' ' Cinema Romantico: My Favorite College Football Games: Game 15

Saturday, August 28, 2021

My Favorite College Football Games: Game 15

December 21, 1984 (Holiday Bowl): BYU - 24 Michigan - 17

The Holiday Bowl, a top-tier bowl name that might seem facile but effortlessly encapsulates how college football bowl games are intended as joyful respites from all the big picture hullabaloo, was born from necessity after the Fiesta Bowl severed its tie-in to the Western Athletic Conference when both Arizona schools bolted for Pac 10 Conference riches in the late 70s. That’s how a quirky outlier in the college football postseason, a Carter and Regan-era version of, say, the Cigar Bowl, came, in the most unlikely and jolly of scenarios, to host 1984’s National Championship game not on New Year’s Day but December 21st, the Friday before Christmas, televised on then-spunky upstart ESPN opposite new episodes of “Dallas” and “Falcon Crest.” It’s like if some football novice sat down to watch the Super Bowl and realized, no, the championship had already been decided on some December Sunday in some random game between, like, the Broncos and the Seahawks. And while I recognize this kind of peculiarity once exclusive to college football is what drove critics of the sport batty, such unique idiosyncrasies are what made me fall in love with it. And it’s why I have always considered the unbeaten, untied 1984 Brigham Young University Cougars as the sport’s supreme champion.  

In a 152-year old sport it is virtually impossible to compare and contrast formidable teams across such disparate eras. How do you logically ascertain whether 1901 Michigan defeating its opponents, like Albion and Case, by a combined score of 550-0 was more/less impressive than 2001 Miami’s stunning array of 38 future NFL draft picks? But then, for most of its playoff-less existence, college football only ever determined mythical national champions, wholly subjective, through the whims of polls. And in determining the greatest mythical national champion, one must eschew data for gridiron astrology to see when the stars most aligned for a single team. And if 1990 and 2007 are frequently recognized as modern college football’s most ludicrous seasons, 1984 is not far behind, where nearly every major team finished the season with at least one loss, and most with two, while arguably 1984’s best squad, Florida, was ineligible for the postseason and the title on account of a scant 107 NCAA recruiting and rules violations, allowing for BYU, the ultimate outsiders from the aptly pronounced WAC (that’s so whack!), to gradually ascend from unranked as the season began to #1 when it concluded. If their strength of schedule paled in comparison to the bluebloods they usurped, the mystical transitive property was nevertheless on their side, noted by John Underwood in Sports Illustrated where he cited a BYU professor diligently charting “how everybody has lost to somebody who has lost to somebody...who has lost to BYU.” “But nobody beat anybody who beat BYU,” Underwood decreed. “Case dismissed.” 

In a way, BYU being relegated to the Holiday Bowl by conference affiliation and forced to play an unbecoming, if brand name, opponent in Michigan, having a down year, was poetically apropos. If you are willing to watch the whole game, getting past ex-Cougar Steve Young filling in as color commentator for the hometown broadcast and saying “No doubt about it” so many times you may punch YouTube, you will realize the 24-17 final score belies BYU’s domination. Michigan, coached by reigning Big 10 dinosaur Bo Shembechler, runs a ball control offense exposed as antiquated and unsightly against BYU’s proclivity for passing. Shembechler’s Wolverines mostly subsist on BYU’s miscues, including three interceptions, all of which epitomize how, despite existing as one of America’s most conservative educational institutions, the 1984 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Football Team manifested glorious pigskin progressivism, quarterback Robbie Bosco, who briefly gets knocked out of the game before returning on a gimpy leg, not just timidly dinking and dunking but gallantly gunning for the spectacular, over and over, leading directly to those interceptions. Even his 13-yard game-winning, perfectly placed throw to Kelly Smith has a high degree of difficulty; a bit lower and who knows, maybe the game ends 17-17 and the Washington Huskies win it all. Instead, Bosco goes for it, yielding bedlam, in San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium and in the CFB universe. 

In his excellent book The Perfect Pass, S.C. Gwynne charted the sport’s evolution from run-based and condensed to pass-heavy and wide open through the eyes of former Kentucky coach Hal Mumme, though Gwynne noted how Mumme liberally studied and cribbed from Lavell Edwards’s BYU teams. Indeed, watching BYU spread the field in the 1984 Holiday Bowl now, it’s as if you are watching the future, even as their winning the mythical National Championship in a small-fry game on December 21st evinces a quainter college football, an irreproducible wonderful relic of the past. 

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