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Fixing the Final 1990 AP College Football Poll

1) Colorado 11-1-1
2) Georgia Tech 11-0-1
3) Miami-Florida 10-2
4) Florida State 10-2
5) Washington 10-2
6) Notre Dame 9-3
7) Michigan 9-3
8) Tennessee 9-2-2
9) Clemson 10-2
10) Houston 10-1
11) Penn State 9-3
12) Texas 10-2
13) Florida 9-2
14) Louisville 10-1-1
15) Texas A&M 9-3-1
16) Michigan State 8-3-1
17) Oklahoma 8-3
18) Iowa 8-4
19) Auburn 8-3-1
20) Southern Cal 8-4-1
21) Mississippi 9-3
22) Brigham Young 10-3
23) Virginia 8-4
24) Nebraska 9-3
25) Illinois 8-4


To the left is the final 1990 AP college football top 25. The fixed final AP top 25 follows the article below, and a brief discussion of the most underrated and overrated teams of the '90s follows the fixed top 25.

The AP and coaches' polls disagreed on their choices for #1 again, but this time the AP poll did not make the wrong choice. In fact, between Colorado and Georgia Tech, there was no wrong choice.

11-1-1 Colorado played a far tougher schedule (7 rated opponents to only 3 for Georgia Tech), but 11-0-1 Georgia Tech had the better record.

Georgia Tech's rated opponents were only ranked #9, #23, and #24, and they were tied by an unrated opponent, so on the surface they do not compare well to Colorado at all.

However, Colorado 1990 may have been the luckiest team in college football history. Their tie with Tennessee was secured because of a late Tennessee interception at the CU 16, taking a winning field goal attempt off the table. Their winning touchdown against 5-6 Stanford, scored with 12 seconds left, was controversial: Stanford players insisted that it was not a touchdown.

They were famously and accidentally given a 5th down against 4-7 Missouri, with which they pulled out the 33-31 win. Then referees saved their buffalo hides again in the Orange Bowl with a game-saving flag against Notre Dame for a block in the back (as depicted to the right).

While the bottom line is that they did not lose any of those games, it's hard to be impressed by Colorado 1990. So despite the big schedule gap, either Colorado or Georgia Tech is a valid choice for #1.
Raghib Ismail punt return against Colorado in 1991 Orange Bowl

National champion Colorado was incredibly lucky in 1990, getting an infamous 5th down to beat Missouri, then getting a vital flag for clipping that negated Raghib Ismail's potentially game-winning punt return touchdown in the final minute of the Orange Bowl. The fateful clip, pictured above, rendered Ismail's spectacular return one of the greatest college football plays that never was. But you can watch it here and judge for yourself.

Texas

10-2 Texas' #12 ranking is a classic example of Lastgamitis, a disease that causes AP voters to look only at a team's last game, as covered in this section of my guide on how to rate teams. In the final 1990 poll, Texas was dropped behind two teams they defeated because they were embarrassed by #3 Miami 46-3 in the Cotton Bowl. But as ugly as that score was, the fact is that they defeated SWC runner-up Houston (10-1, #10) 45-24, and their only losses came to the #1 and #3 teams. This is a horrifically poor rating for Texas.

Tip for AP poll voters: when you're rating a team, start by looking at who they lost to and who they defeated over the entire season. Often, as in the case of Texas 1990, you will see a pretty clear window into which that team should be placed. Texas lost to #1 and #3, and defeated #10, #11, #15, and #17, so clearly they belong somewhere between #4 and #10 (Houston dropping to #11).

But where should we put them? Well, since every team in the top ten took an upset loss, and Texas did not, I would put them at #4 myself. However, AP poll voters have a case for keeping Florida State at #4, as they were much stronger than Texas over their last 6 games. But #5 Washington (10-2) is another story.

Washington lost to 5-6 UCLA in their 10th game, and they defeated only 2 rated opponents (#18 Iowa and #20 Southern Cal). Texas beat twice as many rated opponents, and all 4 were rated higher than Washington's 2. Washington struggled to beat 2-9 Purdue 20-14, whereas Texas beat all their unrated opponents by more than a touchdown. This is no contest.

Move Texas to #5, dropping Washington and all the teams that had been ranked between Washington and Texas one spot each.

