Tip Top 25 in helmets, smaller

Fixing the Final 1991 AP College Football Poll

1) Miami-Florida 12-0
2) Washington 12-0
3) Penn State 11-2
4) Florida State 11-2
5) Alabama 11-1
6) Michigan 10-2
7) Florida 10-2
8) California 10-2
9) East Carolina 11-1
10) Iowa 10-1-1
11) Syracuse 10-2
12) Texas A&M 10-2
13) Notre Dame 10-3
14) Tennessee 9-3
15) Nebraska 9-2-1
16) Oklahoma 9-3
17) Georgia 9-3
18) Clemson 9-2-1
19) UCLA 9-3
20) Colorado 8-3-1
21) Tulsa 10-2
22) Stanford 8-4
23) Brigham Young 8-3-2
24) North Carolina State 9-3
25) Air Force 10-3

To the left is the final 1991 AP college football top 25. The fixed final AP top 25 follows the article below. 

For the third time (the others being 2003 and 1997), we have a problem at the top of the AP poll. This time it's 12-0 Miami finishing at #1 ahead of 12-0 Washington, albeit by a mere 4 votes (Washington took #1 in the coaches' poll by twice that margin).

The problem for Miami boils down to just one game: their 19-14 win at 4-7 Boston College on November 23rd. If not for that poor performance, Miami would be a valid option for #1. Washington would still be the better choice, in my opinion, but the point is that it would come down to that: opinion.

Of course, Miami finishing #1 in the AP poll comes down to opinion as it is, but it shouldn't. It should come down to facts, and the facts line up for Washington. Each team played 4 ranked opponents and 1 nearly ranked opponent, but Washington won their games by an average of 31.7 points per game, while Miami won theirs by an average of 19.3

Washington's only close game was 24-17 at #8 California. Miami had 3 close games: 26-20 against #3 Penn State, 17-16 at #4 Florida State, and most critically, the aforementioned 19-14 win at 4-7 Boston College late in the season.

All of which begs the question, Why did Miami end up #1 in the AP poll in the first place?
Steve Emtman 1991

The best player on the best team in Washington's history was defensive tackle Steve Emtman, winner of the Outland and Lombardi trophies, 4th in the Heisman vote, and the first player taken in the next NFL draft.

Washington vs. Miami-Florida

In order to understand why Miami was voted #1 in the final 1991 AP poll, you have to put yourself in the mindset of the time. Miami had already been voted #1 following the 1983, 1987, and 1989 seasons, and they came just a game away from winning a national championship in four other seasons: 1985, 1986, 1988, and 1990. They were without question the kings of college football at the time. After they defeated then-#1 Florida State in 1991, Miami moved to #1 with a huge lead over #2 Washington. That lead largely evaporated following their poor performance at Boston College, but they still led Washington in both polls at the end of the regular season. Then they dominated #15 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl 22-0, but subsequently lost #1 in the coaches' poll and barely held on in the AP poll. And that begs another question...

Why Did Miami Lose Ground in the Polls After an Impressive Win?

That question, of course, rests on the false assumption that beating #15 Nebraska at home by any score constituted an "impressive win." During the regular season that win would be mildly impressive, but for a national championship contender in their bowl game, that is one of the weakest opponents you'll find in college football history. Furthermore, this was Nebraska's 5th bowl loss in a row, 4 of them to Miami or Florida State, and the Cornhuskers already had a reputation for dominating a weak schedule during the regular season, then getting smacked around in their bowl game. On top of that, Miami had not lost in their home stadium in 6 years (and would not do so until 3 years later). So no one was surprised or impressed when Miami won.

Washington, meanwhile, was playing a Michigan team that came into the Rose Bowl at 10-1 and ranked #3. So (some) people were surprised and impressed when the Huskies romped on the Wolverines 34-14.

The thing is, the Sugar Bowl wanted Miami to come play Florida, but Miami declined in favor of playing Nebraska at home in the Orange Bowl specifically to ensure a national championship. Florida was coming into the Sugar Bowl at 10-1, with wins over #5 Alabama and #3 Florida State (and more impressively than Miami beat them). I remember clearly when Miami's bowl announcement was made, and most writers and broadcasters were disdainful of the choice, that Lee Corso begged to differ, celebrating Miami's decision as the "smartest" thing they could do, and saying that he would do the same thing in their place. But it cost them the coaches' poll and nearly cost them the AP poll as well, and the national championship they were supposedly ensuring with it, so I'm not sure it was such a smart move. Still, I guess it halfway worked. Barely.

