowing they will be the best if they win."

Switzer is leaving much of the talking to others this time.

"If we could play Miami now, we could beat them," says Jamelle Holieway, the freshman quarterback who took over Oklahoma's Wishbone offense when Troy Aikman suffered a broken ankle in the Miami game. "But all we can do now is play Penn State, give it our best shot, try to win by a wide margin and win the national championship."

All Switzer will say about the loss to Miami is, "You can look at it and say it was decisive, but it was a lot closer than the score indicates. We lose our quarterback and we don't have (All-American nose guard Tony) Casillas. That makes a difference."

Linebacker Roger Alexander, Penn State's leading tackler, says the Nittany Lions are "going to have to play our best game all year. We're playing for all the marbles.

While Oklahoma arrived in Miami on Dec. 20, Penn State didn't head south until six days later.

"It's not just a game that's going to be played for a national championship, it's also a bowl game and something the kids have worked awfully hard for," Penn State Coach Joe Paterno says. "I think they want to have a good time."

Oklahoma has the better statistics. The Sooners averaged 31.5 points a game during the regular season--37.7 in Holiway's seven starts--to Penn State's 24.1, and rolled up 427.0 yards a game to the Lions' 321.2.

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