National and Big Eight recap – 1987
A pattern established in 1982-83 repeated itself in 1986-87. In 1983, the Miami Hurricanes won the school’s first national championship, a year after Penn State had won its first crown. In 1987, a year after Penn State recorded national championship No. 2, the 1987 Hurricanes again followed suit, giving both schools two titles in the 1980′s. Led by offensive stars quarterback Steve Walsh, running back Melvin Bratton, and wide receivers Michael Irvin and Brian Blades, Miami went 12-0 in 1987. The Hurricanes completed its undefeated season at home by defeating a previously unbeaten Oklahoma squad, 20-14, in the Orange Bowl. Despite going undefeated and having multiple stars, the Hurricanes were shut out of the national awards. Notre Dame flanker Tim Brown received the Heisman trophy, while Miami’s Big East rival Syracuse took home two awards, as Orangeman quarterback Don McPherson received the Maxwell award, while coach Dick MacPherson was named Coach of the Year.
In the Big Eight, it was the same-old same-old at the top. In 1987 Oklahoma, for the third consecutive year, went undefeated in conference play. For the third time in five seasons, the Sooners played for the national title. The Sooners only loss of the year was to national champion Miami in the Orange Bowl. Finishing 11-1 and third in the final polls for the second year in a row, Oklahoma again led the nation in scoring (43.5 pts. per game), and scoring defense (7.5 pts. per game), also besting all other schools in total offense and total defense. From 1985-87, the Sooners went 0-3 against Miami, but 32-0 against the rest of the nation.
Safe to say, if not for the losses to the Hurricanes, the Sooners would have been the dynasty of the 1980′s.
Nebraska played to a 10-2 record in 1987, finishing sixth overall in the polls. The Cornhuskers lost only to Oklahoma, 17-7, and to Florida State, 31-28, in the Fiesta Bowl. Oklahoma State also finished 10-2, defeating West Virginia in the Sun Bowl to garner an 11th-place final ranking.
No fewer than 16 starters returned to a team which had run through the Big Eight with a 6-1 mark in 1986. Still, there were questions, especially on offense. Quarterback Marc Walters, expected to compete for the starting job, was lost for the season due to a knee injury in the spring, leaving the competition open between senior Mark Hatcher, senior Rick Wheeler, and sophomore Sal Aunese . The Buffs did boast a full stable of excellent running backs, but, as coach Bill McCartney conceded before the season, the offense “needs to improve”.
On defense, the Buffs’ success would depend, at least in part, upon the knee of senior defensive lineman Curt Koch. Koch, the only all-conference defensive lineman returning in 1987, came out of the 1986 season with an injured knee. Surgery would have required Koch to sit out his final season, so Koch opted to gamble that rehabilitation would allow him to play. Rehab, though, was put on hold after Koch broke his leg in an automobile accident during spring break. Koch would be a question mark as 1987 opened.
The remainder of the defense appeared set. Senior all-Big Eight safety Mickey Pruitt returned to lead a secondary which had ranked 11th in the nation in 1986 (the Buffs were proud enough of their secondary that seniors David Tate, Mickey Pruitt, Rodney Rogers, and John Nairn were placed on the cover of the 1987 media guide). The linebacking corps would be bolstered by freshman bookends Alfred Williams and Kanavis McGhee from Houston. Senior All-American punter Barry Helton returned to ensure good field position for the Buffs.
In 1987, even the schedule makers seemed to favor a fast start for Colorado. The Buffs would open with three home games against Pac-10 foes, Oregon, Stanford, and Washington State. The Ducks, Cardinal, and Cougars were all slated to travel to Folsom Field, and none were picked to contend for the conference crown. The only non-conference “road” game for Colorado was a 50-mile trip up the highway to face in-state rival Colorado State. CSU had shown signs of recovering from the doldrums of the early 1980′s, but were still not anticipated to challenge for a first division finish in the Western Athletic Conference.
The pieces seemed to be in place for the Buffs to put together a fast non-conference start, something which had eluded the team in 1986.
With Nebraska and Oklahoma picked to finish high in the national polls (in the Street and Smith’s preseason magazine, Oklahoma and Nebraska were picked to finish #1 and #2, respectively, in the nation), no one was predicting that Colorado would make a dent in the Big Two. A third place finish, though, was not out of the question. Colorado was ranked in several pre-season magazines (as high as 15th in Game Plan magazine), and was amongst “others receiving votes” in the pre-season UPI and AP polls.
Almost everyone was impressed with the progress of the Colorado program as the 1987 season drew near. Almost everyone anticipated an improvement over 1986.
Someone forgot to remind season-opening opponent Oregon that the 1987 season was supposed to be the Buffs’ coming out party.