The 1978 season ended with Alabama beating undefeated and top-ranked Penn State in the Sugar Bowl 14-7. USC wrapped up their year with a 17-10 win over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Both teams had one loss. Fortunately they had played head-to-head and USC won--in Birmingham no less. Yet the Tide still wound up with a share of the crown. USC had played a reasonable schedule--in addition to 'Bama, they had beaten an eight-win team in Michigan State, a nine-win team in Arizona State and went through a tough November trio of Washington, UCLA and Notre Dame, teams with a combined record of 23-10. What possible reason would there be to overturn the results of a head-to-head game? Alabama had beaten the #1 team in a bowl game, but it wasn't as though Penn State was considered one of the great teams of all time. Alabama had a great year, one deserving of finishing #2 in the nation. USC deserved to be #1.
To read more about the 1978 & 1990 seasons and all the other great moments and heated arguments of New Year's Day college football, check out Dan Flaherty's book The Last New Year's.
1990 was one of the most tumultuous seasons in college football history, one that rivaled 2007 for chaos. In the midst of the chaos, Georgia Tech churned out a 10-0-1 record, and was the only undefeated team in the country. Colorado had gone 9-1-1 and was in position to be the first team with more than one blemish to be crowned national champion (LSU would later join them in '07). Georgia Tech's schedule wasn't brutal, but they had played a steady diet of decent teams--N.C. State, South Carolina, Maryland and Virginia Tech all finished with winning records. The Jackets met their two big tests, with a win over Virginia on the road at a time when the Cavs were #1 in the nation, and another win over Clemson. At the time, the ACC wasn't tied into a major bowl game so its champion went to the Florida Citrus Bowl (today called the Capital One Bowl). Fortunately Tech drew Nebraska, a team Colorado had dismantled in November, so there could be a true test for comparing the teams. Tech put on its own thrashing of the Cornhuskers 45-21. Yet they still needed to sweat the vote. Colorado beat Notre Dame 10-9, a win preserved when an Irish punt return for a touchdown in the closing minutes was called back. Tech won the coaches' poll by a single vote, a conclusion that leads one to speculate that they needed ND's nullified heroics to change the minds of at least one voter. None of this was necessary. Georgia Tech was the only unbeaten team in America. They had played a reasonable schedule. They hammered the same team who was Colorado's best scalp. They should have won both polls without having to sweat.
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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in college football ,game analysis in the NFL. and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.