clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

We need to talk about 1984, one of college football’s wildest seasons ever

One moment from the 1984 season has become part of college football lore, but really, the entire season should be.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

USC v Boston College Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images

If college football had a package of materials with which to sell itself to potential investors, Doug Flutie’s 1984 Hail Mary against Miami would be in it.

Flutie’s stature, Brent Musburger’s call, BC’s top-five finish (documented in my book, The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All Time), the belly shirt ... everything about this play — and the entire game, really — was perfect.

The play almost did us all a disservice, however, for one simple reason: it distracted us from the fact that the entire season was nutty.

We hold the 2007 college football season in the highest possible regard, and justifiably so. After decades of establishing a hierarchy for the sport and only randomly straying from it, college football allowed almost every fan base the opportunity to dream big that fall and gave us an almost unprecedented number of shocking results.

If any season can compete with 2007, though, it is 1984. In the first game of the season, the No. 1 team in the country fell, and the national title wasn’t officially determined until the very last game, when the No. 2 team fell in part because of the Sooner Schooner.

A season that began with Auburn on top ended with about the fourth-best BYU team of the decade winning the title. No college football season has been as relentlessly surprising as this one. So let’s talk about it.

First, let’s set the table.

The 1970s were dominated by a handful of blue-bloods. Nine teams — Alabama, USC, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State, and Texas — combined for 66 top-10 finishes and nine of 10 AP national titles. It was maybe the most homogenous, predictable decade in history.

The 1980s upset the apple cart. In 1980, Georgia, with one top-10 finish in the last eight years, rode a freshman running back named Herschel Walker and tight finishes to a surprising title. In 1981, Danny Ford’s Clemson did almost the same thing. Penn State won its first AP title in 1982. In 1983, Miami, a school that had considered dropping football just a few years before, upset a brilliant Nebraska to snare a shocking title.

The Hurricanes would win three more over the next decade, and Florida State would soon become a dynasty as well.

So in 1984, fans were conditioned for surprises. And still, no one was prepared for what was to come.

With Nebraska losing a lot of contributors and no one really believing Miami was real, voters made Auburn (powered by all-everything Bo Jackson) your preseason No. 1. That should have been our first clue that things were going to get weird.

AP top 10, 1984 preseason

  1. Auburn
  2. Nebraska
  3. Pitt
  4. Clemson
  5. UCLA
  6. Texas
  7. Ohio State
  8. Notre Dame
  9. Alabama
  10. Miami

This honestly might have been the least accurate preseason poll ever. Seven of these 10 would lose at least four games, and two (3-7-1 Pitt and 5-6 Notre Dame) would finish with losing records. And the upsets began, technically, before Week 1.

Week 0

  • No. 10 Miami 20, No. 1 Auburn 18 in East Rutherford

The Supreme Court’s NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma case had been settled in the summer. It found that the NCAA’s attempt to control television rights violated antitrust laws, and the number of televised games, already on the rise, would soon explode.

This was the second made-for-TV Kickoff Classic game, following Penn State-Nebraska in 1983. Miami held Jackson to 96 yards, while the Hurricanes’ Bernie Kosar threw for 329 yards, and a late field goal sent the defending champs right back to No. 1.

Week 1

  • BYU 20, No. 3 Pitt 14 in Pittsburgh

Pitt, in its first year without Dan Marino, wasn’t good. No one knew it at the time, so this win gave BYU — unranked in the preseason despite an 11-1, top-10 1983 — the rankings boost it required. The Cougars leaped to 13th and would rise to eighth one crazy weekend later.

Week 2

  • No. 14 Michigan 22, No. 1 Miami 14 in Ann Arbor
  • Purdue 23, No. 7 Notre Dame 21 in West Lafayette
  • No. 18 Boston College 38, No. 9 Alabama 31 in Birmingham
  • Oklahoma State 45, No. 12 Arizona State 3 in Tempe

This was the first of eight regular-season weekends with at least three teams in the top 11 falling. Jimmy Johnson’s Miami suffered a post-Auburn letdown, Notre Dame became the first of multiple top-10 teams to lose in West Lafayette, Flutie made a Heisman statement in an upset of Alabama, and Pat Jones’ first Oklahoma State team (he succeeded Johnson) made a statement.

