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Fixing the Final 1977 AP College Football Poll

1) Notre Dame 11-1
2) Alabama 11-1
3) Arkansas 11-1
4) Texas 11-1
5) Penn State 11-1
6) Kentucky 10-1
7) Oklahoma 10-2
8) Pittsburgh 9-2-1
9) Michigan 10-2
10) Washington 8-4
11) Ohio State 9-3
12) Nebraska 9-3
13) Southern Cal 8-4
14) Florida State 10-2
15) Stanford 9-3
16) San Diego State 10-1
17) North Carolina State 8-3-1
18) Arizona State 9-3
19) Clemson 8-3-1
20) Brigham Young 9-2
To the left is the final 1977 AP college football top 20. You can access all of these teams' full schedules here: College Football Data Warehouse (amongst a number of other places). The fixed final AP poll, expanded to 25 teams, follows the article below. 

11-1 Notre Dame's 38-10 demolition of previous #1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl vaulted them from #5 to #1 in the final AP poll, passing up 11-1 Alabama despite the Tide whipping Ohio State 35-6 in the Sugar Bowl. This was a thorny issue for many, and the big thorn was 5-6 Mississippi. They gave Notre Dame their only loss 20-13, while Alabama beat Ole Miss 34-13.

Those scores were printed on bumper stickers and t-shirts across the state of Alabama, half of which was thrown into hysteria following the publishing of the final major polls. Alabama fans called their congressmen and senators, and everyone else's. They raged and cried and cursed and wailed and burped and sobbed. They took to the streets and sang the hoary songs of their dear old U. They waved protest signs in Winn-Dixie parking lots. They marched on Washington, D.C., filling the air with Gregorian chants as they flagellated their backs bloody with 9-tailed leather whips.

And sure, you may scoff and ask, "What did all that get them?" Well, it got them a ridiculous #1 vote in 1978. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and the screaming toddler gets the binky. The question is, did they have something to cry about-- should Alabama have been #1 in 1977?
Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana in 1977 green jersey
"Golden Joe" Montana started the season as a 3rd string quarterback. But after Notre Dame lost to 5-6 Mississippi in game 2, and trailed 5-6 Purdue 24-14 the next week, Montana came in and rallied his team for 17 points. The fighting Irish were transformed into a powerhouse thereafter, winning 10 straight and the national championship.

Notre Dame vs. Alabama

Alabama's argument, unfortunately, begins and ends with those Mississippi scores. And if that was the only game either team had played, sure, Alabama should be rated higher. But each team played 11 other games, and that's where Alabama's argument falls apart.

Notre Dame and Alabama played 2 other common opponents aside from Mississippi. Both stomped on 3-8 Miami-Florida (Notre Dame 48-10 on the road, Alabama 36-0 at home), but their performances against #13 Southern Cal (8-4) were as different as those against Mississippi. Notre Dame famously surprised USC with green jerseys, then won 49-19. Alabama, on the other hand, won at USC by only 1 point, 21-20, and it would have been a tie game had USC not gone for 2 points and the win at the end. The Tide was outgained 359 yards to 249 in that game. Notre Dame also won 69-14 over 6-5 Georgia Tech, who happened to romp on 3 of Alabama's opponents: Tennessee 24-8, Auburn 38-21, and Georgia 16-7 (Alabama beat Georgia 18-10).


Notre Dame's 20-13 loss at 5-6 Mississippi is certainly much worse than Alabama's 31-24 loss at #12 Nebraska. But Notre Dame's 38-10 Cotton Bowl win over #4 Texas (11-1) is far better than Alabama's best win, 35-6 over #11 Ohio State (9-3) in the Sugar Bowl. And Notre Dame defeated another top 10 team, winning 19-9 at #8 Pittsburgh (9-2-1). That's 2 top 10 opponents for Notre Dame, and Alabama played none. Notre Dame defeated 4 top 20 teams to Alabama's 2, and 7 winning teams to Alabama's 4. And against that much tougher schedule, Notre Dame outscored their opponents 420-139, Alabama 380-139.

The fact is, with no wins over a top 10 opponent and only 2 over teams ranked #11-20, along with a loss to #12, Alabama simply did not have a national championship worthy season. Had they been voted #1, they would have played the weakest schedule of any #1 team of the last 50 years, other than of course the farce that was Brigham Young in 1984. Notre Dame's 11-1 record and 38-10 Cotton Bowl win over Texas alone merit a national championship. That Texas team had beaten #3 Arkansas and #7 Oklahoma, and they stomped on their other 9 regular season opponents by an average score of 45-11.

