National and Big Eight recap – 1986

In 1986, Penn State finished what its players considered to be the unfinished business from the 1985 season, going 12-0 to claim for Coach-of-the-Year Joe Paterno the school’s second national title in five years.

In 1985, the Nittany Lions had gone unbeaten in the regular season, only to fall 25-10 to national champion Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.  In 1986, Penn State again finished the regular season 11-0, but this time the bowl result was different, as the Nittany Lions from State College, Pennsylvania, defeated the Miami Hurricanes in the Fiesta Bowl, 14-10.

Penn State relied mainly upon its tough defense to carry the team, led by linebacker Shane Conlan.  The running game did hold its own, though.  D.J. Dozier led the team with 811 yards and 10 touchdowns, with sophomore Blair Thomas contributing 504 yards and six scores.  The Heisman Trophy in 1986 was awarded to Vinny Testaverde, quarterback for national championship runner-up Miami.

As had been the case in 1985, the Oklahoma Sooners ruled the Big Eight, going undefeated in conference play.

As was also the case in 1985, the Sooners capped off an 11-1 season with an Orange Bowl victory.  Unlike 1985, though, the bowl win, a convincing 42-8 win over Arkansas, did not merit a national championship.  A 28-16 setback to Miami in the season’s third game forced Oklahoma to settle for a third place final ranking, even though the Sooners led the nation in scoring (42.4 pts. per game), scoring defense (6.6 pts. per game), rushing, rushing defense, passing defense, and (not surprisingly) total defense.

Nebraska finished 10-2, recording its 25th consecutive winning season.  Beating LSU 30-15 in the Sugar Bowl merited a 5th place spot for Nebraska in the final poll. The Cornhuskers’ two losses in 1986 were both in Big Eight play, losing only to Oklahoma and Colorado, with the latter loss being the first such setback since 1967.

Great Expectations in Boulder

For the first time in my seven years at the University of Colorado, the upcoming football season was eagerly anticipated, and not just be me.  Mind you, I have always looked forward to the coming of fall, but the 1985-86 off-season year was different.  For a change, Colorado was supposed to do well, and the entire campus was abuzz with anticipation.

I wanted to believe.

But I had been fooled before.

Coming to Boulder as a freshman, I was met with Great Expectations.  Not the Charles Dickens kind, but the “Chuck Fairbanks is a coaching genius and now, with a year under his belt, he will take the team to new heights” kind of expectations.

I believed.

The result:  a 1-10 record in 1980.

After the 1983 campaign, when the Buffs had finished 4-7 in Bill McCartney’s second year, the upcoming 1984 season was seen as the next step towards restoring a winning tradition.  McCartney had improved from two wins to four wins in his first two years, so six wins were realistic, weren’t they?

I believed.

The result:  a 1-10 record in 1984.

Now, after a 7-5 record in 1985, the sky was the limit. For a change, I wasn’t alone in fostering high hopes for the upcoming season … Even the national pre-season magazines were believers.

In Inside Sports, the Buffs were projected to finish with a 7-4 record, a third place finish in the Big Eight, and an Aloha Bowl birth.  Athlon’s Big Eight Football report, in picking the Buffs to finish fourth in the conference, had this to say:  “Optimism is high at Colorado.  The Buffaloes have a veteran defense, an outstanding punter, and a quarterback who’s come of age in the wishbone.”

Granted, the 1986 Buffs were still a young team. Of the 111 players on the roster, 102 had two or more years of eligibility remaining.

The entire coaching staff returned, which was seen as an important factor in year two of the Colorado wishbone experiment. Eight starters returned to  a defense which had been ranked 17th in the nation in 1985. “The strength of our team is on defense,” said Bill McCartney, reigning Big Eight Coach-of-the-Year, “as our linebackers and starting secondary are particularly experienced.”

On offense, the running game was still the focus. In switching to the wishbone, Colorado had gone in last in the nation in rushing to 9th. Junior Mark Hatcher (539 yards rushing, team-high ten touchdowns) returned, as did leading rusher Anthony Weatherspoon (569 yards), also a junior.

Center Eric Coyle, a senior, was the anchor of the offensive line. According to McCartney, Coyle “is the best center in the Big Eight, and one of the best I’ve ever been associated with”.

The kicking game, with the return of All-American punter Barry Helton, would also benefit from the return of kicker Dave DeLine. The sophomore kicker had been suspended for all of 1985 for violating team rules, but had returned with determination, making 80% of his field goal attempts during spring practice (all from over 35 yards).

The schedule for Colorado was the same in 1986 as it had been in 1985, with the same four non-conference opponents – Colorado State, Oregon, Ohio State and Arizona. In 1985, the Buffs had used a 3-1 non-conference record as a springboard for the first winning season for the program since 1978. “We’re going to try and duplicate what we did a year ago,” said McCartney. “In order to do that, it’s paramount to win any close games we get in, particularly against our non-conference opponents. We won most of those games a year ago, so figure on that being our goal to aim at going into the season.”

The schedule, as noted, had the same 11 opponents from 1985, which included several games against teams ranked in the preseason polls. In the national polls, Oklahoma opened the season as the nation’s No. 1 team, with Nebraska ranked 8th. The only other 1986 opponent appearing in the preseason poll was Ohio State, coming in at No. 9.

While it was true that Colorado would face three top ten teams over the course of the 1986 season, there was optimism aplenty that the Buffs would be able to improve on their 7-5 record from 1985.

There was much to be anticipated as the 1986 season kicked off.

Great Expectations.

We should have known better …



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