Can a national championship be won by default? Some people, skeptical of Brigham Young University's football credentials, are beginning to think so. By virtue of this week's promotion to No. 1 in both wire service polls, BYU stands an excellent chance of pinning down the top ranking for the season, and the mythical national title that goes with the honor. ''But who have they played?'' ask those who feel the Cougars face few, if any, tough opponents. (The National Collegiate Athletic Association rated BYU's schedule 96th toughest among major colleges last week.)
For that reason, 1984 could be remembered more in a negative sense - as the year other teams lost the championship more than Brigham Young won it.
That may not be fair, but it's realistic to believe such conclusions will be drawn.
After all, the writers and coaches have been reluctant to make the Cougars No. 1 in their respective polls.
Only after four other schools - Auburn, Texas, Nebraska, and Washington - passed around the top spot like a hot spud, was it tossed to BYU, the only remaining perfect-record team. No one from the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) has ever enjoyed this lofty status, and the highest Brigham Young has ever been in the season-end poll was seventh last year.
This fall the Cougars had crept up in the polls with all the fanfare of wet cement, finally reaching the top when the only two teams still ahead of them - Nebraska and South Carolina - lost last Saturday.
Meanwhile BYU was extending the nation's longest winning streak to 22 games with a 24-14 victory over Utah. Because of a rule that permits teams that play in Hawaii a 12th game, Brigham Young still has to play Utah State Saturday, but a ninth consecutive WAC crown and a sixth consecutive Holiday Bowl berth are already in the bag.
Even before BYU became No. 1, there was talk that some bigger, more prestigious bowl, such as the Fiesta, might go after the Cougars, who are contractually obligated to play in San Diego on Dec. 21 as the WAC champion. For the right price, some speculated, Holiday Bowl officials might be enticed into letting Brigham Young play elsewhere.
Last week, however, the BYU athletic department announced it would live up to its post-season commitment. The New York Times reported this decision disappointed team members, but Coach LaVell Edwards felt it was a principled decision. ''By leaving, we would have been putting a price tag on the (national) title,'' he told the Times. ''Besides, they (the Holiday Bowl) took us when we were 8-3 and not that good.''
John Reid, the executive director of the Holiday Bowl, says his organization is quite aware of its responsibility to come up with a worthy opponent for the Cougars. ''The pressure is on us a little more to go for a ranking (team) more than anything and give BYU its best shot at winning the national championship.''
One might think opponents would be lining up for the chance to play the nation's top-ranked team.That's not necessarily the case, though, since some schools are already locked into other bowl engagements by conference tie-ins. Other schools, meanwhile, may be looking for more money than the Holiday Bowl offers, or greater TV exposure (Mizlou carries the game). Still, a team like Notre Dame, which doesn't need the money and is out of major bowl consideration, might be hard pressed to find a better destination.
During its six year existence, the Holiday Bowl has filled out the dance card with Navy, Indiana, Southern Methodist, Washington State, Ohio State, and Missouri. All but one of these games was decided by a touchdown or less, and several have been high-scoring thrillers, including 38-37, 46-45, and 38-36 finishes.
Brigham Young, with its aerial circus, can always be counted on to provide plenty of offense. This year, the school's tradition of producing outstanding quarterbacks has been kept intact by junior Robbie Bosco.
Despite their enviable passing game, the Cougars generally get short shrift from the media. Partly, perhaps, because they are off the beaten path in Utah, and then too, because of that soft schedule. BYU, of course, hasn't intentionally loaded up with lesser teams. In fact, Pitt and Baylor were noteworthy hurdles at the beginning of this season. It's just that once the WAC games begin the competition often seems token. Tough decisions
Second-guessers may question Tom Osborne's coaching decisions, but they can't knock his courage.During the last year the Nebraska coach has twice gone for the win in critical situations and seen his top-ranked Cornhuskers come up short in each case. Both times, a tie would have been as good as a win in some ways.
The latest scenario occurred in last Saturday's showdown with Oklahoma, when Osborne elected to go for a touchdown late in the game rather than kick a chip-shot field goal on fourth down and a foot to the end zone. Oklahoma's defense rose up to stop an attempted sweep around the left end. If Nebraska had tied the game, then held on, the 'Huskers would have won the Big Eight title and secured an Orange Bowl bid. As it is, Oklahoma went on to win 17-7 and set up a game for all the conference marbles against Oklahoma State this Saturday. Nebraska could still back into the conference title, but only if the Oklahoma shootout is a standoff.
The other gutsy call Osborne made came in last January's Orange Bowl, when a kicked extra point would have given Nebraska an undefeated season and the national championship. Instead, he called for a two-point conversion attempt, which failed, giving Miami a 31-30 victory and the season's No. 1 ranking.