Penn State

Penn State (9-3, now #12) beat Notre Dame (9-3, #7) on the road 24-21 in game 10. Should they be ranked ahead of Notre Dame? Well, Notre Dame beat #3 Miami 29-20, and I myself would rank ND at #3, ahead of Miami. I had a hard time justifying the AP poll's placement of ND, but in the end, I decided they had a case for it. However, once that choice is made (that Notre Dame's win over Miami was an upset), I would then also rank Penn State ahead of Notre Dame due to their head-to-head win. But the AP poll has a case here too, as Notre Dame defeated 5 ranked opponents to Penn State's 1.

But Penn State has a better relevant record than several teams ranked ahead of them. #8 Michigan will be dropping anyway (details next), so let's compare Penn State to now-#9 Tennessee (9-2-2). Tennessee's 2 ties came against #1 Colorado and #19 Auburn, so they cancel each other out as a positive and a negative. Penn State took an upset loss at #20 Southern Cal, while Tennessee was upset by unrated Alabama at home (PSU won at Alabama 9-0), and that favors PSU. But the big difference is PSU's 24-21 win at Notre Dame, as ND beat Tennessee in Knoxville 34-29 two weeks earlier. That leaves PSU effectively one game better than Tennessee.

Move Penn State to #9, dropping Tennessee, Clemson, and Houston one spot each.

Iowa and Michigan

Michigan lost to #16 and #18, and the best teams they defeated were #21 and #25, so they were clearly wayyy overrated at #7. But this is a simple head-to-head issue. Iowa (8-4, #18), Michigan (9-3, now-#8), Michigan State (8-3-1, #16), and Illinois (8-4, #25) all went 6-2 in conference play, sharing the Big 10 title in a 4-way tie, but Iowa claimed the Rose Bowl bid because they defeated all of the other 3 teams. They should therefore also be rated ahead of the other 3 teams. Their nonconference losses came to #3 Miami and to now-#6 Washington, who are rated ahead of all Big Ten teams anyway, and so those losses are irrelevant.

We'll move Iowa ahead of Michigan, as they defeated the Wolverines 24-23 in Ann Arbor, and place both teams behind Florida (#13, 9-2), who has a better relevant record than both, and a better straight record too.

That moves Iowa up to #13, drops Michigan down to #14, and all other teams shift accordingly. Next up are the other two Big Ten co-champions...

Illinois and Michigan State

Illinois defeated Michigan State 15-13. It was a close home win, but Illinois also had a better relevant record than did MSU. That's because MSU was tied by unranked Syracuse in nonconference play. Illinois lost to an unranked team in nonconference play (7-5 Arizona), but they made up for that with a huge win over #1 Colorado. Illinois' #25 rating is another case of Lastgamitis, as they lost 30-0 to Clemson in the Hall of Fame Bowl. But Clemson is rated ahead of Michigan State anyway, and Michigan State had some poor late-season performances of their own, struggling to beat 2-9 Northwestern by 7 and 1-10 Wisconsin by 5 in their final 2 regular season games.

Look at Illinois' relevant record at this point: they lost to #10, #13, #14, and to an unrated 7-5 team. They defeated #1, #17, and a nearly-rated 7-4-1 team (Ohio State). Their upset loss and upset win balance out, so they should clearly be ranked between the #14 team they lost to and the #17 team they defeated. A #25 ranking for them is wayyy off.

So we'll move Illinois all the way up ahead of Michigan State, to #17, dropping Michigan State and all the teams that had been ranked between Illinois and Michigan State one spot each.

Florida

9-2 Florida now sits at #12, right behind 10-1 Houston, and these teams were very similar, as both were on probation, won most of their games by big scores, and neither was upset by a lower-rated team. Both were also beaten badly by their top opponents, Florida losing to #4 Florida State 45-30 and to now-#9 Tennessee 45-3, and Houston losing to now-#5 Texas 45-24 (in which they scored their points in garbage time at the end). Each also defeated only one rated opponent, but this is where they differ, because Florida beat now-#20 Auburn 48-7, and Houston beat now-#16 Texas A&M 36-31. Furthermore, Texas A&M will be dropping in the fixed poll, and in fact will not be rated at all when it is done (details below).

Each team also had one close win over an unrated opponent, but this favors Florida too, as Florida's came 17-13 at 7-5 Alabama, while Houston's came 24-22 against 5-6 Rice at home. Furthermore, Alabama will finish in the fixed top 25 (details below). Both teams romped on the rest of their opponents, so that two game performance advantage for Florida is the only difference between these two teams. But it's enough to move Florida ahead of Houston.