Week 3

  • No. 16 Washington 20, No. 3 Michigan 11 in Ann Arbor
  • No. 12 Penn State 20, No. 5 Iowa 17 in Iowa City
  • No. 4 Texas 35, No. 11 Auburn 27 in Austin

A week after beating Miami, Michigan welcomed maybe the best team (even if no one knew it yet) and watched its own title hopes extinguished. Three top-11 teams lost, and this was one of the tamest weeks of the year.

Week 4

  • No. 20 Georgia 26, No. 2 Clemson 23 in Athens
  • No. 15 Florida State 38, No. 4 Miami 3 in Miami
  • No. 1 Nebraska 42, No. 8 UCLA 3 in Pasadena
  • No. 6 BYU 18, Hawaii 13 in Manoa

Your eventual national champ barely survived a trip to Hawaii. But no one at the time was seriously considering BYU a contender, especially with new No. 1 Nebraska — the team that has just romped through most of 1983 — obliterating UCLA in the Rose Bowl as Doug Dubose and Jeff Smith combined for 227 rushing yards and two scores.

Elsewhere, Miami’s title hopes were put to rest by a blowout loss to FSU (not sure if this Johnson fellow has what it takes to succeed Howard Schnellenberger), and in maybe the most intense rivalry of the early-1980s, post-Herschel Georgia eked by second-ranked Clemson. What a fun damn day.

Week 5

  • Syracuse 17, No. 1 Nebraska 9 in Syracuse
  • No. 2 Texas 28, No. 4 Penn State 3 in Austin
  • LSU 23, No. 15 USC 3 in Los Angeles

Just a week after the Huskers’ “We’re still the best team in football” statement, they suffered a stunner. Syracuse gained just 224 yards but forced three Husker turnovers, and in the third quarter, the immortal Todd Norley hit Mike Siano for a 40-yard, go-ahead score.

Cuse would lose their next three games, but their work was done: this season was officially off the rails.

Week 6

  • Purdue 28, No. 2 Ohio State 23 in West Lafayette
  • Memphis 17, No. 6 Florida State 17 in Tallahassee
  • No. 8 Nebraska 17, No. 9 Oklahoma State 3 in Lincoln
  • No. 14 Miami 31, No. 16 Notre Dame 13 in South Bend
  • Michigan State 19, No. 13 Michigan 7 in Ann Arbor

Nebraska’s loss moved Texas to No. 1 and Ohio State to No. 2. The Buckeyes immediately fell in West Lafayette, sealed with a pick six by a sophomore named Rod Woodson.

That might not have been the strangest result of the day. Rey Dempsey’s Memphis Tigers would go 5-5-1, barely getting by UL Lafayette and losing to Tulane. But the Tigers held emerging FSU to just 56 yards passing and forced Bobby Bowden to settle for a 42-yard field goal to salvage a tie. (College football overtimes were still more than a decade away.)

Week 7

  • No. 1 Texas 15, No. 3 Oklahoma 15 in Dallas
  • No. 16 Auburn 42, No. 9 Florida State 41 in Tallahassee
  • Alabama 6, No. 11 Penn State 0 in Tuscaloosa
  • No. 8 Ohio State 45, Illinois 38 in Columbus

Barry Switzer is still bitter about almost certainly the most controversial OU-Texas game of all time. The Sooners, disappointing in recent years, had surged to No. 3 among all of the season’s nonsense, and they outplayed top-ranked Texas on a rainy Saturday.

In the final minutes, OU’s Keith Stanberry appeared to make a clean interception of a Todd Dodge pass, but officials ruled it incomplete, and replay review was still a couple of decades from existence. UT kicked a game-tying field goal to save its unbeaten record, if not its No. 1 ranking.

The controversy drowned out a wild game in Tallahassee. Without Jackson, Auburn survived 357 passing yards from FSU’s Eric Thomas and a 24-7 second-half run from the Noles to win in the closing seconds. Whew.

