National and Big Eight recap – 1988

Notre Dame reclaimed its status as one of the nation’s premier college football teams with its first unbeaten season since 1973, going 12-0 to capture its 13th national championship.

Led by quarterback Tony Rice, the Irish defeated previously unbeaten West Virginia, 34-21, in the Fiesta Bowl. The Irish Heisman trophy winner from 1987, Tim Brown, had left for the NFL, but Notre Dame remained fully stocked in 1988. Sophomore flanker Ricky Watters and freshman split end Raghib Ismail supplied speed to the offense, with linebacker Mike Stonebreaker teaming with defensive lineman Frank Stams and Chris Zorich to lead the defense. Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz shared coach of the year honors with Don Nehlen of West Virginia.

For the fourth year in a row, and for the ninth year in the past ten, one team went undefeated in Big Eight play.

After a dominating run by Oklahoma through the mid 1980’s, it was Nebraska’s turn to run the table in 1988. The Cornhuskers went 11-1 in the regular season, falling only to UCLA, 41-28. In the Orange Bowl, however, Nebraska managed only 135 in total offense, succumbing to Miami, 23-3. Nebraska finished ranked 10th, followed closely at  No. 11 by Oklahoma State, which closed its season with a 62-14 rout of Wyoming in the Holiday Bowl.

Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders won the Heisman trophy, leading the Cowboys to a 10-2 season marred only by losses to the Big Two. For its part, Oklahoma returned to the status of a mortal team, going 9-3 in Barry Switzer’s last season, falling to a final ranking of No. 14 after a loss to Clemson, 13-6, in the Citrus Bowl.

Colorado, the Big Eight’s only other bowl representative, closed out an 8-4 campaign with a 21-17 loss to BYU in the Holiday Bowl.

New Goals – Preseason 1988

The Colorado Buffaloes entered 1988 on the heels of three consecutive winning regular seasons.

Such a feat was a given for the Oklahoma’s and Nebraska’s of the football world, but these winning campaigns represented to Colorado an emergence after almost a solid decade of losing. “I think we need to recognize that we are entering into another three-year period of the program’s development”, said head coach Bill McCartney, entering his seventh campaign. “If you look at the first three years of this program, it was strictly a time of trying to gain respect and install a foundation. The last three years has generated a certain level of consistency with three winning seasons.”

What did McCartney foresee for the Buffs= immediate future?

“Over the next three seasons, we want to emerge as a top-20 caliber team,@ said McCartney, now sporting a 27-40-1 career record. “We have the physical talent to do it, but whether we have the leadership and the chemistry will be born out as the season unfolds.@

McCartney was certainly correct as to the physical talent.

On offense, which had boasted the fourth-best rushing average in the nation in 1987, a strong line returned to block for a talented stable of running backs, including junior J.J. Flannigan and sophomore Eric Bieniemy. An I-formation was instituted to supplement the wishbone attack of the past three seasons, giving birth to the Buffs= AI-bone@ attack.

“Offensively, this is the strongest personnel that we’ve had on the offensive line since I’ve been here,” said McCartney. “Erik Norgard should have another excellent year at center, and with Joe Garten and Darrin Mullenburg at the guards, we should be very strong up the middle.”

Still, Colorado needed someone to hand off the ball to its talented runners, as the question of who would play quarterback remained undetermined after spring practice. Sal Aunese returned, but the junior sat out spring drills for disciplinary reasons. Backup Marc Walters suffered a knee injury early in spring training, forcing the Buffs to complete the final two weeks of spring ball with walk-on quarterbacks.

“Quarterback during the spring was a catastrophe of sorts,” McCartney said, “but could very well result in being a strong position for us, and is the key to our offense.”

On the defensive side of the ball, the Buffs were weakest in the secondary, where all four starters, including three-time All Big Eight performer Mickey Pruitt, had graduated. The Buffs could rely, though, on a tough front seven, led by two defensive ends from Houston, Alfred Williams and Kanavis McGhee. AI look for us to be a big play defense,@ said McCartney, “one that puts more pressure on the quarterback.@

As for special teams, the Buffs were to be without the services of two-time All-American punter Barry Helton. “I look for the punting game to be just as strong as it’s been,” said McCartney. “We’ve finished in the top three in the nation in net punting each of the past three years with Barry Helton. I don’t see any reason for us to drop with Keith English.”

Overall, then, there was reason for optimism in Boulder as the 1988 season approached.

The schedule also seemed to be one designed for success.

The non-conference slate included Fresno State (6-5 in 1987), Oregon State (2-9) and Colorado State (1-11). Only a road game against Iowa, ranked 9th in the preseason polls, loomed as a likely loss. In the Big Eight, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State would travel to Folsom Field, with a trip to Lincoln to face the Cornhuskers representing the most daunting road game. There were some challenges, but, all in all, Colorado had a schedule which left them poised to make a splash on the national scene.

But the nation was not paying any attention.

When the preseason polls came out, Colorado was barely mentioned. The Sporting News had Colorado as the nation=s 21st-best team, just outside the rankings (rankings did not go to 25 teams until 1990), but the Associated Press and USA Today/CNN coaches= poll did not place the Buffs in their rankings.

The national polls both gave Miami the early No. 1 ranking, with first place votes also afforded to Nebraska, UCLA, Clemson, Oklahoma, and USC.

Colorado was not to be found, even among the “others receiving votes@.

If Colorado was to attract national attention, it would have to be done on the field of play.


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