It's too bad the nation's sportswriters decided to reward Miami for taking the cowardly path, but it's not surprising that the nation's coaches were less inclined to do so.

The Slim Case for Miami

The only argument I can find for Miami, weak as it is, is the fact that they defeated #3 Penn State and #4 Florida State, who are ranked higher than any opponent Washington beat. Now, FSU is a better opponent than any Washington played, but Penn State? PSU lost to 3-8 Southern Cal 21-10. Michigan, on the other hand, took both of their losses to top 5 opponents, and in fact they were rated ahead of PSU before the bowls. They only dropped, of course, because Washington beat them. Washington opponent Cal also had 2 losses, and defeated Southern Cal by 22 points. So it is not a given that Penn State was better than Washington's best opponents, and in fact, PSU will be dropping in the fixed poll (details below).

That leaves us with Florida State, who looked like a juggernaut until the Miami game, including wins over #23 Brigham Young by 16, over #11 Syracuse by 32, and most importantly, over #6 Michigan by 20 in Ann Arbor. However, the value of Miami's win over Florida State was greatly decreased by 2 factors. First of all, Miami won that game 17-16 by watching a short field goal attempt miss famously "wide right" by mere inches at the end of the game. It's not as though they blocked it. They got lucky.

Secondly, Florida State then lost to #7 Florida in their regular season finale, greatly diminishing the value of Miami beating them. And it didn't help that Florida State struggled to beat #12 Texas A&M (a team very similar to Nebraska) by a score of 10-2 in the Cotton Bowl, the ugliest game played all season.

If FSU had lost only to Miami, or if Miami had solidly beaten FSU, rather than gotten lucky in the end, then Miami's win over them would be compelling. But as it is, that game just tells us that Miami was about as good as Florida State. FSU rolled over Michigan, but then so did Washington. So the best we can logically infer from this one slice of evidence is that Miami was about as good as Washington. In other words, it does nothing to counteract the rest of the evidence that says Washington was better than Miami.

And while FSU was a better opponent than any Washington played, that fact is trumped by the fact that Washington played all 4 of their ranked opponents away from home (1 neutral site), while Miami played 2 of their 4 ranked opponents at home.

The Invalid Case for Miami

Those sportswriters who voted for Miami did so because they believed that Miami was the better team, and that Miami would have likely beaten Washington had the teams played each other. That is, of course, an opinion. The AP poll is, after all, an opinion poll. But I am fixing these polls based on facts, not opinions. And the facts say that Washington clearly outperformed Miami against a very similar strength of schedule. The voters in the AP poll should be making their decisions based on facts as well, because their opinions, while interesting in a trivial way, are meaningless. Anyone can believe anything that they want. Someone might have believed that 8-5 Georgia Tech was the best team in 1991. But facts are facts.

So someone's belief that Miami was simply better, from watching both teams play, and discarding the facts of the season as a whole, is not even close to a valid argument.

But just for fun, let's go ahead and look at the possibility of Miami and Washington meeting each other on a neutral field following the 1991 season. 1983-1991, when Miami was the kingpin of college football, they went 6-3 in bowl games. But that breaks down to 4-0 in the Orange Bowl and 2-3 in bowls outside their home stadium. Washington was nowhere near as good over this 9 year period, but they were 6-2 in bowl games, all played very far from home, of course. Those numbers do not at all look promising for Miami's chances against Washington on a neutral field. But here I am dwelling on silly old facts again.

Of course, the wider view we get looking back from today is even more telling. Miami has 3 times been upset in national championship games: Penn State following the '86 season, Alabama '92, and Ohio State 2002. What do all of those games have in common? None of them were played in the Orange Bowl. And Washington was, performance-wise, so much better than those 3 opponents that it is not close. In fact, Washington beating Miami would not have been an upset at all.

