Defending the 1984 National Championship

To read more writings by The Editor you can visit

Editor's Note: Reason number 6 and the three paragraphs in italics were added January 17, 2011. The first 13 comments in the comment section were made before this additional material was included.

I first wrote a defense to BYU’s 1984 National Championship about a year ago on my college football blog. While I don’t intend to make this topic a habit, I have found additional information that I feel strengthens BYU’s case. The discussion a year ago on this topic also helped me see some holes in my arguments as well as areas that needed clarification that I will address. Although repetitious, as long as there are critics to the 1984 national championship, this topic will always be relevant. Therefore, for the second time, I am going to get defensive and justify BYU’s 1984 National Championship.

To start the year, BYU went on the road to Pittsburgh, the number 3 ranked team, and won. Critics like to point out that Pittsburgh finished the year a disappointing 3-7-1, but they forget to point out that Pitt returned 15 starters from 1983 and 11 Pitt players were drafted in the next three NFL drafts, including 1983 All-American Bill Fralic (second overall pick, 1985) and Chris Doleman (fourth overall pick, 1985). Why wouldn't you rank a team with so much pro talent number 3? On opening day in 1984, the Pitt team (known then as “the Beast in the East”) believed that it was number three and played with that confidence. By losing, that confidence was shattered.

This was a pattern for Pitt football under Head Coach Foge Fazio. In 1982, Pitt started the year 7-0 and was ranked number 1. After losing to Notre Dame the next week, Pitt only won two of its last four games to finish 9-3. In 1983, Pitt started the year 2-0, but then lost the third game. That was followed by a second loss. Pitt was able to escape the third game of the year with a one point win. College football is largely based on players’ mental psyche. You can have the most talented team ever assembled, but all that talent will be wasted if the players have some psychological issues. Unfortunately for Pitt, an opening game upset loss in 1984 bruised that psyche for the entire season leading to such a disappointment.

Some other examples of the importance of players’ mental psyche include the BYU defense in 2008. BYU opened the season 6-0, and the defense held those six opponents to 61 total points, including 11 consecutive scoreless quarters. TCU lit up the defense for 32 points in the next game. For the rest of the year the defense was not the same. Mental psyche is also a factor come bowl season. Teams who were dominant during the season play flat and lose to inferior competition.

Two other impacts of the BYU win were that 1) it exposed some weaknesses in Pitt that other teams were able to exploit, and 2) it boosted the confidence of Pitt’s other opponents by showing that Pitt was not a team to fear.

On paper, Pitt was worthy of the number 3 ranking, but the intangibles of the game undid the 1984 squad. Rather than criticize BYU for what Pitt failed to do the rest of the season, BYU should be credited for what it did. BYU went into a hostile environment to start the year and beat a recognized national power with a quarterback making his first career start. To add to the pressure of this game, it was the first college football game broadcast live by ESPN.

For those that still think it was so easy for BYU to beat a 3-7-1 team, just ask South Carolina (10-2) who lost 38-21 to Navy (4-6-1) or Oklahoma (9-2-1) who lost 28-11 to Kansas (5-6). Those scores don’t look like it was a fluke that those teams won, and I don’t think Navy or Kansas had two players drafted in the first round of the next NFL draft, let alone 11 players taken in the next three drafts combined. Both South Carolina and Okalhoma were in the hunt for the national championship late in the year.

BYU routed Tulsa 38-15 in the third game of the season. While Tulsa might not sound impressive, Tulsa finished the year with its fifth consecutive Missouri Valley Conference championship, which required the Golden Hurricane to beat a 9-0 Indiana State team. The BYU schedule is often criticized, but it did include a conference champion.

BYU played Michigan in the Holiday Bowl. Critics argue that this was a 6-5 Michigan team that BYU beat only 24-17. Well, Michigan was ranked number 3 earlier in the year, and beat number one ranked Miami. Then injury struck. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan’s starting quarterback broke his arm. Considering the fact that Michigan finished 1985 ranked number 2, the Harbaugh injury goes a long way in explaining Michigan’s poor won-loss record. While the Michigan offense was mediocre, the Michigan defense was strong (only two opponents scored more than 21 points).