Week 8

  • No. 20 West Virginia 21, No. 4 Boston College 20 in Morgantown
  • No. 10 LSU 36, No. 16 Kentucky 10 in Lexington
  • No. 1 Washington 17, Oregon 10 in Seattle
  • No. 2 Oklahoma 12, Iowa State 10 in Ames
  • No. 3 Texas 24, Arkansas 18 in Austin
  • No. 7 BYU 30, Air Force 25 in Colorado Springs
  • No. 8 Ohio State 23, Michigan State 20 in East Lansing
  • No. 11 South Carolina 36, Notre Dame 32 in South Bend

In 1983, Nebraska had nearly gone wire-to-wire, holding its No. 1 ranking all the way until the Orange Bowl.

By mid-October 1984, we were already on our fifth No. 1 team. Don James’ best Washington team to date had followed up the win at Michigan with a series of blowouts, but the Huskies nearly blew it right away, needing special teams scores to overcome 109 total yards and an upset bid from Oregon.

No. 4 BC fell in a dramatic finish in Morgantown, but this was a week of almosts, with five of the top eight (and each of the top three) barely surviving upset bids. For now.

Week 9

  • Kansas 28, No. 2 Oklahoma 11 in Lawrence
  • Wisconsin 16, No. 6 Ohio State 14 in Madison
  • Notre Dame 30, No. 7 LSU 22 in Baton Rouge
  • No. 3 Texas 13, No. 14 SMU 7 in Austin
  • No. 18 West Virginia 17, No. 19 Penn State in Morgantown
  • No. 10 Oklahoma State 20, Colorado 14 in Stillwater

Kansas 28, Oklahoma 11. Kansas 28, Oklahoma 11! That was a thing that happened! The Jayhawks had enjoyed only one winning seasons in the last eight and were about to embark on a stretch of five wins from 1986-88. But with starting Sooner QB Danny Bradley hurt, OU briefly bottomed out in Lawrence.

Overwhelmed freshman QB Troy Aikman’s line against KU: 2-for-14 for eight yards with three interceptions. That’s a career-ender. Yep, nothing else became of this Aikman fellow.

Oh yeah, and No. 6 and No. 7 both lost, and Texas barely survived SMU. This was just run-of-the-mill at this point.

Week 10

  • No. 2 Texas 13, Texas Tech 10 in Lubbock
  • No. 5 South Carolina 35, NC State 28 in Raleigh
  • No. 13 Florida 24, No. 11 Auburn 3 in Gainesville
  • Virginia 27, No. 12 West Virginia 7 in Morgantown

A respite. After a frankly exhausting first two months, the first weekend in November was strangely calm, as only two top-five teams nearly lost to unranked opponents.

As it turns out, 1984 was simply saving energy.

Week 11

  • No. 14 USC 16, No. 1 Washington 7 in Los Angeles
  • Houston 29, No. 3 Texas 15 in Austin
  • Maryland 42, No. 6 Miami 40 in Miami
  • No. 5 South Carolina 38, No. 11 Florida State 26 in Columbia
  • No. 10 Florida 27, No. 8 Georgia 0 in Jacksonville

Five of the top 11 beaten, and that doesn’t even tell half the story. Washington misplaced its offense in the bowels of the L.A. Coliseum, and that was only the start of it.

Washington chose a great week to lose because, while it hurt the national title cause, no one really noticed. They were too busy reacting to the greatest comeback in college football history.

The average fan knows the BC-Miami game and has a vague understanding that the Hurricanes also once suffered a humongous comeback loss to comeback master Frank Reich and Maryland. The average fan might not realize that those two things happened in the same damn month.

I’m telling you, Miami is just settling for mediocrity with this Johnson guy.

Week 12

By Week 12, the polls were drunk. Nebraska was back to No. 1, while three teams that had began unranked — South Carolina, BYU, and Oklahoma State — were filling in the next three spots. Florida, which started 1-1-1 and lost head coach Charley Pell to resignation after the NCAA uncovered a second round of violations, was your No. 5 team despite a postseason ban.

Florida and OSU would narrowly survive upset bids. The top two wouldn’t get as lucky.

  • No. 6 Oklahoma 17, No. 1 Nebraska 7 in Lincoln
  • Navy 38, No. 2 South Carolina 21 in Annapolis
  • UCLA 29, No. 7 USC 10 in Pasadena
  • Mississippi State 16, No. 9 LSU 14 in Starkville
  • No. 4 Oklahoma State 16, Iowa State 10 in Stillwater
  • No. 5 Florida 25, Kentucky 17 in Lexington
  • No. 18 Auburn 21, No. 15 Georgia 12 in Auburn
  • No. 10 Texas 44, No. 12 TCU 23 in Fort Worth

For OU, this was the first of four straight wins over Nebraska, and it put the Sooners back into the title hunt three weeks after the loss to Kansas. Meanwhile, South Carolina’s Cinderella run came to a jolting halt with a listless performance against Navy.

