Last Saturday, I cheered for Notre Dame in its showdown with the University of Southern California. Not that I’m so fond of the Irish, although I do admit to liking them the way I like the New York Yankees, in that baseball and college football always seem more interesting when there are good teams to either hate or admire in these franchises. And not that I like USC so well, either: an early infatuation with its Trojan mascot, mounted on a white horse, evaporated almost as rapidly as a later infatuation with the USC cheerleaders. And not because I had money down on the game, although I do admit to taking the Irish and three points in the office football pool, mainly because a game between unbeaten, untied teams this late in the season should at least be close. And certainly not because I foresaw a national championship for Notre Dame (the winner of the annual Irish-Trojan showdown has gone on to win the college football title 22 times since they began meeting in the 20s, the ABC television commentary informed us, and this was the first time the two teams had met with both unbeaten and untied, ranked one and two). No, the reason I cheered for the Irish is that I foresee a West Virginia national championship, and the clearest route to that end was through a Notre Dame victory.
Because West Virginia is a fine team and would make an excellent national champion in this year of the underdog. The Mountaineers–the ‘Eers, as in “ears,” my grandfather calls them, from his acquaintance with them from his longtime home outside Wheeling–have also been the victims of regional prejudice for about as long as the university has had a football team and especially this year. A week ago, West Virginia deserved to be ranked third, behind the Irish and Southern Cal, but instead found themselves fourth. Now they deserve to be second but instead find themselves third, still behind Miami, beaten earlier this season by Notre Dame. It’s been a turbulent, confusing season, but this was outright regional bias.
It has been a season where almost every highly considered team has beaten some other highly considered team, but only once, before losing to some other highly considered team. If a case can be made for Miami being, despite its one loss, the best college football team in the nation (and anyone who saw the Irish-Hurricane game in South Bend, and the home cooking Notre Dame received from the referees, can make that case), then an equally strong case can be made for Florida State, the preseason favorite, which lost its opening game to Miami and has not been challenged since. It’s been a confusing season.
Still, we came to last weekend in the fairly simple position of having four undefeated teams (ranked first, second, fourth, and tenth if that makes sense, and even if it doesn’t), but after Arkansas’ loss to Miami and the Notre Dame-USC match, there would be only two. The game, played in the Los Angeles Coliseum, was typically hard-hitting and tradition-bound. It was like a World Series game between the Yankees and Dodgers. It began slowly, a battle of punters and defenses, with both sides playing cautiously until Southern Cal made the first of several costly mistakes in allowing Irish quarterback Tony Rice to go 65 yards for a touchdown on a poorly covered option play. A Trojan fumble led to another score, and the Irish threatened to put the game away early with an interception of USC quarterback Rodney Peete, but they fumbled the ball right back and Southern Cal remained in the game. The Irish unveiled a nasty array of blitzes against Peete, and they troubled him most of the day, but he solved them toward the end of the first half, hit his receivers in single coverage, and drove the team for a score that made it 14-7. The Irish were playing increasingly conservatively on offense as the game went on, and kicked the ball back to USC with about a minute to play in the half, but the scales tipped solidly to Notre Dame when Peete threw a down-and-out timing pass to a wide receiver who went down, literally, on the ground, leaving the Irish cornerback open for an interception and a touchdown run down the sideline. USC moved the ball well all day, but they never got a break. After settling for a field goal after an otherwise impressive drive toward the end of the third quarter, USC then watched as the Irish drive all the way downfield for the touchdown that clinched it. It was their one convincing possession of the day, and it settled the issue–for the time being–of who is Number One.
Now, Notre Dame faces West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl January 2. The big-time fans who fear parity reaching down from the NFL to the colleges probably see this as a bad sign. It will be the second time in three years that two independent teams will have met for the national championship, demonstrating the weakened position of the nation’s conferences and the bowls that lock those conference champions in for bids. (The Rose Bowl especially may have to readjust its format, since the Big Ten has become such a poor partner with the Pacific Ten.) The Mountaineers, clearly, should be named national champs if they win, but even if they do there will be hollering that Miami should be ranked on top (if it beats Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, which it should), because, really, they did beat Notre Dame, and besides they played a tougher schedule.