Washington went unbeaten, played 4 ranked opponents, and had only 1 close game. How many times has any team done the same or better since? Only once, and that was Nebraska in 1995, widely considered one of the best teams of all time. Miami 2001 did not do it (2 close games), nor USC 2003 (2 ranked opponents), nor USC 2004 (4 close games), nor Texas 2005 (2 close games). So when we talk about Washington 1991, we are not just talking about one of the best teams of that year, we are talking about one of the best teams, in terms of real performance, of the last few decades.

Washington  vs. Miami Conclusion

So we're back to the facts we started with in the intro. Miami's close games against 11-2 Penn State and 11-2 Florida State might be forgiven, even if they don't compare well to Washington's 1 close game at 10-2 California and easy win over 10-2 Michigan. But Miami's close 19-14 win at 4-7 Boston College ends any real debate. Washington faced a similar game at 3-8 Southern Cal, also in November, but they won that game 14-3. And in the other 9 games played by each team, Washington outscored opponents by an average of 38 points, Miami by 24.

Miami simply has no argument here whatsoever. I do see these teams as sharing the mythical national championship. After all, no one can know with any certainty what would have happened had they played. But when it comes to who should be #1...

Switch 'em. Washington #1, Miami #2.

And though I've already spent a lot of time on a decision that should have been a no-brainer, you'd best buckle yourself in for a long ride. Because like 2003 and 1997, when the AP poll also got it wrong at the top, this is a particularly error-prone top 25 from top to bottom...

Penn State, Florida State, and Michigan

Penn State (11-2, #3) is a tough case because they were extremely strong down the stretch, outscoring their last 6 opponents by an average of 27.3 points per game, including 35-13 over #13 Notre Dame and 42-17 over #14 Tennessee. So they were playing as well as anyone by the end. But as previously noted, they lost 21-10 to 3-8 Southern Cal, and the real reason that they were rated higher than Florida State and Michigan is simply because they lost earlier than those teams did.

Florida State (11-2, #4) also took an upset loss, but it came 14-9 at #7 Florida, a far tougher opponent than Southern Cal was, and the outcome was closer to boot. PSU also struggled to beat 4-7 Boston College 28-21 at home, whereas Florida State's only close win (touchdown or less) was their 10-2 outcome over #12 Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. And FSU defeated more rated opponents than PSU did.

Then there's Michigan (10-2, #6), who was rated higher than PSU before the bowls. And while it's true that Michigan was beaten handily by Washington in the Rose Bowl, it hardly seems fair to use that outcome against them in comparison to Penn State. After all, PSU was not playing Washington in their bowl game. And while PSU was dominant down the stretch, so was Michigan. Michigan beat their final 5 opponents before the Rose Bowl by an average of 36.2 points per game.

Michigan's losses came to Washington and Florida State, so PSU's loss to 3-8 Southern Cal hurts quite a bit when comparing them to Michigan. And Michigan's only close win was 24-16 over 7-4-1 Indiana, a much better opponent than 4-7 Boston College (PSU's only close win). In fact, Michigan beat Boston College 35-13 on the road. So I don't see much reason in their overall seasons for PSU to have passed up Michigan in the final poll.

On the other hand, PSU's 26-20 loss at Miami certainly looks better than Michigan's 34-14 loss to Washington in the Rose Bowl. And PSU's strong stretch run included 2 rated opponents, while Michigan's included none. In fact, PSU beat 3 rated teams overall to Michigan's 2, and one of those 2, 10-1-1 Iowa, was vastly overrated at #10 (and they will be dropping quite far in the fixed poll-- but I will be discussing the Hawkeye case near the end, far below).

So I suppose we can accept a compromise with AP poll voters here, and place Penn State and Michigan into a tie with one another. Move Florida State to #3, and put Penn State and Michigan together at #4. As for Alabama, who was ranked ahead of Michigan at #5, they were overrated and are set to drop anyway...

Notre Dame, Florida, and Alabama

Not much to say here beyond the head-to-head chain: #13 Notre Dame beat #7 Florida in the Sugar Bowl 39-28, and Florida beat #5 Alabama 35-0, thereby winning the SEC outright.