That leaves 10-2 Clemson sitting right in front of Florida. Unlike Florida, Clemson lost to a lower-rated opponent (20-7 to now-#24 Virginia in their opener). Clemson did much better against #2 Georgia Tech (losing only 21-19) than Florida did against their two top 10 opponents, but Clemson also had 2 close games against unrated opponents to Florida's 1, so they come out equal there. Each also defeated just one rated opponent, both by huge scores (though Florida will have a second win over a rated opponent in the fixed poll). So the two teams are equal in every respect except for that one upset Clemson took to Virginia. But one game is enough to move Florida ahead of Clemson.

Move Florida up to #10, dropping Clemson and Houston one spot each.

Louisville

Originally ranked #14, 10-1-1 Louisville is this year's vastly overrated "little big team." They were tied by unrated San Jose State, lost to unrated Southern Miss, and did not defeat any rated opponents. That is a very poor resume for a #14 team, so clearly they will have to drop. But how far? I propose that we put them between Southern Cal (8-4-1, now #21) and Mississippi (9-3, now #22).

USC lost to an unrated opponent and was tied by another, just like Louisville, but unlike Louisville they defeated a rated opponent, beating now-#9 Penn State 19-14.

Mississippi did not lose to any unrated opponents, but they also did not defeat any, and in fact they did not defeat a single winning opponent at all! The unrated teams that beat and tied Louisville (9-2-1 San Jose State and 8-4 Southern Miss) are far better than any teams Mississippi even played. So Louisville can (and should) be rated ahead of Ole Miss.

We'll drop Louisville down to #21, moving up Southern Cal and all the teams that had been rated between Louisville and Southern Cal one spot each.

Texas A&M

Texas A&M (9-3-1, originally ranked #15) is similar to Louisville in that they lost to an unrated opponent and were tied by another. Their 9-3-1 record is not so impressive as Louisville's 10-1-1, but they ended up rated right behind Louisville because they beat 10-3 Brigham Young (now #23) by a whopping 65-14 in the Holiday Bowl. That would have been more impressive had 7-5 Hawaii not beaten BYU 59-28 in BYU's previous game, but at least it impressed AP poll voters, whose memories are famously short.

Like Louisville, Texas A&M needs to drop, and because AP poll voters originally had Louisville rated higher than A&M, we'll drop the Aggies at least behind Louisville again. That leaves A&M just ahead of Ole Miss.

As you'll recall, Mississippi did not beat any teams as good as the two that upset Louisville. However, Texas A&M lost to 5-6 Louisiana State 17-8, and Ole Miss won at LSU 19-10. Furthermore, 6-4-1 Baylor, who tied A&M, was also not a good team, and not nearly rated (unlike the two teams that upset Louisville).

On the other hand, this case is made tough by the fact that Texas A&M performed better than Ole Miss in a number of regards. First of all, they lost very close games to highly-rated opponents Houston and Texas, whereas Mississippi was handily beaten by all 3 of the rated opponents they played. Secondly, A&M's 65-14 Holiday Bowl win over 10-3 BYU is far better than any win Ole Miss had (as they beat no winning opponents). Those are some compelling facts.

But back on the first hand, Mississippi was rated higher than BYU anyway. In fact, it is worth asking how well Mississippi would have done against Texas A&M's schedule. Would they do better than 9-3-1? That seems nearly certain. Even if they were upset by BYU, that would leave them 10-3 against Texas A&M's schedule. There is no reason to think they would have taken any other upsets when they took no upsets in 1990 as it is. Ole Miss probably would not have played as well in losing to Houston and Texas, and they probably wouldn't have beaten BYU by 65-14, but these are style points. They do not matter as much as actual wins and losses.

We know that Ole Miss had little trouble with LSU, and it is very unlikely that they would have been tied by Baylor, who did nothing of value this season except tie Texas A&M. Texas A&M may have been better than Ole Miss (I agree with the AP poll voters that they probably were), but Ole Miss had the better season, effectively finishing a game and a half better than A&M (and they had a better straight record too). That's what should take priority.

So we'll drop Texas A&M all the way back behind Mississippi, to #22, moving up Ole Miss and all the teams that had been rated between Texas A&M and Ole Miss one spot each.

