by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That proverb can certainly apply to college football, circa 2012. After all, despite the continuing upheaval in the conference landscape (more of which we’ll be addressing in just a moment), rendering the alignment of the sport almost unrecognizable from its recent form, here we go again with good old Notre Dame and Alabama, now officially slated for the BCS title game on January 7 in Miami.

It might as well be the 1973 season, when the Fighting Irish and Crimson Tide also squared off for the national title. Only that year, long before the Bowl Alliance or BCS, it was simply a made-to-order matchup in the Sugar Bowl of the top two teams in the polls entering the postseason.

Mention of 1973 warms our collective hearts at THE GOLD SHEET, for in our 56 seasons of publishing, we’re not sure there was ever a more fascinating campaign. The Irish and Crimson Tide ended up a convenient matchup for the national title, but if there were ever a season that justified a playoff, it would have been '73. The Irish and Crimson Tide were not the only unbeatens headed into that postseason; Joe Paterno had another of his unbeaten specials at Penn State, only in 1973 those Nittany Lions also featured a Heisman Trophy winner, John Cappelletti. And there were other unbeatens, too.

We also believe 1973 featured perhaps the best Michigan and Ohio State teams since TGS began publishing sixteen years earlier; their annual grudge match, held that year in Ann Arbor, featured a pair of 10-0 powerhouses in a savage battle for yet another spot in the Rose Bowl. Nothing was resolved that afternoon at the Big House, as the teams played to a bruising 10-10 deadlock, although controversy reigned afterward when a vote of Big Ten ADs went to OSU by a 6-4 count and sent Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes to Pasadena. (For those keeping score, note that along with Ohio State, it was Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin...and Michigan State voting for the Buckeyes; for the Spartans, many believed it was a payback for not only all of the “Moo U” jokes endured from Ann Arbor, but also for Michigan’s work at trying to keep MSU out of the conference a couple of decades earlier). Many still suspect a late-game shoulder injury to Michigan QB Dennis Franklin, who would have likely missed the Rose Bowl, also played a role in the eventual vote. The Buckeyes, however, ended up justifying their selection by throttling Southern Cal, 42-21, in a rematch of the previous year’s Rose Bowl.

But, in the days when only the Big Ten champion could participate in a bowl (just the year before the conference finally dropped its draconian “no-repeat” Rose Bowl rule), what might have been Bo Schembechler’s best Wolverine team stayed home for the postseason. Indeed, in a three-season span between 1972-74, Schemebechler’s teams recorded a 30-2-1 SU mark, but could not beat Ohio State and thus did not participate in a bowl. Think about that when viewing your favorite Sun Belt and MAC teams rolling around in a bowl game near you later this month.

The year of 1973 was also Barry Switzer’s first season in charge at Oklahoma, which arguably was the best team in the nation...only the 10-0-1 Sooners (who recorded an early season 7-7 draw vs. defending national champ Southern Cal) were on probation and couldn’t participate in a bowl. The ‘73 OU edition was a hurricane, burying old rivals Texas (52-13) and Nebraska (27-0) while featuring what we still believe to be the most electrifying RB/KR we’ve ever seen in college football, Joe Washington (check out his highlights on YouTube if you don't believe us).

Another powerhouse missing from the bowl picture that year was Pepper Rodgers’ UCLA, with a QB named Mark Harmon splitting snaps with John Sciarra and helping set West Coast rushing records with the Bruin version of the Wishbone, only to be denied a Rose Bowl trip once again by USC and, as it was in those days in the Pac-8 as well as the Big Ten, kept out of bowl action entirely.

1973 was also the debut year for Tom Osborne as HC at Nebraska, and he steered the Cornhuskers to the Cotton Bowl, where NU beat Darrell Royal’s Texas, 19-3, as well as a season featuring one of Frank Kush’s powerhouse Arizona State teams from the old WAC; the Sun Devils lost just once. It was also the year a frosh RB named Tony Dorsett took the nation by storm at Pitt, which, after a dormant period, made an immediate renaissance after the arrival of HC Johnny Majors from Iowa State.

Still, no one had much of a problem with Notre Dame and Alabama squaring off for the national title that New Year’s Eve in New Orleans. The battle was much-hyped, as it would be the first-ever meeting between Ara Parseghian and Bear Bryant-coached teams. For Parseghian, it was a chance to finally quiet his few remaining critics who suggested he couldn’t win the big one, citing the failure at the end of the 1964 season at Southern Cal and the infamous 10-10 tie at Michigan State in 1966, a season in which the Irish were eventually named national champs anyway. But Parseghian longed for an opportunity to win a “clean” national title, which a victory over the legendary Bryant would confirm.