During the first quarter, BYU lost its quarterback Robbie Bosco to injury for a series. He returned and played the rest of the game with an injured knee, to go with his already injured ankle and ribs. This injury forced BYU to adjust by using the shotgun formation, which it had rarely done during the year. True champions overcome injuries.

In the game, BYU committed 6 turnovers, yes you read that right, 6 turnovers. One turnover was a fumble at the goal line negating a sure seven points, and another was a fumble at the BYU

Yes, BYU could have made a statement by winning 38-3, but it didn’t. However, what BYU did do—win despite playing with its star QB injured and despite turning the ball over 6 times—may be just as impressive, and it exemplifies what makes a champion: to overcome all obstacles and find a way to win no matter what. Kind of like the 2002 Ohio State National Championship team; they didn’t win pretty, but they did win.

More recently (2003, 1997, 1991 and 1990) the major college football polls could not agree who was number 1, even when only one team was undefeated (1990). BYU, however, was a consensus number 1. The Associated Press, the United Press International (UPI), Sports Illustrated, CNN-USA Today, the Football Writers of America all voted BYU number 1. Why should we dispute a championship that so many experts agreed on?

In 1984, BYU was 13-0 and the only undefeated team in the country. Why the controversy? The dictionary defines champion as: a person who has defeated all opponents in a competition or series of competitions, so as to hold first place. The only team in 1984 that “defeated all opponents” was BYU. The University of Washington (11-1) and the University of Florida (9-1-1) are popular alternatives for critics to replace BYU as the best team in 1984. While I don’t think it is necessary, let’s take a closer look at Washington and Florida to see the flaws in their claims for the national championship.

Washington supporters, explain this to me. If Washington was worthy of the national championship in 1984, why didn’t they play in the Rose Bowl? Answer: Washington wasn’t the Pac-10 champion. Why wasn’t Washington the Pac-10 champion? Washington was unable to beat USC, however, a 7-5 Notre Dame team could. Washington played USC on November 10. Both were undefeated in the conference with only one other conference game to play. It was very clear that the winner would go to the Rose Bowl. Even though Washington could not win this game when the Pac-10 title was on the line, they deserve to be national champions instead of a team that won all its games? I disagree. I take additional comfort in knowing that BYU crushed Washington 31-3 the very next year.

The University of Florida had two blemishes on the field to go with its off the field blemishes—NCAA rules violations. Even if the Gators were voted number one, any reputable poll would have stripped Florida of the title, just as the Southeastern Conference did. Even if we put all that aside, have you seen the game by game results for Florida in 1984? Sure they ended with a nine game win streak, but it wasn’t very impressive. Don’t attack BYU’s non-conference schedule if you want to argue Florida’s case. Plus, no other SEC team finished with less than 3 losses. Not quite the power conference back then. A vote for Florida as national champion is a vote for bigotry.

As I said, attacking the fine seasons that Washington and Florida had should not be necessary to defend BYU’s claim on the national championship. However, some people just can’t grasp how significant it is to finish the year undefeated, even when BYU was the only team to do it. In 1984, there were 110 teams playing division 1-A football. BYU was the only team to win all games played. One out of 110 equals 0.909%. That’s pretty exclusive company. If it was so easy for BYU to post an undefeated, untied record in 1984, why didn’t anyone else do it? The truth is that it is very difficult for a team to post a perfect record. That is why in 2008, with 10 more teams added to the pool, still only one team finished undefeated. That equals 0.833% of the teams. Some years no team finishes unblemished. Anyone remember 2007? Not only was it impossible for a team to finish undefeated, we had a two loss national champion. It is clear to see that going undefeated is very difficult, so crowning a team the national champion on this merit alone is setting a high standard. The point is when you do something that no one else can do, you deserve something that no one else has. That is what the title “National Champion” does.