Virginia

Virginia (8-4, originally ranked #23) lost their last 3 games, and 4 of their last 5, but they played a schedule very deep in good teams, and performed extremely well. The ACC was actually the top conference in 1990, going 28-8-1 against nonconference opponents (and this was before Florida State joined the league). Virginia opponents North Carolina State (7-5), North Carolina (6-4-1), Maryland (6-5-1), and Virginia Tech (6-5-- not in the ACC, but played 5 ACC opponents), whom Virginia went 2-2 against, were not rated, but they were close to being top 25-caliber. They just beat each other up, leaving them all with records not quite good enough to make the top 25.

Virginia did lose to 2 unranked opponents (Maryland and Virginia Tech), but they made up for one of those with a 20-7 win over 10-2 Clemson. They also lost to #2 Georgia Tech 41-38, and to now-#9 Tennessee 23-22 in the Sugar Bowl, both very strong performances. Their 8 wins were all by more than a touchdown, average score being 45-11. Virginia has a better relevant record than either Louisville or Texas A&M, and they performed better too.

Louisville, for example, had no win over a ranked opponent to make up for their upset loss and tie, so they are effectively a half game behind Virginia. And Louisville had 4 close wins over unrated opponents, Virginia none.

So we'll move Virginia up ahead of Louisville, to #20, dropping Louisville, Mississippi, Texas A&M, and Brigham Young one spot each.

Nebraska

Nebraska, now #25, was similar to Mississippi, going 9-3 and losing all 3 of their games against rated opponents by more than a touchdown. However, all 9 of Nebraska's wins were by more than a touchdown (average score 43-8), whereas Mississippi had 4 close wins over losing opponents. And Nebraska defeated 2 winning opponents, Mississippi none. So Nebraska definitely belongs ahead of Ole Miss. But what about Louisville?

Louisville also had 4 close wins over unrated opponents, so Nebraska performed better than them. And Louisville has an upset loss and tie, while Nebraska took no upsets.

On the other hand, similar to the comparison of Louisville with Mississippi, Louisville's upset loss and tie came to teams (9-2-1 San Jose State and 8-4 Southern Miss) who were better than anyone Nebraska defeated, so we can't assume that Nebraska would have done better against them. And Louisville's 34-7 Fiesta Bowl victory over 7-5 Alabama is far better than any win Nebraska had. And Nebraska was terrible in the end, losing to now-#17 Oklahoma 45-10 and to #2 Georgia Tech 45-21 in the Citrus Bowl. This is a tough one. I would rank Nebraska higher than Louisville due to their better relevant record and season-long performance, but I think the AP poll has a case for rating Louisville higher.

But they do not have a case for rating Mississippi higher (let alone Texas A&M, who was tied by a Baylor team Nebraska defeated 13-0), so we'll move Nebraska up ahead of Ole Miss. That puts the Huskers at #22, and Mississippi, Texas A&M, and Brigham Young all drop one spot. 

Alabama

7-5 Alabama had been ranked in the final regular season AP poll, but they fell out when they were trounced by Louisville 34-7 in the Fiesta Bowl. That is an ugly score, but then Nebraska, Mississippi, and Brigham Young were all trounced in their bowls too, and still finished ranked. And other than that Fiesta Bowl, Alabama performed very strongly on the season. Let's compare them to fellow SEC team Mississippi.

Alabama lost to 2 unranked teams, Georgia and Southern Miss. Mississippi lost to no unranked teams (and in fact beat Georgia 28-12), so Ole Miss has a 2 game advantage there. But Alabama also defeated now-#9 Tennessee 9-6 and now-#18 Auburn 16-7, and Mississippi lost to both (by 14 and 9 points). So they're even. The only reason Alabama has more losses is because they played now-#8 Penn State and now-#10 Florida in the regular season, and Mississippi did not.

The only way to separate these teams is by performance, and Alabama is a clear winner here. Their only close win came over now-#9 Tennessee, whereas Mississippi had 4 close wins over losing teams (including a 14-13 win over Vanderbilt, whom Alabama beat 59-28). And Alabama had a close loss to a rated opponent, whereas all of Mississippi's losses were by more than a touchdown.

Alabama comes into the top 25 ahead of Ole Miss, at #23, dropping Mississippi to #24, Texas A&M to #25, and Brigham Young out.