Week 13

  • No. 10 Boston College 47, No. 12 Miami 45 in Miami
  • No. 2 Oklahoma 24, No. 3 Oklahoma State 14 in Norman
  • Baylor 24, No. 6 Texas 10 in Waco
  • Notre Dame 19, No. 14 USC 7 in Los Angeles
  • No. 9 South Carolina 22, Clemson 21 in Clemson

I guess it makes perverse sense that the weekend of Flutie’s Hail Mary was one of the most straight-forward weekends of the season. With new No. 1 BYU minding its own business (the Cougars handled Utah State, 38-13), Oklahoma kept OSU at arm’s reach in the biggest Bedlam ever, and only one other top-13 team fell.

Yep, a pretty boring weekend despite, you know, one of the most famous games in football history and a No. 2 vs. No. 3 rivalry.

Week 14

At this point, the bowl matchups were mostly established. But we still had a couple of memorable rivalry games.

  • No. 3 Florida 27, No. 12 Florida State 17 in Tallahassee
  • Alabama 17, No. 11 Auburn 15 in Birmingham

On fourth-and-goal with time ticking down, Bo Jackson missed an assignment, going the wrong way on a sweep and allowing the Tide to defeat the Tigers for the first time in three years. Wrong Way Bo was approximately the 114th-most memorable moment of the 1984 season.

Bowls

  • No. 1 BYU 24, Michigan 17 in the Holiday Bowl
  • No. 4 Washington 28, No. 2 Oklahoma 17 in the Orange Bowl

As WAC champion, BYU was obligated to play in the Holiday Bowl against a 6-5 Michigan. Granted, Michigan was pretty good. The Wolverines were a top-15 team for the first half of the season before losing sophomore quarterback Jim Harbaugh and losing three of five to finish the regular season. With a healthy Harbaugh, they would damn near win the national title in 1985.

Michigan picked off BYU’s Robbie Bosco three times and held a 17-10 lead in the fourth quarter, but two late Bosco TD passes — one to Glen Kozlowski and one to Kelly Smith — sealed a comeback.

Would it be enough? If No. 2 OU could beat No. 4 Washington in the Orange Bowl, could the Sooners catch the Cougars in the polls?

We wouldn’t find out because the season had one last moment of sheer absurdity.

Washington got a shot at the Sooners only because the loss to USC knocked the Huskies out of the Rose Bowl (in which the Trojans took down No. 6 Ohio State). Regardless, they quickly held a 14-0 lead before OU stormed back.

It was 14-14 in the fourth quarter when OU made a short, go-ahead field goal. Only, the Sooners were called for illegal procedure because of a player wearing an illegal number, and no one told the guy driving the Sooner Schooner. The horses came onto the field, and the officials called OU for unsportsmanlike conduct. Washington blocked the ensuring 42-yard field goal.

Did it impact the result? Probably not. OU took the lead, 17-14, a few minutes later, but Washington scored twice late to win, 28-17. But it was only proper for this season to end with one last bit of silliness.

If there had been a Playoff in 1984 (and if it didn’t ignore good mid-majors like the current one does), we’d have gotten something like No. 1 OU vs. No. 4 Ohio State and No. 2 Washington vs. No. 3 BYU.

And since this wasn’t one of LaVell Edwards’ best BYU teams, Washington probably takes the title.

Instead, the Huskies came up 20 points short in the final AP poll, and BYU scored a national title that people would continue to resent decades later.

College football would soon right its footing, and bluebloods would soon dominate again. Oklahoma, Penn State, and Miami (a blueblood at some point soon, at least) would go a combined 66-6 in 1985-86 — 4-4 against each other and 62-2 against everyone else — and by the end of the decade Miami and fellow new-money power FSU would run the sport along with a resurgent Notre Dame.

Granted, things would get super weird again in 1990, but 1984 was the glorious finale for a half-decade of true oddity.

SMU v BYU
LaVell Edwards