6. The USA Today College Football Performance Formula Has BYU Number 1.

What is the USA Today College Football Performance Formula? Glad that you asked. To quote The USA Today College Football Encyclopedia, this formula is "a specific three-leveled mathematical calculation developed to measure the achievement of every team's season since 1953. ... The Formula combines three measurable statistics, with two of them adjusted to the level of opposition, and adds them up to assign a decimal measurement. This figure permits readers to compare teams within a given season and to compare teams from different seasons. What follows are the three features that are totaled arithmetically to form a team's Formula:
  • "Winning percentage (including bowl result) of the measured team, with wins over lower categorized teams counting as partial wins.
  • "Opponents' winning percentage (including bowl results) in all other games not contested against the team being measured.
  • "Adjusted scoring margin per game (x .01 so as to not assign too much numerical importance to the factor) of the measured team."
Here we have a scientific model that will treat every team fairly. It takes into consideration strength of schedule (SOS) and opponents' win-loss records (more on how I feel about these later). All the human bias has been removed (USA Today equates the human polls to voting for the MVP in professional sports--voters take into account many factors, "not the least of which is the ethereal impression a given MVP candidate makes on voters"). In other words, no one is looking at the name of the school or the logo on the helmet. How a team plays on the field determines the number one team in this formula.

In 1984, the number one ranked team was ... BYU with a formula score of 1.6611. Number 2 was Florida at 1.6139. Washington came in at number 3 with a score of 1.6044. Not only did BYU have a higher formula score than Washington and Florida, BYU's 1.6611 mark was higher than 1983 national champion Miami (1.6396) and 1980 national champion Georgia (1.6161). Interestingly, while Miami and Georgia were voted by the media and the coaches as number one in 1983 and 1980, respectively, they did not have the highest performance formula score in those years. In 1980, Georgia was number 5 according to the performance formula (behind 1-Pittsburgh, 2-Florida State, 3-BYU, and 4-Nebraska). As for the 1983 results, Miami came in number 4 (behind 1-Nebraska, 2-Auburn, and 3-BYU). I have never once heard anyone, anywhere say that the 1980 Georgia team or the 1983 Miami team did not deserve their national championships. As evidenced by the formula results, they did not play the toughest schedule, and some other teams could have made a strong claim against them. Maybe there was controversy at the time, but after a few years passed, everyone seemed to accept it and move on. It is time for the BYU critics to accept it and move on as well. 

While I feel this slams the door shut on any SOS argument, since we are on the subject here are some general thoughts I have about SOS. Just like I felt the criticism of Washington and Florida were unnecessary, I think it is unnecessary to bring up schedule strength. To let you know how I feel about using SOS as an argument, I group SOS in with the BCS as college football villains. SOS is merely a convenient way for the elite to brush away any threat to their supremacy. It is so convenient to say “BYU didn’t play any tough opponents, so they don’t deserve a national championship.” If SOS was so great, then there is no way TCU would have lost to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl last year (2009). The SOS for TCU (before the game) was 66; the SOS for Boise State was 102. Sorry, but SOS is overrated. I will start to accept SOS as a valid way to judge how good a team is or isn’t when I can see some correlation between the SOS and a team’s final record. In 2009, Sagarin gave Boise State (14-0) a SOS rank of 96, gave Idaho (8-5) a SOS rank of 95, and gave New Mexico State (3-10) a SOS rank of 94. Why does the record for these three teams differ so much when they all had similar SOS? Easy, SOS tells us nothing about how good a team is. It tells us nothing about who will win when two teams play each other. What SOS does tell us is that whatever your competition is, it is hard to go undefeated. SOS is not a valid argument for or against a team being crowned the national champion.

