How many NCAA titles would Joe Paterno have won if he had the college football playoff?

Is it easier or harder for a head coach to win a national championship in college football now than it was years ago? College football analyst Kirk Herbstreit stated he believe it was easier today for a head coach to win a national championship because of the college football playoff which gives more teams an opportunity to win the national championship.

If we were still using the old poll system, Alabama would not have played for the national championship this past January and Nick Saban would not had the opportunity to win his sixth national title. Think about that. Alabama would have been on the outside looking in on the national championship picture and would not have played for a national championship but instead just played in a bowl game.

A school that didn’t even win its division, let alone play for a conference championship, won the national championship. That would have never happened in the pre-BCS, pre-playoff era. National championships were harder to come by because of reduced opportunities, poll politics and bowl affiliations.

In today’s current format, all you need to do is finish in the top four and you have a shot at a national championship. In the past, before the playoff system and the BCS, a team could be ranked #2 and not had a shot at a national title if the #1-ranked team had a conference-affiliated tie to a bowl game or for that matter, if the #2-ranked team did as well. The #2-ranked team had to hope the #1-ranked team lost as they seldom met in a bowl game to decide the national championship.

For example, years ago, if Alabama was #2 and USC was #1, USC would have faced the Big 10 Conference representative in the Rose Bowl as the Rose Bowl had automatic tie-ins to the PAC-8, 10 or 12 and the Big 10 conferences. Therefore, if USC won, Alabama could not prove on the field head-to-head versus USC who the real national champion was.

A counter argument is teams now play more games and therefore have additional opportunity to lose those games, but you can win a national championship today without winning your division or even playing in your conference championship game. Alabama did it in 2017. Ohio State made the four-team playoff in 2016 without winning the Eastern division of the Big 10 conference.

It makes one wonder, how many final fours would Penn State been in under Joe Paterno? Let’s look back at the polls during Paterno’s years when he had an outstanding team, and when Penn State would have been in the college football playoff conversation.

At the end of the 1968 regular season, the top four ranked teams in the country were: Ohio State, USC, Penn State and Georgia. Penn State was 10-0 and Ohio State had a 9-0 record. The Buckeyes defeated number two-ranked USC 27-16 in the Rose Bowl and Penn State beat 6th-ranked Kansas 15-14 in the Orange Bowl. Penn State would finish the season ranked second, undefeated and uncrowned. It was the consensus that Ohio State was the best team in the country in 1968. A Penn State-Ohio State game would have been a titanic battle of two strong running attacks against two outstanding run defenses.

In 1969, at the end of the regular season, the Nittany Lions were ranked second behind Texas and ahead of Arkansas and Ohio State. It has been well documented how Penn State ended up not getting to play Texas in the Cotton Bowl to determine a national champion on the field that year. For those that may not be aware, bowl game invitations were extended by bowl game committees in November before the end of the regular season to get the bowl committee’s desired team locked in as quickly as possible. Ohio State was ranked number one and in the midst of a 22-game winning streak and it looked like they would go undefeated and repeat as national champions.

Ohio State was heavily favored to beat Michigan and they would repeat as national champions.  On November 17th, the top four ranked teams in the country were: Ohio State, Texas, Arkansas and Penn State. Number two-ranked Texas had yet to play third-ranked Arkansas. It seemed highly unlikely that fourth-ranked Penn State would have an opportunity to play for the national championship and Penn State’s players elected to return to the Orange bowl in Miami which they enjoyed a great deal the year before and avoid the existing racial tension in Dallas, Texas.

Michigan under first-year head coach Bo Schembechler pulled off an incredible upset defeating the Buckeyes 24-12. After the Ohio State loss, in a battle of then the top-two teams in the country, #1 Texas defeated #2 Arkansas 15-14, and that’s why Texas was ranked number one with a commitment to the Cotton Bowl and Penn State was ranked number two with their commitment to the Orange Bowl.

James Vautravers does an excellent job discussing whether Texas or Penn State should have been ranked number one in his article found online at: http://www.tiptop25.com/champ1969.html. At the time, Texas’ wishbone offense ran roughshod against all their Southwest Conference foes. In the 1972 Cotton Bowl, with time to prepare, Paterno’s defense held Texas’ vaunted wishbone attack without a touchdown for the first time in 80 games going all the way back to 1964 in one of the most lopsided games in Cotton Bowl history, winning by a score of 30-6.

Paterno proved, with time to prepare, that Penn State could stop the wishbone offense and he had a better team in 1969, particularly on defense, than he did in 1972 when Penn State shut down Texas’ offense. Penn State may well have been the best team in the country in 1969, however, Penn State would again finish the season ranked second, again undefeated and uncrowned. Good luck convincing a Nittany Lion fan that Penn State would not have won the 1969 national championship had there been a playoff system.

In 1973 after going through the season undefeated, Penn State found itself ranked sixth before the bowl games took place. That year Alabama, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Michigan were also undefeated and at that time Eastern football was not regarded as highly as in other parts of the country. Oklahoma, however, was on probation and ineligible to play in a bowl game. Bill Connelly breaks down how he thought the 1973 four-team playoff would have been in his article found online at: https://www.footballstudyhall.com/2016/6/27/12040028/1973-college-football-season-michigan-ohio-state-alabama-notre-dame.

