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Fixing the Final 1978 AP College Football Poll

1) Alabama 11-1
2) Southern Cal 12-1
3) Oklahoma 11-1
4) Penn State 11-1
5) Michigan 10-2
6) Clemson 11-1
7) Notre Dame 9-3
8) Nebraska 9-3
9) Texas 9-3
10) Houston 9-3
11) Arkansas 9-2-1
12) Michigan State 8-3
13) Purdue 9-2-1
14) UCLA 8-3-1
15) Missouri 8-4
16) Georgia 9-2-1
17) Stanford 8-4
18) North Carolina State 9-3
19) Texas A&M 8-4
20) Maryland 9-3
To the left is the final 1978 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. 

In the third week of the 1978 season, #2 Southern Cal (12-1) traveled to Birmingham and defeated #1 Alabama (11-1) 24-14. I'll be going into much more detail on this issue, but in the end, there really isn't anything more to say than that. I would rate this as the single worst job the AP poll ever did at #1, excepting of course years when they did not count bowl games.

The only competition for worst #1 selection is Brigham Young in 1984, and while Alabama '78 was a far better team than BYU '84, I think they were a worse #1 selection because there was no excuse for it. At least voters touting BYU in 1984 could say that BYU was the only unbeaten team. That's one more leg than Alabama voters had to stand on in 1978.

The only possible way Alabama could merit #1 in 1978 after losing to Southern Cal by more than a touchdown at home is if Alabama played a markedly stronger schedule and/or outperformed USC by a country mile. So let's go ahead and take a look...
Charles White's "phantom touchdown" in the 1979 Rose Bowl

Charles White's "phantom touchdown"-- he went into the end zone, but the ball was recovered by Michigan at the one. Unfortunately, the refs never saw the ball come out, and Southern Cal was given the touchdown, eventually winning the Rose Bowl by just that much-- 17-10. USC finished #1 in the coaches' poll, but Alabama, whom they had previously beaten, took #1 in the AP poll.

Southern Cal vs. Alabama

As the NCAA measures strength of schedule (winning percentage of opponents), Southern Cal not only played a tougher schedule than did Alabama in 1978, they played the 2nd toughest in the country, and the toughest ever played by a team that finished #1 in one of the major polls (.663). Southern Cal played 7 teams that finished ranked in either the AP or coaches' polls, and this is back when they just ranked 20 teams, so that is an incredible number. Alabama played 4. USC played 9 teams that will finish ranked in the fixed and expanded top 25, Alabama 5. So we're not just talking about a tougher schedule for USC here-- we are talking about one of the toughest ever played by a national championship contender, if not the toughest.

As far as I'm concerned, that plus USC's easy win at Alabama ends all possible debate, but let's go ahead and look at performance anyway. Alabama outscored their opponents by an average margin of 14.8 points per game, USC by 12.7, and Alabama had 2 close wins (touchdown or less), while USC had 5. But that advantage for Alabama largely evaporates when you take into account USC's tougher schedule. Alabama had 2 close wins and 1 loss in 5 games against teams that will finish ranked in this fixed top 25, while USC had 5 close wins and a loss against 9. That's 60% for Alabama, 67% for Southern Cal, and that isn't much of a difference. Furthermore, USC outscored opponents who will finish ranked in this fixed top 25 by an average of 7.3 points per game, Alabama by 7.0. And USC outscored opponents who will finish unranked by an average of 24.8, Alabama by 20.3. So USC outperformed Alabama in both regards. Now throw in the fact that USC played 6 road games, while Alabama played a ridiculous 3, and this "debate," if it can even be called that, is far past over.

Alabama's only "argument" is that Southern Cal won 2 late games with help from the referees, but as you may know by now, I don't consider "bad calls" to be much of an argument at all. Still, it's true that USC was almost as lucky as Colorado in 1990 (another national champion that played an unusually tough schedule). First there was the Notre Dame game. Dame had taken a 25-24 lead with 48 seconds left, and then they appeared to recover a fumble by USC's quarterback that would have iced the game, but the refs ruled that the quarterback's arm was in motion, and that the "fumble" was an incomplete pass. Looked like a fumble to me, and to most viewers, but the ruling gave USC the chance to hit a 35 yard pass to set up the winning field goal. A worse call that erased a seeming fumble came on Charles White's "phantom touchdown" in the Rose Bowl. The ball had clearly been fumbled and recovered by Michigan at the 1, but the refs didn't see the ball come out, and USC won 17-10.