San Jose State

Here's a little big team that did not get nearly so much love from AP poll voters as Louisville did, even though they tied Louisville in their opener: 9-2-1 San Jose State. They took one upset loss, 35-34 at 7-4-1 California, their other loss coming by a rather impressive 20-17 at now-#6 Washington. The rest of their schedule was thin, but they performed better against it than Louisville did against their similarly weak schedule, and they did beat 8-2-1 Fresno State 42-7. I would probably rate San Jose State ahead of Louisville.

On the other hand, San Jose State did not beat a team nearly so strong as Louisville victim Alabama, and their tie against Louisville came on their home field, so I suppose we can let the AP poll have its way here.

But San Jose State was obviously pretty good, and I don't see much reason for Ole Miss to be rated ahead of them. Ole Miss didn't beat anyone, and did not come close in any of their losses. San Jose State performed better in their wins too.

So let's put San Jose State in ahead of Mississippi, at #24. Mississippi drops to #25, and Texas A&M falls out.

Fixed AP Top 25

That was a long, tough one. My head aches. But the whole list makes a lot more sense now. Texas had been ridiculously underrated, Louisville and Texas A&M just as ridiculously overrated. The four Big Ten co-champions had been spread out far and wide (originally ranked #7, #16, #18, and #25), but now they are all bunched together, which makes a lot more sense, given that they were not much different from one another, and all shared the conference crown. And I have no idea why 9-2-1 San Jose State wasn't ranked to begin with, other than no one paying any attention to them.

Texas A&M and Brigham Young fall out of the fixed top 25, replaced by Alabama and San Jose State. The old teams had 3 losses and a tie to unrated opponents, and 1 win over a ranked team. Their replacements had 3 losses to unrated opponents, and 2 wins and a tie to ranked teams. So the new teams were effectively 2 games better in sum.

A brief discussion of the most underrated and overrated teams of the '90s follows this fixed top 25.

1) Colorado 11-1-1--
2) Georgia Tech 11-0-1--
3) Miami-Florida 10-2--
4) Florida State 10-2--
5) Texas 10-2+7
6) Washington 10-2-1
7) Notre Dame 9-3-1
8) Penn State 9-3+3
9) Tennessee 9-2-2-1
10) Florida 9-2+3
11) Clemson 10-2-2
12) Houston 10-1-2
13) Iowa 8-4+5
14) Michigan 9-3-7
15) Illinois 8-4+10
16) Michigan State 8-3-1--
17) Oklahoma 8-3--
18) Auburn 8-3-1+1
19) Southern Cal 8-4-1+1
20) Virginia 8-4+3
21) Louisville 10-1-1-7
22) Nebraska 9-3+2
23) Alabama 7-5IN
24) San Jose State 9-2-1IN
25) Mississippi 9-3-4

OUT: #15 Texas A&M 9-3-1
#22 Brigham Young 10-3

The Most Underrated and Overrated Teams of the 1990s

Well, now that I've slogged my way through repairing all of the final AP polls of the 1990s, it's time to look at who was most over- and underlooked for the decade.

As I expected, Washington was the most underrated team of the '90s, underrated 6 times and overrated twice, for a total gain of +23 ranking places in the fixed polls. Following them were Southern Cal +14, Illinois +13, Ohio State +12.5, and Tennessee +11.

The most underrated conference was easily the PAC 10 at +53.5, followed by the Big 10 at +17.5 and the SEC at +12. The PAC 10 being underrated is not a surprise, given that everyone knows they get less attention due to their time zone than other conferences get, but it should be noted that they were not particularly underrated 2000-2009, so contrary to popular belief, the time zone issue may not be as much of a problem as it once was. It is also interesting to see that the SEC was not nearly as underrated in the '90s as they were 2000-2009, probably because they were not nearly as powerful in the 90s as they were in the following decade.

The most overrated team of the '90s was Texas A&M, overrated 6 times and underrated twice, for a total loss of -18.5 ranking places in the fixed polls. They were followed by little big teams Southern Miss -15, Brigham Young -15, and Air Force -12. But then, given how poor the SWC was in this decade, perhaps Texas A&M qualifies as a little big team too.

The most overrated conference was, of course, the WAC at -34, followed by the ACC at -17.5 and CUSA at -16.

As for the totals for 1990-2009, Florida is now the most underrated team of all so far at +27, while Brigham Young is the most overrated at -26.5.