Yes, Virginia, There Once Was A (Virtual) Playoff, and Nebraska Won It

Ebenezer BarnesContributor ISeptember 10, 2008

Many college football fans would prefer a post-season multi-team NCAA-managed playoff, rather than our current two-team BCS National Championship Game.  Some of us likely will survive to see that preference come to pass.

But others of us, those who have seen already the passing of dozens of seasons, may have to look to the past rather than the future to get a glimpse of a top-level college football playoff.

There once was a time when, through the coincidences of scheduling and the flexibility of the old bowl system, it just so happened that there was what amounted to a five-team playoff for the top spot of college football.  That time was 1971.

A quick glance back might give us an inkling of the excitement that may come from future playoffs, real ones.  In 1971, two of the five virtual playoff teams came from the old Big Eight Conference: Oklahoma and Nebraska.  The other three were all members of the Southeastern Conference: Georgia, Auburn, and Alabama.

In mid-November 1971, all five of these squads were undefeated and untied, and the following games were yet to be played:

Auburn - Georgia

Auburn - Alabama

Nebraska - Oklahoma

Auburn - Oklahoma

Alabama - Nebraska

That set of five games, especially when seen in the rearview mirror, amounted to a virtual playoff.

Actually, in 1971, seven major-college teams reached November with perfect records.  The other two were Michigan and Penn State, neither of which played any of the five named above.  But Penn State and Michigan would lose, to Tennessee and Stanford respectively, making moot their non-participation in the virtual playoff.

The 1971 virtual playoff began, we realize now, on Nov. 13.  Coach Shug Jordan's undefeated Auburn Tigers travelled to Athens and won against the previously-undefeated Georgia Bulldogs of Coach Vince Dooley. 

Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan threw for four touchdowns, thereby taking a giant step toward the 1971 Heisman Trophy.  Auburn thus moved to a virtual semifinal game against Alabama, which had a virtual bye.

On Nov. 25, Thanksgiving Day, the first game of the virtual semifinal round was played in Norman, Okla.  Coach Bob Devaney's undefeated and defending national champion Nebraska Cornhuskers eliminated Coach Chuck Fairbanks' previously-undefeated Oklahoma Sooners, 35-31. 

In what is widely regarded as one of the best college football games ever, Cornhusker offensive coordinator Tom Osborne's I-formation outscored Sooner offensive coordinator Barry Switzer's wishbone. 

There were performances perhaps Heisman-worthy by Nebraska flanker Johnny Rodgers and Oklahoma running back Greg Pruitt, but the Heisman voting had already closed. 

Rodgers would win a Heisman during the following season, 1972.  As Big 8 champion, Nebraska went to the Orange Bowl.  Oklahoma accepted a Sugar Bowl bid.

The other virtual semifinal game, on the SEC side of the bracket, was played in Birmingham on Nov. 27 between Coach Bear Bryant's undefeated Alabama Crimson Tide and Coach Shug Jordan's undefeated Auburn Tigers.

Auburn's Pat Sullivan had been named as the 1971 Heisman winner two days earlier, but this would be a day for Alabama running back Johnny Musso. Coach Bryant's 1971 Bama team had been revitalized by his introduction of the wishbone, following sub-par seasons in 1969 and 1970. 

But it was primarily the Alabama defense, coached in part by assistant Pat Dye, which carried the day against Auburn in this game, 31-7. 

The victory not only decided the SEC title, but made it possible for Alabama to move into the final game of the virtual playoff, facing Nebraska. 

Normally, the SEC champion would play in the Sugar Bowl, but agreement by all parties made it possible for Alabama to play in the Orange Bowl game instead.  Auburn accepted a bid to play Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

At Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, on Jan. 1, 1972, Oklahoma and Auburn played what might be termed the consolation game of the 1971 virtual playoff.  Oklahoma, led by quarterback Jack Mildren and running back Greg Pruitt, won the game 40-22, but it wasn't nearly that close.  Oklahoma led at the half 31-0.

SEC fans and Big 8 fans alike suspected they had seen a preview of the Orange Bowl game.

Later on that New Year's Day, in Miami, Nebraska indeed clinched a repeat as national champion, defeating Alabama 38-6.  The halftime score was 28-0 Nebraska. 

The consensus around college football was that the actual national championship game had been the Nebraska-Oklahoma game in the virtual semifinals.  Had there been an actual five-team (or more) playoff in 1971, one would hope that effective seeding would have saved the best game for the finals.

In the virtual playoff of 1971, the three SEC teams had a combined record of 2-3, while the Big 8 teams jointly came in at 3-1.  In each match of teams from different conferences, the Big 8 team prevailed.

The final Associated Press poll for the 1971 season reflected the dominance of the Big 8.  Not only were Nebraska and Oklahoma ranked first and second, but fellow Big 8 member Colorado was ranked third.  Colorado's only two losses were to Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Though the SEC was pretty well pushed around by the Big 8 in 1971, it nevertheless made a significant showing in the final AP poll, with six of its ten teams ranked among the top 15:  Alabama at No. 4, Georgia at No. 7, Tennessee at No. 9, LSU at No. 11, Auburn at No. 12, and Ole Miss at No. 15.

The excitement generated by 1971's virtual playoff was great.  But it pales in comparison to the intensity that will be generated by actual NCAA playoffs in future years.  The 1971 series of games is perceived as a playoff only in retrospect.

The actual playoff of 2071 will be recognized in real time.  The Sooner The Better.  And The Cornhusker The Better.