But bad calls are a part of the game. Like it or not, those are indeed wins for Southern Cal. On a personal note, I was rooting for Notre Dame and Michigan in those games at the time, so those calls were a bitter pill for me to swallow. Bitterer, I'm sure, for Alabama fans, but at least they have a dubious "national championship" with which to wash the taste away. But not here.

24-14 in Birmingham plus one of the toughest schedules ever played by a 1-loss team renders any debate silly. Move Southern Cal to #1, Alabama to #2.

Florida State 1993

Before moving on, let's look at a case when the AP poll legitimately ranked a team #1 over a team that beat them: 12-1 Florida State over 11-1 Notre Dame in 1993. Why "legitimately"? Because Florida State played the tougher schedule (6 rated opponents to 3 for Notre Dame), clearly performed better (2 close games to 4 for Notre Dame), and their loss came at Notre Dame by only 7 points. None of those 3 things are true for Alabama in 1978, which is why they are not a legitimate choice.

Notre Dame and Clemson

#7 Notre Dame was 9-3, #6 Clemson 11-1, but they had the same relevant record: both lost one game to a lower-ranked opponent. Notre Dame's other 2 losses both came to teams that are ranked higher than Clemson (now-#1 Southern Cal and #5 Michigan), and so those games are irrelevant when comparing the two teams. Schedule and performance are how they should be separated. Notre Dame defeated #10 Houston, #12 Michigan State, and #13 Purdue, while Clemson defeated #18 North Carolina State and #20 Maryland. Big advantage Notre Dame. Notre Dame had no close wins over unranked opponents, while Clemson had 2. Also advantage Notre Dame. Clemson was rather unimpressive in 3 of their last 4 games, edging 5-6 North Carolina 13-9, #20 Maryland 28-24, and unranked 7-4-1 Ohio State 17-15 in the Gator Bowl. Top ten team? Looks more like a #16-20 team that rode a weak schedule to an 11-1 record.

Switch 'em: Notre Dame #6, Clemson #7. I would drop Clemson to that #16-20 range myself.

Houston and Texas

#10 Houston (9-3) won 10-7 at #9 Texas (9-3), and thereby won the SWC outright. This rating is a travesty.

Switch 'em: Houston #9, Texas #10.

Missouri and UCLA

#15 Missouri (8-4) took 2 upset losses to unranked opponents (6-5 Colorado and 3-8 Oklahoma State), but they balanced those debits out with 2 upset wins (over now-#6 Notre Dame and #8 Nebraska). #14 UCLA (8-3-1) also took 2 upset losses (1-10 Kansas and 3-7-1 Oregon State), but the best they managed on the plus side was an upset tie with #11 Arkansas in the Fiesta Bowl. That makes Missouri effectively a game and a half better than UCLA. And notice that Missouri's upset losses were not nearly so awful as those suffered by UCLA, who gave Kansas their only win (Missouri beat Kansas 48-0).

Another switch: Missouri #14, UCLA #15.

Washington, Stanford, and Georgia

Unranked Washington (7-4) won 34-31 at #17 Stanford (8-4), and the Huskies were 6-2 in PAC 10 play, Stanford 4-3, so there's no good reason for Stanford to be ranked higher than Washington. Stanford beat #16 Georgia (9-2-1) 25-22 in the Bluebonnet Bowl, and there's no good reason for Georgia to be ranked higher than Stanford. If Washington is moved ahead of Stanford where they belong, Stanford has no upset losses, so they have a better relevant record than Georgia in addition to beating them. Sure Georgia had the better straight record, but with Washington properly rated, Stanford played 3 times as many rated opponents as Georgia did. And I didn't even get into Georgia's terrible performances-- I'll address those in the next section, as Georgia drops further.

For now, move Washington into the rankings at #16; Stanford remains at #17, Georgia drops to #18, and the teams that had been ranked behind Stanford all drop a spot. The PAC 10, by the way, had the nation's best record against nonconference opponents in 1978, 26-12-3.

Maryland and North Carolina State

Another ignored head-to-head result. Apparently, AP voters couldn't be bothered to keep track of who beat whom this season, though that was apparent from the beginning, when they placed Alabama #1. 9-3 Maryland (now #21) beat 9-3 North Carolina State (#19) 31-7, and that score leaves little room for doubt. Maryland also had just 1 loss in ACC play, while NC State had 2.