In fact, one could fairly ask why Alabama was rated ahead of Texas. Texas' only loss came to #1 Notre Dame, while Alabama lost to #12 Nebraska. And Texas defeated 2 top 10 opponents to none for Alabama, and had no close wins over any other team, whereas Alabama beat 5-6 Georgia 18-10. Then there's Arkansas, whose only loss came to Texas, and who annihilated #7 Oklahoma 31-6 in the Orange Bowl. And how about Oklahoma? They lost only to Arkansas and Texas, and they beat Nebraska 38-7-- and Nebraska, of course, beat Alabama. So if there's any rational debate to be had about Alabama's ranking in 1977, it's not whether they should be #1, but whether or not they were ranked too high at #2.

Texas, Arkansas, and Alabama

Okay, #4 Texas (11-1) lost big in the Cotton (38-10), and #3 Arkansas (11-1) won big in the Orange (31-6), so of course Arkansas looked better on New Year's Day. But Texas was playing #1 Notre Dame, and Arkansas was playing an Oklahoma team that Texas had already beaten (though not as impressively). AP voters can try and rewrite reality all they want, but the fact remains that Texas won 13-9 at Arkansas, and thereby won the SWC outright. Furthermore, no one else even came close to Texas in SWC play. Arkansas beat Texas A&M 26-20 and Texas Tech 17-14, teams Texas routed 57-28 and 26-0. Arkansas' Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma was nice, but it was their only win over a rated opponent, while Texas beat both Arkansas and Oklahoma. Texas was better across the season, 11 games' worth, and to negate all that and the head-to-head win based on one bowl game for each, especially when Arkansas did not have to face #1 Notre Dame themselves, is ridiculous.

So obviously Texas needs to be moved ahead of Arkansas, putting them right behind Alabama and bringing us back to the issue I broached above: does Alabama have a solid case for being rated higher than Texas? Alabama's one argument is that they were very impressive in their bowl game, while Texas was drubbed in theirs. But again, Texas' Cotton Bowl loss came to #1 Notre Dame, who is rated higher than Alabama, and whom Alabama did not have to play themselves. Still, accepting that Alabama's bowl performance was better than that of Texas, and even giving it more weight than the regular season games, that one argument for Alabama is drowned out by the many arguments for Texas.

First of all, Texas lost only to #1 Notre Dame, whereas Alabama lost to #12 Nebraska. For me, that alone is more significant than the bowl results, but there is much more. Texas defeated the #3 (now #4) and #7 teams, while Alabama defeated the #11 and #13 teams, so Texas beat better teams. Furthermore, 8-4 Texas A&M, 6-5 Houston, and 7-5 Texas Tech will all make the fixed and expanded AP top 25, giving Texas 5 wins over the fixed top 25 to Alabama's 2. The SWC had the best record against nonconference opponents this season. Then there's performance. As covered above, Alabama was hella lucky to escape #13 Southern Cal with a 21-20 win, and they needed 5 Georgia turnovers to beat the 5-6 Bulldogs by only 8 points at home. Texas, however, had no close games other than against top 10 opponents. Overall, even with the whipping Notre Dame gave them, Texas outscored their opponents by 289 points, Alabama by 241. And remember that this stronger performance came against a stronger schedule.

So move Texas up ahead of Alabama as well, putting them at #2, Alabama at #3, and Arkansas at #4. I would be inclined to rate Alabama even lower than that, since Arkansas' only loss came to now-#2 Texas, while Alabama lost to #12 Nebraska, and Arkansas performed better on the season against a schedule that was at least comparable (Arkansas outscored opponents by 288 points, Alabama by 241), and their 31-6 Orange Bowl win over #7 Oklahoma even trumps Alabama's 35-6 Sugar Bowl win over #12 Ohio State. On the other hand, Alabama's upset at Nebraska came in game 2, and their close wins came early as well. They were very dominating over their last 7 games, whereas Arkansas struggled to beat 8-4 Texas A&M and 7-5 Texas Tech in November, so I suppose I can hold my nose and allow the AP voters this one, though it won't spare me the angry e-mails I'll be getting from Bama fans.

Texas #2, Alabama #3, Arkansas #4.

Kentucky and Penn State

#6 Kentucky (10-1) won 24-20 at #5 Penn State (11-1), but ended up unjustly ranked behind PSU because they were on probation and could not go bowling. As I've said before, if you're going to rank teams that are on probation, rank 'em right. If you're going to punish them for it, then do like the coaches' poll and omit them from the rankings entirely.