Notre Dame did take an upset loss (35-34 to #14 Tennessee), but then so did Florida (38-21 to #11 Syracuse). Notre Dame's other 2 losses came to Michigan and Penn State, both ranked higher than Florida anyway. Florida performed extremely well against a very tough schedule (second toughest in the country by the NCAA's measurement), and they may well have been a better team than Notre Dame, but the fact is that Notre Dame beat them, and in a bowl game. That cannot be ignored. Or I should say that it should not be ignored, as AP voters have proven time and again that they are capable of ignoring anything.

But Florida being rated below Alabama, whom they beat 35-0, is far worse. These teams played a lot of common opponents. Florida beat Mississippi State 29-7, Alabama beat them 13-7. Florida beat LSU 16-0, Alabama 20-17. Florida beat Tennessee 35-18, Alabama 24-19. Florida beat Auburn 31-10, Alabama 13-6. Florida beat Georgia 45-13, Alabama 10-0. I mean, those outcomes are simply overwhelming. And yeah, Florida was upset by #11 Syracuse, but they also won an upset over Florida State, who was ranked higher than Alabama. And did I mention 35-0? Sometimes it seems like AP voters don't even put a tiny amount of thought and effort into their ballots.

Alabama's 11-1 record looks nice, but as the list of outcomes above shows, they struggled weekly to beat mediocre opponents (and that list did not include a 10-7 win at 5-6 Memphis). Even their 30-25 bowl win over #20 Colorado was an unimpressive performance for a top ten team. Match them up with Florida 12 times in 1991, and that 11-1 record becomes more like 1-11.

Move Notre Dame up to #6, leave Florida at #7, and drop Alabama to #8. California, East Carolina, Iowa, Syracuse, and Texas A&M all drop a spot as Notre Dame moves up past them.


9-3 Tennessee (#14) took all of their losses to top ten teams (Penn State, Florida, and Alabama), and they defeated now-#6 Notre Dame 35-34. They had an easily better relevant record than quite a few teams ranked ahead of them.

Let's cut to the chase and compare them to California (10-2, now #9). Cal had a better straight record, but that is because they played 1 top ten opponent, while Tennessee played 3 (4 with Notre Dame's move up). Cal lost to a lower-rated opponent, 38-21 at #22 Stanford, while Tennessee was not upset. That makes Tennessee effectively one game better. Both teams had 2 close wins, but Tennessee's came against better opponents: 26-24 over 7-5 Mississippi State and 35-34 at now-#6 Notre Dame compared to Cal's 23-21 over 4-7 Arizona and 27-24 at #19 UCLA. In fact, Tennessee beat UCLA 30-16.

The only thing in Cal's favor is perhaps a better bowl performance, though the opponents weren't comparable: Cal beat #18 Clemson 37-13 and Tennessee lost to now-#4 Penn State 42-17. But Cal was romped by #22 Stanford in their previous game, so it's not like they finished strong outside of that one bowl game.

Move Tennessee up to #9, dropping California, East Carolina, Iowa, Syracuse, and Texas A&M another one spot each. Supporting this move is the fact that the SEC was the best conference in '91, 34-11 against nonconference opponents.


9-2-1 Nebraska (#15) now sits one spot behind 10-2 Texas A&M. Nebraska's straight record was a half-game worse than Texas A&M's, but what matters is that their relevant record was a half game better. That is because Texas A&M lost to #21 Tulsa, while Nebraska was tied by #20 Colorado. Nebraska's 2 losses came to the co-national champions, Miami and Washington, and so are not relevant when comparing the Huskers to Texas A&M.

In addition to their effective half game lead over A&M, Nebraska defeated #16 Oklahoma, whereas Texas A&M defeated no rated opponents.

So we'll switch 'em. Nebraska to #14, Texas A&M to #15.

Colorado and Oklahoma

Colorado (8-3-1, #20) went 6-0-1 in the Big 8, sharing the conference title with Nebraska, whom they tied 19-19. Oklahoma (9-3, #16) went 5-2, losing to Nebraska, and more pertinently, to Colorado 34-17 at home. A decisive outcome. Oklahoma outperformed Colorado over the rest of their schedules, but style points do not forgive a game-and-a-half lead for Colorado, nor the decisive head-to-head result.

We'll have them meet in the middle of where they're ranked now, placing them behind 9-2-1 Clemson, who had a better relevant record than both. That moves Georgia to #16, Clemson to #17, Colorado to #18, Oklahoma to #19, and UCLA to #20.