Parseghian’s team had the look of a national title contender early that season, with a returning starter at QB in jr. Tom Clements, a thunder-and-lightning collection of RBs featuring the rugged FB Wayne Bullock and homerun HB Eric Penick, plus the best TE in the country, Dave Casper. The Irish defense, infused with new playmakers such as DE Ross Browner (who along with DTs Steve Niehaus & Mike Fanning represented three-fourths of a future NFL DL) and CB Luther Bradley, had more foot speed than any previous Parseghian stop unit. The confirmation of Notre Dame’s candidacy for the national crown came at midseason in a rousing 23-14 win at South Bend over John McKay’s defending national champ USC, a game featuring an 85-yard touchdown bolt from Penick.

Bama, meanwhile, had left a path of destruction behind in that year’s SEC (which, while formidable, should not be confused with the present-day SEC), rolling through the regular season, rarely challenged along the way. Bryant, who had switched to the Wishbone formation two years earlier in 1971 and reaped immediate benefit by the Tide breaking the color barrier the previous year, now had some real speed in his backfield with RBs Wilbur Jackson and Willie Shelby, and a defensive playmaker deluxe in LB Woodrow Lowe.

That Sugar Bowl was preceded by almost-unprecedented hype for a college football game. And, while the game was not an artistic masterpiece, it provided compelling viewing nonetheless. Parseghian, who mimicked a “mirror defense” devised by UCLA’s Tommy Prothro to slow the Texas Wishbone in the Cotton Bowl three years earlier, flustered Bama in much the same manner early in the Sugar Bowl. The bewildering scaffolds of Parseghian’s “D” kept the Tide nailed in place with no positive yardage in the 1st Q. Meanwhile, Ara’s offense, borrowing some misdirection elements of Delaware’s famed Wing-T of the day, moved smartly to an early 6-0 lead on a short Bullock TD run.

The Tide, however, soon adjusted, and what ensued was a back-and-forth gridiron equivalent to the previous year’s Stan Smith-Ilie Nastase Men’s Final at Wimbledon. Gary Rutledge, who alternated at QB with Richard Todd for Bryant, finally fired up the ’Bone for a 52-yard TD drive in the 2nd Q, but no sooner had Bama claimed a 7-6 lead than Irish back Al Hunter raced 93 yards for a TD on the ensuing kickoff, and a Pete Demmerle two-point conversion catch put the Irish up 14-7.

The lead see-sawed thereafter, although after Bama PK Bill Davis missed a crucial PAT in the 4th Q that kept the Tide lead at 23-21, the door was open for some late Fighting Irish heroics. And it was Clements providing most of those, smartly leading a drive downfield (keyed by three of his runs totaling 25 yards, and a 30-yard pass to Casper), setting up PK Bob Thomas for a go-ahead 19-yard FG (which just barely cleared the crossbar) and a 24-23 lead. After holding the Tide, the Irish were pushed back to their one-yard-line after a 69-yard punt by Bama’s Greg Gantt. Faced with a 3rd-and-8 from their own 3 with just over 2 minutes to play, and realizing that the Tide could get great field position for a game-winning FG if the Irish were forced to punt, Clements delivered big, looking first for Casper, but then uncorking a deep 35-yard completion to his other TE, Robin Weber, moving the Irish out of trouble. Notre Dame was able to run out the clock and claim a 24-23 win. And, unlike 1966, a neat-and-tidy (and unblemished) national title for Parseghian.

Now, we’ll see if we get a national title rematch with that much drama on January 7.

The mention of 1973 has also long had us wondering what might have been that season had a playoff been in place. Notre Dame’s deserving national title aside, we still can’t think of another campaign in which a playoff might have been more intriguing.

And the mention of playoffs is appropriate, because two years from now, this corresponding issue of TGS will be talking about not only upcoming bowl games, but the first real playoff in college football history, specifics of which were finalized this past offseason.

It’s not the full-blown 8 or 16-team tourney we have been championing for decades; instead, it will involve only four teams. Which, we suppose, is better than nothing.

We find it interesting that one of our higher-profile pro-playoff counterparts, Yahoo Sports! columnist Dan Wetzel, who helped pen the excellent Death to the BCS book (which we reviewed and have referred to on these pages many times since) and who has consistently been one of the media’s strongest playoff advocates, wasn’t doing any victory laps earlier this year when the new playoff format was announced. The mostly-corrupt bowl system, which Wetzel & Co. exposed so expertly in their book, was going to remain basically unchanged. And while the new four-team playoff would generate more revenue, it paled in comparison to the dollars that an 8 or 16-team tournament could produce.