A close relative to SOS is looking at opponents’ win-loss record. First of all, it seems counter intuitive to judge how good a team is by the win-loss record of its opponents rather than the team in question’s win-loss record, but I will indulge those in this camp as well. If you want to argue that BYU does not deserve the national championship because of the win-loss record of its opponents, then here is what you need to do to prove it. Compare BYU’s perfect 13-0 to the win-loss record of other teams in college football that played opponents with an equal or worse win-loss record as BYU’s opponents (61-85-3) in 1984. Then when you are done, you can expand that comparison to all the years before and after 1984. While I am interested in the details of your findings, I already know what the conclusion of your findings will be. You will conclude that opponent win-loss records have no correlation to a team’s final win-loss record.

Using SOS and opponents’ win-loss record to build a case against a team’s accomplishments is an insult. It is the same as saying that one team’s loss(es) are better than another team’s win(s). It is the same as saying you would rather have a “pretty” loss than an “ugly” win. It is the same as saying that Bob Beamon was not really a great long jumper because when he set the world record by jumping 29 feet 2 1/2 inches he did it in Mexico City, with an elevation over 7,000 feet. We all know that people can jump farther in altitude, so he can't really jump that far, it was just because he was in Mexico City. He should do that at sea level before we recognize it as the world record.

I am stating that for BYU to finish with a perfect record was an accomplishment worthy of the national championship. If you disagree, then the burden of proof is on you to show that BYU’s perfect 13-0 record was not a significant accomplishment. Pointing to SOS, opponents’ win-loss record, Washington, and Florida is simply diverting our attention away from the real issue. The fact is it takes a very special team to finish a season undefeated and untied, regardless of the competition. Injuries, weather conditions, team chemistry, and a myriad of other variables beyond the team’s control all go into it. When a team achieves this rare feat, they and their fans should be able to celebrate it without having to make excuses or justifications to anyone.


  1. 1. While you argue that Pitt was filled with talent due to the number of draft picks etc. The truth is they were beaten by six other teams and tied by one. There are many pre-season teams that start the year ranked and end up no where to be seen. Pitt was not a good team and they certainly were not deserving of a #3 ranking no matter how you want to spin the talent level.

    #2. Beating Tulsa may count as the best quality win on the schedule, but everyone knows that any team can boost their merit based on the we beat Team A that beat Team B logic. Tulso no matter if they were the MVC champ was not a powerhouse team. It's like calling the MAC champ a power or the 2012 WAC champ a power. It was a good win but that doesn't make a strong SoS.
    #3. It is apparent that Michigan was not the quality team without Harbaugh as it was with him. So saying that the rest of the team was there is irrelevant. It would be like saying we beat the Bulls sans Jordan.
    #4 The point is they were voted not played in a designated game to determine a champion.
    #5 Using this logic there should be many champions. Using this logic Utah could say they hold 4 undisputed championships.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    2. I understand what you are saying about Tulsa, and I don't expect it to change a lot of people's minds. I included it more because it is an obscure fact that I find interesting. BYU could have played a 1-AA team or a celler dweller from one of the bigger conferences. Colorado was 1-10 that year, should BYU have played them instead?

    3. Football is a lot different than Basketball. Players play both offense and defense in basketball. Not so in football. Harbaugh's absense impacted the offense. The defense did not get worse by Harbaugh being injured, and that was seen all season. The defense played well enough to win more games, but the offense did not.

    4. Who did play in a designated game to determine a champion that year? So are you saying none of the national champions before the BCS started should get credit?

    5. Using that logic there can be only one champion. Only one team was undefeated. I said nothing about what to do if more than one team is undefeated.

  3. You can use just about all these arguments for Utah being champion in 2008, only Utah's accomplishments are better across the board (Beating #3 team at the end of the year >>>>> Beating preseason #3, Won a much better bowl game against a better team in better fashion, beat better teams in the regular season, etc.)

  4. '84 BYU was a very good team, and going undefeated is never an easy thing to do.

    However, the fact that BYU fans (not just this author) are compelled to justify the '84 championship to themselves or anyone who will listen simply underscores how tenuous and unimpressive that championship season was. 26 years later, the Cougar faithful are still trying to make their case . . .

