Bowl games left no doubt: Clemson at top of the heap

The 1981 college football season began with almost everybody convinced Michigan would win the national championship.It ended up with a unanimous No. 1 selection: Clemson. No, make that CLEMSON!

The Tigers literally astounded the experts by rolling up a perfect 12-0 record in a year when six traditional powers let the top ranking slip through their fingers.

Clemson entered the Orange Bowl with hordes of doubters expecting Nebraska to hand the Tigers their comeuppance. Instead, they donned their ''big game,'' all-orange uniforms and leveled the Cornhuskers 22-15.

''Are we the best team in the country?'' Clemson's young coach, Danny Ford, asked rhetorically afterward. ''Well, we're the only team in the country that beat the No. 2 team (Georgia, at the time he spoke), the No. 9 team (North Carolina), and the fourth-ranked team (Nebraska). No matter what they say on the West Coast, in the Southeast, or in the Big Eight, there ain't nobody else that did that this year.''

You'll get no arguments here, Danny. And from the looks of things, you've made believers out of everyone who counts in these matters. The coaches voted you No. 1 in the United Press International poll, the writers followed suit in the Associated Press rankings, and the National Football Foundation's selectors made it three for three.

Oh, yes, and thanks for making it simple. If you'd slipped on an orange peel in Miami, all sorts of folks had visions of backing into the national title. As things happened, you left teams singing a variation on a familiar theme: ''We're No. 2.''

A handful made a case for Avis status, and the wire services reflected the confusion. The AP chose Texas (10-1-1) as its No. 2, while the UPI went with Pittsburgh (11-1-0).

Both schools pulled out exciting bowl victories, Texas over third-ranked Alabama in the Cotton, 14-12, and Pitt over second-ranked Georgia in the Sugar, 24-20.

As for Penn State, however, moving Pittsburgh ahead of the Nittany Lions was ludicrous, a sure sign of the fallibility and injustice of such rankings.

The coaches most assuredly voted strictly on final records, somehow ignoring that Penn State (10-2-0) left no question about its superiority over Pitt during the regular season, burying the Panthers 48-14.

For the record, here are the two Top 10s. First the UPI's: (1) Clemson, (2) Pitt, (3) Penn State, (4) Texas, (5) Georgia, (6) Alabama, (7) Washington, (8) North Carolina, (9) Nebraska, and (10) Michigan.

The AP saw it this way: (1) Clemson, (2) Texas, (3) Penn State, (4) Pitt, (5) Southern Methodist, (6) Georgia, (7) Alabama, (8) Miami, Fla., (9) North Carolina, and (10) Washington.

The appearance of Southern Methodist and Miami in the AP's version of the Top 10, but not the other, points to another quirk of the polls. The AP has a no-holds-barred policy toward ranking teams on NCAA probation, such as SMU and Miami; the UPI does not.

Arizona State, yet another team on probation, wound up 16th in the AP tabulations, and it's no secret that Clemson has undergone an NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting violations.

All this places a cloud over the inner workings of major college football. One would hope that rule-breaking doesn't become synonymous with on-field excellence.

Not surprisingly, Clemson people were none too eager to discuss the NCAA investigation in Miami. They were more intent with the matters at hand, which meant finding a way to defeat favored Nebraska.

The fact that the No. 1 Tigers entered the Orange Bowl as underdogs indicates the low esteem in which some viewed Clemson's accomplishments. The school had never before won a national football championship during its 92-year history, nor had it ever played in one of the four major bowls until New Year's Day. After a lackluster 6-5 record last season, there was little reason to believe the Tigers would even make the Top 20 this time. But anyone who saw the Orange Bowl sensed Clemson was truly worthy of being called the best. Forgotton was the laughable season opener against Wofford College, as quarterback Homer Jordan and the vaunted Tiger defense truly brought hard-earned respect to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The biggest disappointment of the major bowls was the Rose, where Iowa couldn't muster any offense, despite some razzle-dazzle plays early in the game, and fell to Washington 28-0. The loss had to be especially disheartening because of the large number of Hawkeye fans on hand (an estimated 40,000) for what seemed a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the Iowa team. A senior-laden squad, the Hawks could conceivably see the bottom drop out next fall. Not so the Huskies, who, along with Pittsburgh, might line up for the national championship. Washington's defense will remain almost intact, while the offense will return an excellent passer in quarterback Steve Pelluer and freshman running back Jacque Robinson, the Rose Bowl MVP with 142 yards.

Robinson's effort looked all the more impressive when compared with sub-100 -yard outings by Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen in Southern California's 26- 10 Fiesta Bowl loss to Penn State and by Herschel Walker in Georgia's loss to Pitt.

Robinson wasn't the only freshman to shine on New Year's Day. Quarterback Robert Brewer led Texas coolly, setting up the game-winning touchdown with a long completion to Lawrence Sampleton late in the fourth quarter.

Pittsburgh's hero was no greenhorn, but quarterback Dan Marino does return to direct the Panthers for one more year. With only 35 seconds remaining, and facing a fourth-and-5 situation on the Georgia 33, Marino connected with tight end John Brown on a TD play that snuffed out the Bulldogs' chances for back-to-back national crowns.

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