This is the sort of argument that comes from people who want to see the same play-off system instituted in college football that we find in pro football and in college basketball. Count me among the people who feel that major college football is already a little too major, that we should all try to remember that these players are–at least most of the time–students and amateurs, and that the idea of voting for a national champion rather than letting it be decided once and for all for certain is one of those naturally controversial, argumentative pieces of the sport (like the voting for the Heisman Trophy) that enliven college football simply because the solution is not perfect.
If West Virginia defeats Notre Dame, it deserves to be national champion. The school played a strong schedule, even if it wasn’t as harsh as those faced by Miami, Florida State, Southern Cal, and Notre Dame, and–what’s more difficult for college-football fans to accept–it has a strong team. On top, West Virginia has an excellent, unheralded coach. For years, Don Nehlen has mined the small Ohio Valley coal towns alongside his more opulent counterparts from Ohio State and Penn State, Michigan, Pitt, and, yes, Notre Dame for talented running backs and especially the mountainous linemen this region produces with such regularity. It’s a region that takes its high school football as seriously as they take it in Texas, for very much the same reasons: big-time college football and the pro career that beckons afterward are a way out of those small towns. Inevitably, because West Virginia is commonly regarded as a hillbilly school, Nehlen gets the scrubs, the remainders from this group, but inevitably he turns them into a tough, embittered, but clean and sportsmanlike team. West Virginians have long feared that Nehlen would flee the state for a more prestigious, high-profile football program–thick with rich alumni willing to spend whatever it takes to get this fine high school tackle or that high school running back–a treatment he probably deserves. If Ohio State had had any sense last spring after firing Earl Bruce it would have tried to spirit Nehlen away, and perhaps it did. Yet Nehlen has remained on, running a good program, and this year must be considered his peak season. A little strategic red-shirting (declaring a player ineligible for a season, due to injury or some other excuse, so that he can practice with the team and come back with an extra year of eligibility the following season) has produced an offensive line composed entirely of five-year seniors. As might be expected, it is still not as large as the offensive lines at Notre Dame, Southern Cal, and elsewhere, but the five linemen have more games started between them than any other group of linemen in the nation, and they fire off the ball like five fingers of the same hand. Nehlen also got lucky in the rapid development of sophomore Major Harris, a double-threat quarterback who may yet get to be as good as his name. West Virginia’s defense is underrated but remains determined. By tradition, it is a hard-hitting and scrappy group; I remember seeing them earlier this decade on visits to my grandfather and thinking they had a system much like the 70s’ Pittsburgh Steelers or the Bears of the same era, a system stressing slanting line play, roving linebackers, and safeties that routinely came to the line to deliver crushing tackles. That’s how they played against Penn State, and that’s how they should play against the Irish: neutralize the Irish’s physical superiority with slants at the line, and hope the defense bends without breaking until Harris and his offensive line can deliver the big play.
In short, I have no doubt that West Virginia can play with Notre Dame, and certain other hunches–those dreaded intangibles–make me think the Mountaineers will win. First, it seems to be their year, their peak season, and they fit so well with this year’s other sporting champions, Doug Williams and the underdog Washington Redskins and Orel Hershiser and the even more unexpected Los Angeles Dodgers (although, we should remember, the Fiesta Bowl officially takes place next year). Also, I think they’ll respond well to the nationwide attention they’ll receive–the hype–although this is hard to read and they may fold. Lastly, and most important, remember that probably every major player on the West Virginia team–and certainly most of the local recruits–was at one point scouted and thrown back by Notre Dame. That yields the sort of bitterness and intensity that the Mountaineers always bring to their annual Penn State matchup, and expect them to carry an even bigger chip on their shoulders when they face Notre Dame. Give me West Virginia and however many points they’re getting.