New Year's Day is upon us and that can mean only one thing -- football, football, and more football. The sport has become just as synonymous with this holiday period as party hats and noisemakers.
For the nation's best college teams, bowl games are the pot of gold at the end of an 11-game rainbow (taht being the normal number of games during the fall campaign). New bowls spring into existence every so often; others sputter out, but the plums for bowl watchers and aspirants continue to be the rose, Orange, Cotton, and Sugar.
They are the oldest and most prestigious, to say nothing of the richest. Besides offering participating teams a chance to collect a million or so dollars , the "major" bowls help sort out which team is really No. 1. With no national championship playoff, determining a "mythical" champion falls to writers, broadcasters, and coaches who cast their votes for the season's final Top 20 after New Year's Day.
Ocassionally one bowl has the good fortune to host the first-and second-ranked teams in a clear-cut title bout, as was the case when Ohio State and Southern Cal, a pair of undefeateds, met in the 1969 Rose Bowl.
In other years, such as this one, the results of several bowls may come into play. Georgia, which takes the country's only perfect record into the Sugar Bowl, could secure its place atop the wire-service polls with a victory over eighthranked Notre Dame (9-1-1). But if the Bulldogs stumble, Florida State might scale the heights.
Second-ranked Florida State has completed one of the most dramatic turnarounds in college history during the past two seasons. An independent that was a women's college as recently as 1947, FSU's gridiron fortunes hit rock-bottom in 1973, when the Seminoles went 0-11. Last year, they went 11-0 and secured a berth opposite traditionally powerful Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, where the Cinderella epic ended shortly before midnight with a 24-7 defeat.
A more mature Seminole squad has already garnered some hard-earned respect this season with victories over such biggies as Pittsburgh and Nebraska en route to a 10-1 record and another date against Oklahoma in Miami New Year's night.
Before the Orange Bowl's opening kickoff, Florida State will know whether the national championship's still at stake. That's because the Sugar Bowl is played in the afternoon, putting it in head-to-head competition for TV viewers with Dallas's Cotton Bowl, which also starts at 2 p.m. Eastern time. The Rose Bowl, situated in Pasadena, Calif., follows at 5 p.m, with the Orange Bowl "batting" in the cleanup spot at 8 p.m.
At one time or another, each of the big four bowls has had a must-watch game. The Sugar most nearly fits that description this go-round, with the Rose Bowl offering perhaps its least consequential matchup in years (No. 5 Michigan, 9-2, against No. 16 Washington, 9-2). This is not to say the 100,000 who jam Pasadena's famed oval won't find the action exciting -- there just won't be as much on the line. The Cotton Bowl finds itself in a somewhat similar situation, with Alabama (9-2) taking on surprising Baylor (10-1), the Southwest Conference champion, in a battle of the nation's sixth-and seventh-ranked teams.
The Sugar Bowl doesn't even rate as a once-in-a-decade dream game, though it once appeared to have that potential. Notre Dame fell from No. 2 after Southern Cal administered a 20-3 defeat to the Irish in the regular season finale.
The loss may have eliminated all but the faintest national title hopes for one Sugar Bowl contestant, yet the game is still eagerly anticipated.
It should be charged with extra emotion for the Irish, who will bid adieu to coach Dan Devine, who earlier in the year announced his plans to retire after the 1980 season. Devine has spent 21 years as a collegiate coach, including the last six in South Bend, Ind. For Devine to go out a Winner, Notre Dame will have to defeat the same school that ruined his bowl debut at Missouri in 1960.
Though the Irish lack a solid passing attack, they boast of an offensive line averaging 6 ft. 6 in. and 255 pounds per man; a five-bowl winning streak, and the usual complement of strong runners.
As good as Notre Dame's backs may be, they aren't in the class of Georgia's sensational Herschel Walker, who set a major college rushing record for freshmen with 1,616 yards while accounting for 40 percent of the Bulldogs' offensive production.
Walker hasn't been stopped yet, but could find himself in leg irons if Georgia doesn't mix it up against Notre Dame. The Irish feed on run-oriented teams, and some observers feel their tougher schedule has primed them for the spoiler's role. The New York Times computerized poll, which takes a team's schedule into account, actually sees Notre Dame as the better of the two squads, ranking them six and seven respectively.
Though not always impressive in victory, Georgia feels it has a knack for winning. Now if the Bulldogs don't misplace it, they should march out of New Orleans's Superdome with Georgia's first national championship.