Switch 'em: Kentucky #5, Penn State #6.

Washington

8-4 Washington (#10) ended up ranked ahead of 9-3 Ohio State (#11) and 9-3 Nebraska (#12) because of a huge 27-20 upset of 10-2 Michigan (#9) in the Rose Bowl. That's a great result, but Washington had a crazy 4 losses to unranked opponents this season, which is 4 more than Ohio State and 2 more than Nebraska (who had an upset win of their own, over 11-1 Alabama). After a horrible start to the season, Washington had a great finish, and by the end they probably were better than Ohio State and Nebraska, but that doesn't make up for the fact that they had a significantly worse overall season than both. In a power rating they could be ranked higher, but in that case they should be rated ahead of Michigan as well (and perhaps even higher than that).

8-4 Southern Cal (#13) also had a better relevant record than Washington, but it was only an effective one game better, so Washington's tremendous finish holds more sway in comparison, and on top of that Washington beat Southern Cal 28-10 in November, winning the PAC 8 outright.

Move Ohio State to #10, Nebraska to #11, and Washington to #12.

Florida State and San Diego State

10-1 San Diego State (#16) beat 10-2 Florida State (#14) 41-16 in their 10th game, and ranking them 2 slots lower is just silly.

Drop Florida State behind San Diego State where they belong, to #16, moving Stanford and SD State up one spot each.

Texas A&M

8-4 Texas A&M was left unranked, but they'll be coming in because they suffered no upset losses and they beat 6-5 Houston and 7-5 Texas Tech. Houston was also unranked, but they beat 7-4 UCLA, who will be coming into the fixed top 25, and they beat Texas Tech as well. Texas Tech was unranked too, but they won 10-7 at #17 North Carolina (8-3-1), and should have been ranked higher than NC to begin with. I'll handle Houston, Texas Tech, and UCLA below, but first let's get Texas A&M out of the way.

Unlike every team now ranked #11-20, Texas A&M took all of their losses to teams ranked in the top 13: 57-28 to now-#2 Texas, 26-20 to now-#4 Arkansas, 41-3 to #9 Michigan, and 47-28 to #13 Southern Cal in their bowl game. Three of those losses were very ugly, but let's compare the Aggies to 9-3 Stanford, who now sits at #14. As ugly as A&M's 19 point bowl loss was to Southern Cal, Stanford lost 49-0 to USC, much worse. Stanford also lost 45-21 to Washington, the only other top 13 team they played, so Texas A&M's one close loss to Arkansas was more than Stanford accomplished against power opponents. And Stanford took their 3rd loss to unranked Colorado, while Texas A&M had no upset losses. Finally, Texas A&M had but 1 close win, while Stanford had 4, including 21-17 over 3-8 Tulane and 31-26 over 4-7 San Jose State.

Slam dunk. Move Texas A&M in at #14, dropping Stanford and all the teams behind them one spot each.

Houston and Texas Tech

As mentioned, 6-5 Houston (unranked) beat 7-5 Texas Tech (unranked), who beat 8-3-1 North Carolina (now #18) in Chapel Hill. With Houston properly ranked, Texas Tech has no losses to unranked opponents, and there is thus no reason for them not to be ranked ahead of North Carolina.

So slide Houston and Texas Tech into the rankings at #18 and #19, dropping North Carolina and all the teams behind them 2 spots each. As I said earlier, the SWC was #1 this season in nonconference winning percentage, and it also interesting to note that Texas A&M, Houston, and Texas Tech were all ranked in the 1976 AP top 20, and 2 of them made the 1978 rankings (with the 3rd, 7-4 Texas Tech, making the fixed poll).

UCLA and Washington State

7-4 UCLA and 6-5 Washington State give us 2 more unranked teams that ought to be ranked. Both were upset by an unranked opponent, but both made up for it with an upset win (UCLA over now-#12 Washington and WSU at now-#11 Nebraska). UCLA beat WSU 27-16.

Both teams have the same relevant record as now-#19 Texas Tech (7-5), so let's start there. Texas Tech was stomped in 4 of their 5 losses, including 45-7 at Houston. UCLA only lost 17-13 at Houston, and they only lost by 4 points to #15 Stanford and by 2 to #13 Southern Cal, so the Bruins look good to move in ahead of Texas Tech. WSU is much closer to Texas Tech, but they also have a performance advantage, if slight. It comes down to just one game-- Tech's 6-point win over 5-7 Arizona (a WAC team then).