With the biases that existed by voters in the Associated Press Poll against Eastern football, I do not believe Penn State would have been one of the four teams chosen to make the playoff and with how the Nittany Lions struggled with 13th-ranked LSU in the Orange Bowl, Penn State may not have fared as well against Alabama or Notre Dame.

Penn State under Paterno had four opportunities to play in the game win the national championship and had a record of 2-2 in them. The first was Penn State’s 1978 team that played in a #1 vs. #2 showdown in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama but the Nittany Lions lost 14-7 to Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide as Alabama’s defense had a goal-line stand for the ages denying Penn State a tying touchdown in the fourth quarter.

At the end of the 1981 season, Penn State was playing perhaps the best football of any team in the country. Penn State defeated Notre Dame 23-21 and you may recall Penn State destroying #1-ranked Pitt on the road 48-14 which still is the worst loss by a number one-ranked team at home in college football history and then the Nittany Lions went on to defeat USC 26-10 in the Fiesta Bowl. However, because of a loss in week seven to Miami 17-14 and a second defeat two weeks later to Alabama 31-16, the Nittany Lions fell to number 14 in the polls and worked their way back up to number six in the final regular season polls and would not have been selected to a four-team college playoff in 1981. Penn State finished the season ranked third in the nation and very much looking forward to 1982.

If you bought golf balls with Joe Paterno’s likeness on them, the joke was they were guaranteed to go up the middle every time, but Penn State’s 1982 team was the first national championship team to have more passing yards than rushing yards on offense, and in addition, the Nittany Lions played the toughest schedule in the country that year.  Penn State’s national championship in 1982 against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl was a national championship game showdown leaving no doubt as to which team deserved the national championship.

Penn State’s 1985 team lost in the Orange Bowl to Oklahoma 25-10 as the Nittany Lions went into that game ranked #1 in the country but lost to the #3 Oklahoma Sooners but many sensed that Penn State’s 1985 team was a year ahead of schedule.

The following season, Penn State won its second national championship in five years defeating Miami 14-10 in the Fiesta Bowl, winning the Duel in the Desert in a national championship game format which ultimately led to the BCS format pitting the number one and two teams against each other in a national championship game.

Even though Penn State finished ranked third in the final AP Poll in 1991 with an 11-2 record, they likely would have been left out of the four-team college football playoff. That year Washington and Miami both finished the regular season with 11-0 records and Florida and Michigan were both 10-1 and ranked ahead of 10-2 Penn State in the AP Poll as was a 10-2 Florida State team. In the Coaches Poll, Penn State was ranked fifth behind 10-2 Florida State in the final regular season poll.

Just say 1994 to a Penn State football fan and they know. The undefeated 1994 Penn State team had perhaps the greatest balanced offense in the history of college football. The ’94 team averaged 250.9 yards per game rushing and 269.3 yards per game passing and averaged 47.8 points per game and that’s with the starters out of the lineup for most of the games by the fourth quarter.

Along the way, the ’94 team destroyed traditional powerhouses USC 38-14, leading 35-0 at halftime, and Ohio State by a 63-14 score and those scores could have been even more lopsided had Paterno chose to keep his starters in longer. The 1994 season saw Penn State ranked number one in week seven, beat a number 21-ranked Ohio State team by 49 points that had in their starting lineup:  Joey Galloway, Eddie George, Terry Glenn, Bobby Hoying, Orlando Pace, Sean Springs, Korey Stringer and Mike Vrabel, and yet Penn State dropped in the rankings to number two because third-ranked Nebraska beat number two Colorado 24-7 in Lincoln, Nebraska.

1994 was another undefeated season for Joe Paterno and Penn State to finish ranked second in the polls. For a team that never scored fewer than 31 points in a game and for the national championship to not at least be shared was a travesty. 1994’s national championship was viewed as a present to Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne after failing to win it so many times in the past.

In 2005, Penn State finished the regular season ranked third in the BCS rankings behind undefeated USC and Texas. Ohio State, a team Penn State defeated earlier in the season 17-10, was ranked fourth. Texas would go on to defeat USC in perhaps the greatest college football game of all time to win the national championship. As good as Penn State’s defense was that year, it’s doubtful they had the offense to stay with juggernauts Texas or USC. Penn State struggled with #22 Florida State in the Orange Bowl winning in overtime 26-23.

In 2008, a loss in game 10 at Iowa sent undefeated and third-ranked Penn State down to number seven in the polls. At the end of the regular season, 11-1 Penn State could only climb back up to sixth in the AP Poll. Ahead of the Nittany Lions were all one-loss teams:  Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama, and USC. USC would go on to beat Penn State 38-24 in the Rose Bowl.

1969 and 1994 were undoubtedly the two most likely years that Penn State would have won a national championship had there been a four-team playoff. One could also state that Paterno’s 24-12-1 record in bowl games makes for an even stronger case for success in the college football playoffs. Penn State certainly would have made the college football playoff in those years and Paterno could have, and most likely would have, won at least two more than the two national titles he did under the old poll system.

John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites. This and other articles written by him can be found on his blog:  https://johnbaranowski.wordpress.com/.

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