The "crime of the century in college football" was committed yesterday -- at least according to West Virginia coach Don
It occurred when -- to the surprise of few and to the disappointment and disgust of the Mountaineers and their fans -- Nebraska and Florida State were anointed as the No. 1 teams in the country in the final regular-season polls.
The undefeated Cornhuskers (11-0), the No. 1 team in the USA Today-CNN coaches' poll, likely will play the once-beaten Seminoles (11-1), the top team in the Associated Press poll of writers and broadcasters, for the national championship Jan. 1 in the Orange Bowl.
Barring an unforeseen turnaround by Sunday, when the bowl invitations will be extended in Atlanta by the Bowl Coalition, West Virginia (11-0) will have virtually no chance of playing for the national championship. Nebraska secured its chance with Friday's 21-7 home victory over Oklahoma. Florida State not only needed to beat Florida in Gainesville Saturday -- the Seminoles won, 33-21, and broke the Gators' 23-game home winning streak -- but also needed to get more overall votes than the Mountaineers in the coalition poll that combines the two other polls.
Florida State did, even though it finished third behind Nebraska and West Virginia in the coaches' poll. Auburn (11-0), the only other Division I-A undefeated team, is on NCAA probation and ineligible to play in a bowl.
"Until we get into the championship game [officially], I hate to say anything," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said yesterday during a teleconference from Tallahassee. "Whoever it would be against, it would be the game-of-the-whatever, because we've never played in a national championship game."
While the Cornhuskers and Seminoles were set for a rematch of last year's lost six straight New Year's Day bowl games, and Florida State, which has won its past eight bowl games, would be called this season's "Game of the Century IV." The Seminoles played I (Miami), II (Notre Dame) and III (Florida) this season. "I'm not sure the public will pick it up as such," said Bowden, who has two bowl victories over Nebraska and coach Tom Osborne.
While the Cornhuskers and Seminoles were set for a rematch of last year's Orange Bowl (won by Florida State, 27-14), the Mountaineers were left with a probable Cotton Bowl invitation against Southwest Conference champion Texas A&M.;
The outcome left Nehlen bemoaning his team's lack of respect. Nehlen says that a team with one loss -- then-No. 1 Florida State lost to then-No. 2 Notre Dame, 31-24, Nov. 13 in South Bend -- should not get the opportunity to play for the national title when a highly-ranked unbeaten team is available.
After his team's 17-14 win over Boston College, Nehlen said: "It would be the crime of the century perpetrated in college football if we didn't get a chance to play for the national championship. If we don't get that opportunity, something's really wrong with the system. Then it's political, and when politics starts determining who's going to play for the national championship, that's a shame."
Bowden, who coached at West Virginia 1970 through 1975, had sympathy for Nehlen, who has been in Morgantown since 1980. But Bowden says Florida State's non-conference schedule -- which included wins over Miami and Kansas -- carried the Seminoles over the top.
Asked what he would say if he were Nehlen, Bowden said: "If I was Don Nehlen coaching at West Virginia, I'd be campaigning as hard as could be. But if I was Don Nehlen and coaching at Florida State, I'd say I have the best team in the country."
And what does Nebraska's Osborne have to say about the latest rankings? "He went out in the country to go fishing, and I'm not sure exactly when he'll be back," Osborne's wife, Nancy, told the AP.
The Mountaineers and Cornhuskers reportedly are mounting a campaign to play for a national championship against each other. Angry West Virginia fans deluged AP's New York office with phone calls and faxes yesterday, and Nebraska has hired a public relations firm to sway the media's voting.
After reading about it, Bowden joked: "It looks like Nebraska and West Virginia have a plan. It's seems like two against one to me."
But, with uncharacteristic macho, Bowden said: "It's going to send a message one way or the other. Do you want to schedule a team when they have their best chance to go 11-0, or do you want a schedule that separates the men from the boys?"
West Virginia, which finished undefeated in the regular season for the first time since 1988, climbed over Auburn to third in the AP poll and over Florida State to second in the USA Today-CNN poll.
The positioning of Nebraska and Florida State means that, for the second straight season since it came into existence, the Bowl Coalition has produced a national championship between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams.
Asked if the coalition concept was working, Bowden said: "Right now, the coalition is right where it ought to be. I'd say it's doing a good job."
You get the feeling that Don Nehlen doesn't share that opinion.