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Doc Five: College football’s best Cinderella stories – No. 1, 1984 BYU wins national title

Frank Schwab
Dr. Saturday

This offseason we will count down various topics from Monday through Friday, bringing you the top five of the important and definitely some not so important issues in college football. It's the Doc Five, every week until we will thankfully have actual games to discuss.



Perhaps a playoff will allow some underdog to achieve what BYU did in 1984. But in the nearly three decades since the Cougars won an unlikely national title, the chances of someone replicating that accomplishment have become almost impossible.

A WAC team that was unranked in the preseason, and had just lost future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, won a national championship. That's incredible. There hasn't been a national champion from a conference not currently affiliated with the BCS since then (Penn State, Notre Dame and Miami won as independents in that stretch). There hasn't been a team that was unranked in the preseason win an AP national title since. In today's college football there are two common threads for every national title team: They come from a major conference, and they're ranked before the season. BYU was neither.

The perfect storm the Cougars had that season, and the inconceivability that it could be repeated in today's environment, makes that BYU team the biggest Cinderella story in college football the last 30 years.

Of course BYU's national title run can never be totally duplicated. The WAC doesn't even exist anymore. Back then it was a fun up-tempo league, and nobody liked to light up the scoreboard more than the Cougars.

BYU had Jim McMahon, Young and later Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer, but in 1984 the Cougars were replacing Young, one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, with virtually unknown Robbie Bosco. Quarterback wasn't the only question mark. BYU won its final 11 games in 1983, but lost three players who were taken in the first round of the NFL draft, or the NFL supplemental draft. Losing that talent, especially a legend like Young, will normally cripple a team from a smaller conference. That's one reason BYU was unranked going into the 1984 season.

View photo


Coach LaVell Edwards is carried off after the 1984 Holiday Bowl (AP)

The season started with a win at No. 3 Pitt, and that made people take notice. The Cougars were No. 13 the next week. BYU had a steady climb to No. 3. Then No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 South Carolina lost late in the season, and suddenly the Cougars led the race.

As WAC champions, BYU was bound to the Holiday Bowl, played on Dec. 21. Because the Holiday Bowl couldn't lure a top opponent, the Cougars drew a 6-5 Michigan team. Bosco led a fourth quarter comeback for the 24-17 win, which began a long waiting process and debate.

BYU didn't play a good schedule. The Cougars' two highest profile wins were against Pitt, which stumbled after the Week 1 loss to a 3-7-1 record, and a .500 Michigan team. But that season in college football, there were no other undefeated teams. Washington was the only team with one loss and no ties. Despite some critics, BYU was selected as the consensus national champion.

There weren't a lot of stars on that BYU team. Bosco had a great season in 1984, and was drafted by the Green Bay Packers, but suffered a shoulder injury and never appeared in a NFL game. The best future pros on the 1984 Cougars were probably linebacker Kurt Gouveia and running back Vai Sikahema. It was a team that was very strong on defense, allowing more than 17 points only twice that season, and had an offense that was held under 20 points only once.

No matter the knocks on that BYU team, which mostly revolve around the WAC competition it feasted on, the Cougars are the 1984 national champions. That will never be taken away from them. But, could a Cinderella story like that happen again?

In 2010 there were two great examples of non-BCS teams coming close to a title. Boise State was on a path to play for a BCS title before a late season loss, and TCU came close to getting a shot it deserved. But those teams ranked third and sixth in the AP preseason poll, respectively. They weren't off the radar. BYU was an entirely different case, being unranked in the preseason. Even big-conference teams that start well have a tough time moving all the way up the polls, mostly because voters won't move teams down unless they lose (providing the best reason to do away with preseason polls).

Maybe the playoff will help, but there's good reason to be skeptical. A non-power conference team could force its way into the conversation by going undefeated, but it will always be hard to get a spot at the table ahead of a Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC or even ACC team. Especially if that lesser conference team starts the season outside of the top 25. If the playoff expands to more than four teams, that might offer more opportunity for an underdog.

As for now, it's safe to wonder if there will ever be another Cinderella story in college football like 1984 BYU.

Previously on the Doc Five:
No. 5: Utah over Alabama

No. 4: Wisconsin, Northwestern crash Rose Bowl
No. 3: Johnny Manziel wins the Heisman
No. 2: Appalachian State wins at the Big House

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