Move UCLA and Washington State in at #19 and #20, dropping Texas Tech and all the teams behind them 2 spots each. We now have 25 teams, but we're not done yet.

Clemson and Arizona State

8-3-1 Clemson, now at #24, took an upset loss to unranked 8-4 Maryland in their opener, but they tied now-#22 North Carolina, who was ranked ahead of 9-3 Arizona State by AP voters. Since ASU took 2 losses to unranked teams, that makes Clemson an effective game and a half better than ASU for the season. ASU performed better (maybe), if against a weaker schedule, but 2 upsets is 1 too many to even consider keeping them ranked ahead of Clemson.

Switch 'em: Clemson #23, Arizona State #24. ASU was in the WAC this season, and it's rather absurd that the AP poll rated them when they went 9-3 in the WAC in 1977, but did not rate them when they went 9-3 in the PAC 10 in 1978.

California

7-4 California (unranked) has a better relevant record than 8-3-1 North Carolina (now #22), and better than 7-5 Texas Tech (now #21) as well. However, Cal had only one win over a winning opponent, and though it was a big one (17-14 over now #13 Southern Cal), it can too easily be lightly regarded as a single home-brewed anomaly, and North Carolina performed better, especially down the stretch. 8-3-1 Clemson (now #23), on the other hand, had a number of poor performances against losing teams, so I see less reason to dismiss Cal's better relevant record in comparison to them.

Move Cal in at #23, dropping Clemson to #24, Arizona State to #25, and 9-2 Brigham Young into oblivion. BYU lost to 2-9 Oregon State, a team Cal beat 41-17.

North Carolina State

8-4 North Carolina State, who finished #19 in the coaches' poll, took an upset loss to unranked 8-3 East Carolina in their opener, but that's 1 less upset loss than was taken by 9-3 Arizona State, who is now #25.

So we'll complete this fixed AP poll by replacing Arizona State with North Carolina State at #25.

1977's Little Big Teams

There was a large group of strong "little big" teams in 1977, and though I tossed 2 of them out of the AP poll (9-3 Arizona State and 9-2 Brigham Young), 2 remain: 10-1 San Diego State and 10-2 Florida State. I count FSU as a "little big" team because, prior to this season, they were no better than Southern independents such as Southern Miss, East Carolina, and Memphis. But obviously Bobby Bowden's Seminoles were on the way to rather quickly becoming a major program. Arizona State was itself one year away from moving up to the majors with its entry into the PAC 10.

Other strong little big teams in 1977 include the following:
However, as good as these teams were, I wouldn't even say that they belong just outside the top 25, say at #26-31. I suspect the following mid-level major conference teams would/should occupy those slots:
The problem with the little big teams, of course, is their schedules. They were practically playing at a lower division of football. As a group, ASU, BYU, UNT, CSU, Fresno, and Miami-Ohio played just 3 teams that were ranked in the AP poll (original or fixed). So they could not afford to lose to mediocre-to-poor major conference teams, or worse, to teams that would not qualify as FBS level today.

Fixed AP Top 25

Two teams fall out of this fixed and expanded AP poll: 9-3 Arizona State and 9-2 Brigham Young. Discounting their game against each other, they had 3 losses to unranked opponents and no wins against rated teams. The 7 teams that pass them up into the top 25 had a combined 4 losses to unranked opponents and 4 wins over teams the AP poll had rated.

1) Notre Dame 11-1 --
2) Texas 11-1 +2
3) Alabama 11-1 -1
4) Arkansas 11-1 -1
5) Kentucky 10-1 +1
6) Penn State 11-1 -1
7) Oklahoma 10-2 --
8) Pittsburgh 9-2-1 --
9) Michigan 10-2 --
10) Ohio State 9-3 +1
11) Nebraska 9-3 +1
12) Washington 8-4 -2
13) Southern Cal 8-4 --
14) Texas A&M 8-4 IN
15) Stanford 9-3 --
16) San Diego State 10-1 --
17) Florida State 10-2 -2
18) Houston 6-5 IN
19) UCLA 7-4 IN
20) Washington State 6-5 IN
21) Texas Tech 7-5 IN
22) North Carolina 8-3-1 -5
23) California 7-4 IN
24) Clemson 8-3-1 -5
25) North Carolina State 8-4 IN

OUT: #18 Arizona State 9-3
#20 Brigham Young 9-2

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