Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame,
Rooting for Notre Dame is hard for any Buff fan. It was the Irish who had deprived the Buffs of a storybook ending to the 1989 season. Now, in November, 1990, with Notre Dame and Colorado No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation, and Notre Dame having already accepted an invitation to play in the Orange Bowl against the Buffs, Colorado fans had to root for the Irish.
Even though a Notre Dame loss to Penn State or USC would mean Colorado would obtain the No. 1 ranking for the first time in 1990, the Buffs had to cheer, cheer, for ol’ Notre Dame. If Notre Dame maintained its top-ranking, the Orange Bowl would be the national championship game, winner take all.
So Colorado fans had to root for the Irish.
Naturally, they let us down.
While Colorado was completing its regular season 10-1-1 by dismantling Kansas State, the Irish blew a 21-7 halftime lead in succumbing to Penn State, 24-21. The Irish were now No. 7, and the allure of a title game in the Orange Bowl was lost. “I think having Nos. 1 and 2 playing would have eliminated a lot of speculation,” said Buffs’ head coach Bill McCartney. “It would have been a more clear-cut.”
Colorado was now the No. 1 team in the nation, and would carry that mantle into the Orange Bowl to face the Irish. One who was not pleased with the early selection of Notre Dame as the Buffs’ opponent was Miami head coach Dennis Erickson. “Making the selections for bowls as early as they make the selections is ridiculous,” said Erickson, whose Hurricanes moved up to No. 2 in the next poll. “I just don’t think its fair. What happens is somebody ends up with egg on their face.”
Not facing No. 2 Miami on Miami’s home field was a plus, but now the speculation as to Colorado’s status as the nation’s top team could begin. In the Associated Press poll the week after the Notre Dame loss to Penn State, Colorado was No. 1, receiving 45 first place votes. Fifteen other voters, however, cast ballots for other schools for #1. 2nd-ranked Miami received three votes; #3 Georgia Tech received eight; #4 BYU two; with fifth and sixth rated Florida and Texas each receiving one vote.
With a month now to debate Colorado’s ranking, the Missouri game crept back into the discussion. “In this voter’s mind,” said Andy Gardiner of The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press, “they lost the game. By the grace of an awful mistake, they got something they didn’t earn and didn’t deserve.” Miami’s Dennis Erickson could not help but to weigh as well, lobbying for his Hurricanes. “There is not an asterisk after their record that means the win doesn’t count,” said Erickson. “The people voting will look at that …. You’d think they would.”
McCartney, though, was undaunted by the ranking. “We’ve won nine games in a row. Has any other team done that?” asked McCartney. “To be ranked No. 1 for the second year in a row for the entire month of December, probably, is great for our program, and it certainly helps our recruiting. I don’t see any negatives.”
On to Miami.
Obtaining a No. 1 national ranking is a momentous event. Until 1989, the Buffs had never reached the summit of college football. Now Colorado would carry the No. 1 ranking into the Orange Bowl for the second consecutive year. Who would want to shy away from such status?
Me, for one.
An addict of college football, I knew that the month-long period between the final regular season games and the bowls created a void for college football analysts. In order to satiate fans, there had to be something to discuss. A No. 1 team with a loss, a tie, and a controversial win was just what the doctor ordered.
I did not watch the game between No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 18 Penn State, but I did follow its progress. A friend was in town to visit and get in some skiing, and during the Irish/Nittany Lion clash we were, of all places, in a bowling alley. Between frames, I snuck into the bar where the television was tuned to the game. When Penn State kicker Craig Fayak kicked a 34-yard field goal to give Penn State the upset win, I was both excited and upset. Yes, Colorado would now be ranked No. 1, but I would have preferred going into the Orange Bowl as the No. 2 team, with the attention and pressure focused on the Irish.
The scrutiny would now begin, as would the support for Colorado as the nation’s best team. McCartney, at least outwardly, was not concerned. “We don’t have to depend on anybody else,” said the Colorado head coach, “Just like a year ago, if we win the game, we win the title. If we lose, someone else wins it.”
If it only was that simple.
Jockeying for Position
Over the course of the two weeks after Colorado defeated Kansas State, the polls continued to be in flux. The following week, Notre Dame held on to defeat USC, 10-6, to finish 9-2. Second-ranked Miami defeated Syracuse, 33-7, and yet surrendered the No. 2 ranking to idle Georgia Tech. The speculation was that Georgia Tech moved up for two reasons. First, the sentiment was that in a year without a dominant team, unbeaten Georgia Tech deserved as much consideration as any team. Also, there may have been a backlash against Miami, its coach, Dennis Erickson, and its athletic director, Sam Jankovich, who were campaigning hard for Miami to be named as the nation’s No. 1 in the event Colorado lost to Notre Dame.
Colorado’s stake to No. 1 became even more tenuous, as four more voters defected, giving Colorado 41 first place votes to ten for Georgia Tech (nine other votes were still spread amongst four other teams). While it was generally conceded that the Buffs would close out the competition with an Orange Bowl win, speculation was running rampant as to the Buffs’ successor in the event of an Irish victory.
The final week of the season saw Miami win again, 30-28 over San Diego State, but drop yet another spot in the polls. 10-1 Texas (with its only loss to Colorado) moved up to third with a 28-27 win over Texas A & M. Florida and BYU lost, solidifying the votes for No. 1. In the final poll before the bowl games, Colorado received 42 first place votes; Georgia Tech 16; and Texas two.
There were several possibilities remaining.
If Colorado defeated Notre Dame, the discussion would come to an end with Colorado being awarded the national title. If the Buffs lost, it was up to Georgia Tech. If the Yellow Jackets defeated Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl, they could claim the title. If both Colorado and Georgia Tech lost, the winner of the Texas/Miami Cotton Bowl would have the best claim to #1. Fifth-ranked Notre Dame was a long shot at best.
Early on January 1st, Miami took care of business by mauling Texas, 46-3. While the Hurricanes were doing all they could to lay claim to a fourth national title in eight seasons, Georgia Tech closed the Hurricanes out of the championship debate with a 45-21 drubbing of Nebraska in the Florida Citrus Bowl.
The Cotton Bowl and the Florida Citrus Bowl were long over before Colorado and Notre Dame took the field for the Orange Bowl. The Buffs, and the nation, knew where Colorado stood. Defeat the Irish, and the national title belonged to Colorado. A loss would give the championship to Georgia Tech.
Or so it appeared.
Associated Press Poll – November 19, 1990
1. Colorado – regular season complete
2. Miami – beat Syracuse, 33-7
3. Georgia Tech – bye week
4. BYU – beat Utah State, 45-10
5. Florida – bye week
6. Texas – beat Baylor, 23-13
7. Notre Dame – beat No. 18 USC, 10-6
8. Florida State – bye week
9. Washington – regular season complete
10. Nebraska – lost to Oklahoma, 45-10
Associated Press Poll – November 26, 1990
1. Colorado – regular season complete
2. Georgia Tech – beat Georgia, 40-23
3. Miami – beat San Diego State, 30-28
4. BYU – lost to Hawaii, 59-28
5. Texas – beat Texas A&M, 28-27
6. Florida – lost to No. 8 Florida State, 45-30
7. Notre Dame – regular season complete
8. Florida State – beat No. 6 Florida, 45-30
9. Washington – regular season complete
10. Penn State – regular season complete
Associated Press Poll – December 3, 1990
2. Georgia Tech
5. Notre Dame
6. Florida State
7. Penn State