Stanford (8-4, #22) is a difficult team to rate, primarily because they were upset 18-17 by unranked Georgia Tech (8-5) in their bowl game. But they had beaten now-#10 Cal 38-21 in their previous game, so dropping them back behind 2 other teams they defeated (UCLA and Colorado, originally ranked #19 & #20) seems like an overreaction to their bowl loss. Colorado is now the higher-ranked of those 2 teams, so let's look at Stanford vs. Colorado.

Stanford beat Colorado at home 28-21. Because that win was at Stanford, ended up being close, and occurred early in the season, you could argue that Stanford's upset loss to Georgia Tech, occurring in their bowl game and thereby carrying more weight, counterbalanced the head-to-head result, and that the two games favored Colorado in sum. However, Stanford outperformed Colorado over the rest of their schedules (Colorado limped into the bowl season with a 16-12 win over 0-10-1 Oklahoma State, 30-24 over 6-5 Kansas, and 17-14 over 3-7-1 Iowa State in their last 3 regular season games). And Stanford's win over now-#10 Cal beats out Colorado's tie with now-#14 Nebraska by half a game, so Stanford had the better relevant record.

Also, while the Stanford-Colorado game ended up being a 7-point difference, Colorado scored a late touchdown to achieve that final score. Stanford was not in real danger at the end. And Georgia Tech needed a miracle finish to beat Stanford in the Aloha Bowl. Stanford had controlled the game, but GT took a punt inside their own 10 with a minute left, and returned it to the Stanford 31, working their way to a touchdown and 2-point conversion from there. It was a razor-close finish, with one play (the 2-point conversion) separating Stanford from a win or a loss. So any advantage Colorado gets in sum from those 2 games isn't much to begin with, and is drowned by Stanford's advantage over their other 10 games.

We'll move Stanford up ahead of Colorado, to #18, dropping Colorado, Oklahoma, UCLA, and Tulsa one spot each.

It's not as though Stanford wasn't punished enough for their bowl loss already. If they had stopped Georgia Tech's 2-point try, they might be sitting in the top ten right now, ahead of California, whom they defeated. But that one play has dropped them all the way to #18.

Brigham Young

Brigham Young (8-3-2, #23) now sits right behind 10-2 Tulsa. Tulsa lost to unrated Kansas 23-17, but that upset loss was balanced out by a 35-34 upset win over now-#15 Texas A&M. Similarly, Brigham Young was tied by unrated San Diego State, which was balanced out by a tie with now-#12 Iowa. BYU's 3 losses all came to teams ranked higher than Tulsa (Florida State, UCLA, and Penn State-- their first 3 games of the season), so BYU and Tulsa were effectively even. The difference is performance.

BYU had just 1 close win, 31-29 over 4-7-1 UTEP. Tulsa, however, had 4 close wins other than their upset win over Texas A&M: 13-7 over 0-10-1 Oklahoma State, 33-28 over 5-6 Memphis, 13-10 over 4-7 Southern Miss, and 31-26 over 1-10 Southern Methodist. I would call those some pretty horrific performances.

Particularly the Southern Miss outcome. That game was tied 10-10 with 12 seconds left and Southern Miss lining up for a 35 yard field goal. But the kicker slipped on ice, and could not get the kick off. Tulsa took over, threw a "Hail Mary," and after bouncing around amongst a throng of players, the ball ended up with a Tulsa receiver for a 65 yard gain. Tulsa then attempted and missed a 29 yard field goal, but Southern Miss had 12 men on the field, giving Southern Miss a try from 24 yards, which they hit for the win. But needless to say, it took quite a string of luck to manage that win, and it's about as unimpressive as a win can be.

Tulsa is lucky to be ranked at all. We'll switch 'em. Brigham Young to #22, Tulsa to #23.


Iowa had a terrific-looking 10-1-1 straight record, but they are easily the most overrated team in the 1991 AP poll. They played just 2 ranked opponents, losing to now-#4 Michigan at home 43-24, and tying now-#22 Brigham Young 13-13 in the Holiday Bowl. Does that sound like the #10 team to you? That's where the AP poll put them, but those 2 results sure look a lot more like those of a #22 team to me.