As Wetzel always reminds his readers (as have we in recent years), most of the bowls can still exist outside of the national playoff. It’s not as it the Beef O’Brady’s St. Petersburg Bowl has ever had anything to do with the national title. But in an era when the many publically-supported universities are looking at budget cuts galore, the idea of leaving so much money on the table at the expense of continuing a system that contracts out one of its most-valuable assets to middle-men masquerading as bowl executives is almost criminal.

We welcome the upcoming playoff in 2014, but we’re still looking forward to the day when it expands to become the real event college football fans want...and that schools might need to stay afloat.


Meanwhile, the rumor mill continues to whirr. Since warning of more conference shuffling in our issue last week, several more moves were consummated in the past seven days. Among those, Louisville is leaving the Big East for the ACC, Tulane abandoning C-USA for the Big East, and Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic leaving the Sun Belt for C-USA. A bit under the radar on the basketball side, College of Charleston has announced it will move from the Southern Conference to the CAA.

Don’t think the conference shuffle is going to take a break in December, either. Sources tell us to continue to monitor the plight of Boise State and San Diego State, which many trusted Mountain West insiders still believe will apply for reinstatement to the league rather than complete the football-only transfer to the Big East, which has been turned inside-out from the league the Broncos and Aztecs thought they were joining when first announcing the move. The Big East is also still without a TV deal beyond 2013, and sources believe the big-money infusion the conference was expecting might not happen after all.

But what we’re really watching is a situation reported by several of our sources in the SEC, which alert to a potential expansion, perhaps very soon. Virginia Tech and NC State appear to be the targeted schools, which would expand the SEC’s reach further up the Eastern Seaboard all of the way to Washington-Baltimore territory, which is teeming with Hokie and Wolfpack alums. Another round of expansion would also allow the SEC to renegotiate its TV deals, which it was also able to do last year with the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M that allowed the conference to update what had quickly become outdated TV contracts with ESPN and CBS signed not long before.

Reports also indicate that schools such as North Carolina and Virginia are reluctant to hitch up with the SEC and get involved in some of the long-established recruiting shenanigans that exist in the league. Insiders say VPI & NC State are not as spooked by those sorts of concerns, and thus the likely targets.

Sources also say that if the moves of VPI and NC State take place, UConn and Cincinnati would be recruited from the Big East as their replacements in the ACC. It would be this set of dominoes falling, some of our insiders believe, that would probably prompt Boise State and San Diego State withdrawing from the Big East. Stay tuned for further developments, as our “Big 64" scenario potentially moves ahead of schedule before what we believed was a delivery date late in this decade. The middle of the decade now seems a more appropriate target.

Meanwhile, the rumor mill is really whirring in the college coaching ranks, where more replacements can expect being named within the week. In fact, NC State (maybe SEC-bound?) has already gotten the jump and tabbed Northern Illinois’ Dave Doeren as its new coach over the weekend, with Kentucky tabbing Florida State d.c. Mark Stoops. The situations everywhere are extremely fluid; while we’ve checked these reports for their validity, remember only one is eventually going to be correct at each school. Until then, however, we believe most of this scuttlebutt is valid.

Following are the top candidates, from what we can infer from our sources, for some of the current job openings, as of Sunday...

Arkansas...Sources say that AD Jeff Long made a legitimate offer last week to LSU HC Les Miles, which Miles’ Dallas-based agent George Bass was immediately able to parlay into an upgraded deal for Les at LSU. Regional insiders tell us that there might be complications for the Razorbacks to raid in-state Arkansas State for its in-demand HC, Gus Malzahn, fearing political ramifications possibly involving Gov. Mike Beebe, a Red Wolves alum. Malzahn might also still have some hard feelings from being run out of Fayetteville after just one year as o.c. under then-HC Houston Nutt in 2006, but his hire would still seem a good fit. Names to watch in Fayetteville could include La Tech’s Sonny Dykes, Louisville’s Charlie Strong, Kent State’s Darrell Hazel, Louisiana’s Mark Hudspeth, and an outsider, Washington’s Steve Sarkisian, a client of nearby Memphis super-agent Jimmy Sexton, who pulls many strings in the region (although if Sarkisian had a candidacy, it was likely damaged by UW's season-ending Apple Cup loss to Washington State).