In addition, neither team lost to an unranked opponent, so they both had better relevant records than 9-2-1 Georgia, who now sits right in front of NC State. Georgia did upset now-#7 Clemson 12-0 (and Clemson beat both Maryland and NC State), but they followed that up with a 27-10 loss to unranked 5-5-1 South Carolina (whom NC State beat 22-13). Then Georgia was tied by unranked 6-4-1 Auburn, leaving them effectively half a game worse than Maryland and NC State. Georgia also performed rather poorly across the entire season, winning 16-14 over 3-8 Baylor, 17-16 over 4-6-1 Kentucky, 24-22 over 4-7 Florida, and 29-28 over 7-5 Georgia Tech. Altogether, they had 5 close wins over unranked opponents, while Maryland and NC State each had 2.

Move Maryland to #18; NC State remains at #19, Georgia drops to #20, and Texas A&M drops to #21. But the Aggies have a bit further to drop...

Texas Tech and Texas A&M

This time the voters got the head-to-head result right-- 8-4 Texas A&M did beat 7-4 Texas Tech, and by a huge score, 38-9. But voters still didn't get the ranking of these two teams correct, because Texas Tech finished 5-3 in SWC play, Texas A&M 4-4. And in the rest of their SWC games, Texas Tech performed 44 points better than Texas A&M did. The only reason Texas Tech has as many losses as Texas A&M is because they played now-#1 Southern Cal, losing 17-9 (a very strong performance). A&M did not play a ranked nonconference opponent. So Texas Tech should be ranked ahead of A&M.

Like Maryland and NC State, both teams also have better relevant records than Georgia, and as noted in the previous section, Georgia consistently performed poorly. I would drop Georgia behind both myself. However, since Georgia beat one more winning opponent than either Tech or A&M did, I suppose I could throw the voters a bone and place Georgia behind Texas Tech and ahead of Texas A&M. As poor as Georgia's 16-14 win over 3-8 Baylor was, Texas A&M lost to Baylor 24-6 (Texas Tech beat Baylor 27-9). And Georgia's 25-22 bowl loss to #17 Stanford was a very strong performance-- they outgained Stanford 525 yards to 311, but turned the ball over too much, missed a couple of extra points, and Stanford converted a 2-point play. Texas A&M was romped in all 4 of their losses.

Move Texas Tech in at #20, dropping Georgia to #21 and Texas A&M to #22.

Arizona State

We have 3 slots left to fill, and next in line are 9-3 Navy and 9-3 Arizona State (Navy was #17 in the coaches' poll, ASU #19). Navy has some problems, as discussed in the next section. Arizona State, on the other hand, looks like a strong addition to the fixed and expanded top 25. They had one big upset loss (51-26 at 3-7-1 Washington State), but they also had one huge upset win (20-7 over now-#1 Southern Cal). That gives them a better relevant record than Georgia, and they also defeated one more winning team than Georgia did (including a 34-18 win over 9-3 Rutgers in a bowl game played in New Jersey). They furthermore performed better than Georgia, posting 2 close wins to Georgia's 5. So they should be rated ahead of Georgia, and since the AP poll voters originally gave them more votes than Texas Tech, we'll put ASU back ahead of Texas Tech too. ASU and Tech performed the same, but ASU beat 4 winning teams, Tech 2.

Move Arizona State in at #20, dropping Texas Tech, Georgia, and Texas A&M one spot each.

Pittsburgh, Florida State, and Navy

9-3 Navy beat 8-4 Pittsburgh 21-11, who beat 8-3 Florida State 7-3, who beat Navy 38-6, so these three teams defeated each other in a circle. However, Pittsburgh took no other upset losses, whereas Navy lost to 3-8 Syracuse, and Florida State lost to 6-5 Mississippi State, so Pittsburgh was effectively a game better than the other two teams. Pittsburgh should therefore be rated highest of the three, coming into the fixed poll at #24. And since FSU beat Navy head-to-head, and by the resounding score of 38-9 no less, they should come in next at #25. Navy, alas, is stuck at #26, just on the outside looking in.

Pittsburgh and Florida State take the last 2 slots.

Fixed AP Top 25

For the sixth fixed poll in a row (the others being 1979-1983), no team falls out of this fixed and expanded AP top 25. The 5 new teams had a total of 4 losses to unrated opponents (discounting games against each other), and they had 3 wins against teams the AP poll had rated.

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

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