They must've been hella dominating in their other 10 games, right? Well, not exactly. They beat 5-6 Wisconsin 10-6, 6-6 Illinois 24-21 (thanks to a questionable call that negated an apparent fumble on their winning drive), 4-7 Purdue 31-21, 8-4 Ohio State 16-9, 3-8 Northwestern 24-10, and 2-9 Minnesota 23-8. And all of those teams finished unranked. So they still look more like a #22 team than a #10 team.

Here's the question: why, exactly, would anyone believe that Iowa was that much better than Brigham Young, whom they tied in their bowl game? BYU only had 1 close win over an unrated opponent, while Iowa had 3 such wins. BYU actually defeated a ranked opponent, beating #25 Air Force (10-3) 21-7, while Iowa did not. And Iowa was quite lucky to even tie BYU in the Holiday Bowl. A BYU receiver let a Ty Detmer pass bounce off of his hands, and Iowa got the lucky carom for an interception at the goal line with 16 seconds left. Otherwise, BYU is at least kicking a chip shot field goal.

On the other hand, BYU was tied by unrated San Diego State (8-4-1), whereas Iowa suffered no upsets to unranked opponents. So I suppose we can allow the AP poll to rate Iowa higher than BYU on that basis. But let's turn our attention to the team rated just ahead of BYU, 9-3 UCLA.

All 3 of UCLA's losses came to ranked opponents, and they defeated Brigham Young at home 27-23. Given that Iowa was tied by BYU, it seems logical to me that we should slip Iowa in between UCLA and BYU. But I can see an argument for Iowa to at least be rated in a tie with UCLA. That is because their tie with BYU came at a neutral site, whereas UCLA's win over BYU came by 4 points at home. One can therefore argue that the performances were equal when taking home field advantage into account. And these teams do look very equal in their other games. Both had 3 close wins over unranked opponents, and both even beat 6-6 Illinois by 3 points.

But that's the best I can do for the AP poll voters (and Iowa) here. Iowa drops all the way down to #20, in a tie with UCLA, and of course all the teams that had been rated between Iowa and UCLA move up one spot.

Georgia Tech

Last but not least, we have 8-5 Georgia Tech, who is about to supplant 10-3 Air Force at #25. Why? Well, Air Force and Georgia Tech both lost to one unrated opponent, so they were equal there. But Air Force defeated no rated opponents, whereas Georgia Tech upset now-#17 Stanford in the Aloha Bowl 18-17. Georgia Tech also outperformed Air Force. AF had 4 close wins over unrated opponents, GT 2. AF played 2 rated opponents, losing those games by 14 and 13 points, while GT lost to 4 rated opponents (all ranked higher than Air Force, of course) by 12, 2, 7, and 3 points.

On top of all that, GT also defeated 8-3-1 Virginia, who tied now-#16 Clemson, and who should also be ranked ahead of Air Force. GT also defeated nearly-rated 7-4 North Carolina

So we'll put Georgia Tech in at #25, dropping Air Force out.

Fixed AP Top 25

This AP poll required a lot of work and a lot of fixes, but in the end, there is just one team falling out and one coming in. As stated, Air Force and Georgia Tech each lost to 1 unranked team, but only Georgia Tech defeated a rated opponent. So there's a 1-game improvement. But as demonstrated, GT was better than AF in every way.

1) Washington 12-0+1
2) Miami-Florida 12-0-1
3) Florida State 11-2+1
4) Penn State 11-2
     Michigan 10-2
6) Notre Dame 10-3+7
7) Florida 10-2--
8) Alabama 11-1-3
9) Tennessee 9-3+5
10) California 10-2-2
11) East Carolina 11-1-2
12) Syracuse 10-2-1
13) Nebraska 9-2-1+2
14) Texas A&M 10-2-2
15) Georgia 9-3+2
16) Clemson 9-2-1+2
17) Stanford 8-4+5
18) Colorado 8-3-1+2
19) Oklahoma 9-3-3
20) Iowa 10-1-1
       UCLA 9-3
22) Brigham Young 8-3-2+1
23) Tulsa 10-2-2
24) North Carolina State 9-3--
25) Georgia Tech 8-5IN

OUT: #25 Air Force 10-3