Auburn...SEC sources report the name to watch is none other than Bobby Petrino, whose candidacy at Kentucky was nixed within the Wildcat administration but who apparently is more palatable to the Tigers. Insiders say Auburn is serious about Petrino and is trying to digest the idea. If not Petrino, plan 1-B is apparently Ark State’s Gus Malzahn, well connected on the Plains from his days as o.c. when Cam Newton was on campus and before the Tigers started to lose so badly this season for Gene Chizik.

Boston College...Insiders say the Eagles want to talk to New Orleans Saints OL coach Aaron Kromer (the Saints’ interim HC for the first six games of this season) and might also be looking at Saints o.c. Pete Carmichael, Jr. (a BC grad). Several sources in the Northeast believe new Eagle AD Brad Bates is also interested in Miami-Fla.’s Al Golden (who has been burdened by inherited problems in Coral Gables), Notre Dame d.c. Bob Diaco, and Kent State HC Darrell Hazel.

California...Pac-12 sources say the Bears sent an obligatory trial balloon toward Boise State HC Chris Petersen, but expect nothing to transpire, and Utah State’s Gary Andersen has apparently taken himself out of the running (he says he’s not leaving the Utags; his deal in the Cache Valley was recently extended thru 2018). La Tech HC Sonny Dykes has reportedly been interviewed, and sources expect San Jose State’s Mike MacIntyre, Fresno State’s Tim DeRuyter, former Oakland Raider HC and current Cincinnati Bengals asst. Hue Jackson, and Notre Dame d.c. Bob Diaco to be in the mix.

Colorado...Sources in the Rockies say that the Buffs are willing to go as high as $2.5 million per year for their coach (about three times what they were paying the deposed Jon Embree), and that Cincinnati’s Butch Jones (making about $1.6 mill, with incentives, with the Bearcats; Jones also apparently turned down recent interest from Kentucky, which instead hired Florida State d.c. Mark Stoops) is now at or near the top of the wish list that could also include Fresno State Tim DeRuyter, La Tech’s Sonny Dykes, BYU’s Bronco Mendenhall, San Jose State’s Mike MacIntyre, and perhaps Air Force’s Troy Calhoun, who reportedly turned down the job two years ago, but whose star has slightly fallen since.

Purdue...With NIU’s Dave Doeren pulling out of the Purdue mix early (probably because he had his eye on NC State), the Boilermakers, who are sweetening the pot for their incoming new coach, are reportedly in hot pursuit of Cincy’s Butch Jones, who has no shortage of suitors (Colorado especially). Also keep an eye on Western Kentucky’s Willie Taggart, Kent State’s Darrell Hazel, and La Tech’s Sonny Dykes as other possibilities.

Southern Miss...The Golden Eagles ended the Ellis Johnson experiment rather abruptly after an 0-12 season, and are said to have UL-Monroe HC Todd Berry, Louisiana o.c. Jay Johnson, North Carolina o.c. Blake Anderson, Florida State associate HC Eddie Gran, Oklahoma State o.c. Todd Monken, and Texas Tech o.c. Neal Brown on their radar screen.

Tennessee...Sources say the Vols have interviewed Louisville HC Charlie Strong (who has deep SEC roots), but there are still rumors that super-agent and UT alum Jimmy Sexton might put together a blockbuster deal with a couple of his clients, Vols AD Dave Hart and Florida State HC Jimbo Fisher. Hart was AD at FSU when Jimbo was brought in as the Noles’ coach-in-waiting, and sources say that if Fisher really is in play, Knoxville (and not Auburn) would be a likely landing spot. There are also reports that a couple of powerful Tennesseeans, new Browns owner and Pilot Corp. president Jimmy Haslam, and his brother, Gov. Bill Haslam, might be willing to broker a deal to make a huge hire, although the Jon Gruden reports proved to be just smoke. Baylor’s Art Briles, North Carolina’s Larry Fedora, La Tech’s Sonny Dykes, and San Jose State’s Mike MacIntyre (with life-long connections in the region, where he coached for most of his career; dad George was also Vanderbilt HC) could be in the mix. Sources say Alabama d.c. Kirby Smart (another Jimmy Sexton client) is a longshot at best and more likely to stay with the Crimson Tide, as he figures at some point be designated as the coach-in-waiting after Nick Saban.

UTEP...Regional insiders say ex-Boise State and Colorado HC Dan Hawkins has keen interest in the job and might have already been interviewed by AD (and former HC) Bob Stull. Also keep an eye on former Philadelphia Eagles d.c. Juan Castillo, Missouri o.c. David Yost, Texas Tech o.c. Neal Brown, and Texas A&M o.c. Kliff Kingsbury.

More info as it becomes available...

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