    The lasting legacy of the '84 BYU Cougars is the now ubiquitous SOS metric, which has since denied more accomplished, deserving teams (like '08 Utah and '09 Boise State) a chance to be champions.

  5. Well said jclarke, well said. I take it from the nature of your post that you are a Yewt, but at least you seem like a level headed one.

    Rappleye is a hack, you'd think that the trophy in our trophy case would ease his nerves about this (especially 1/4 of a century later). But the fact that he's still here justifying it IS very telling about how much of a true fan he is. A true fan wouldn't feel the need to justify anything, we won, end of story. Who cares if our schedule was suspect, and other teams have legitimate arguments to be champs that year.

    But what good would a "BYU sports blogger" be if there wasn't a specious National title for him to point at? We can't survive on creamery jokes forever!

    He is an embarrassment to our fan base, and all that we have accomplished during THIS decade. We're the program that teams like Alabama, Ohio State, Florida, Utah and USC aspire to be like. It's time to recognize that fact and act like champions, not petulant children.

  6. Jim Hawks,

    I appreciate the feedback, even if it was negative. I guess a better, more appropriate title to this post would be "Responding to criticisms of the 1984 National Championship."

    As for me being a true fan, I can assure you I am one. I attended games all through the Crowton years (including that miserable 3-0 loss to Utah) and fully belieived that we would beat Utah in RES in 2004. I think Max Hall was a great quarterback and there was a lot of truth in what he said after the Utah game.

    Please allow me to clarify what appears to be a few misunderstandings (I know this was a long post so some of the details may have been missed).

    1. I have no nerves about this. The trophy and the poll results speak for themselves (see #4 above). I didn't write this for me, I wrote it for those out there who think that the trophies don't speak for themselves.

    2. I never said that the schedule was suspect. In fact, I pointed out reasons why the schedule should not be criticized.

    3. I did not say that other teams have legitimate arguments to be champs. "While I don’t think it is necessary, let’s take a closer look at Washington and Florida to see the flaws in their claims for the national championship" and "The only team in 1984 that “defeated all opponents” was BYU."

    As I said, I don't think this is a debate that should be regularly revisited. But I don't think that BYU fans have to "prove they are fans" by completely ignoring it. Let's look at what you said another way. I assume that you are a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Are you saying that any member of the chruch who responds to criticism of the Book of Mormon or Joseph Smith is not a true/faithful member of the Church? Even the leaders of the Church (prophet and apostles) defend/justify these and other teachings of the church. It is called public relations.

    I think it is great that you feel no need to engage in this debate, but there are many outside the BYU circle that do. If there is a way to help them (which helps BYU in the end) then I see no problem with a BYU fan doing that.

  7. One thing I've heard that maybe you could check on is that Washington even turned down the bowl match up that year with BYU. I think this would even further the claim of National Champion for us.

  8. Good point. Yes, Washington (end of the year #2) and Oklahoma (#2 before the bowls) could have played BYU in the Holiday Bowl. Wikipedia has a page just for the 1984 Holiday Bowl.

    It definitely weakens anything Washington wants to say about a NC. Why decline a chance to play #1 and then say you are better then #1?

  9. I don't think you give enough credit to point 3:
    Even though football is a very different sport than basketball you cannot deny the importance of a great QB. Take Tom Brady away from the Pats and what do you get? take Manning away from the Colts and what do you get? I don't mean to imply that Jim Harbaugh was on that elite of a level but he certainly was the engine that moved Michigan's machine.

    As for point 4:I wouldn't be quick to call the media "experts" by any means. The system that was used to crown champions was even more ridicules than the BCS. This is not BYU's fault by any means, I'm just saying the system was faulty.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm not implying BYU didn't deserve it's championship. I'm just saying a lot of the points BYU fans use to defend said title is sketchy at best.

  10. "the fact that he's still here justifying it IS very telling about how much of a true fan he is. A true fan wouldn't feel the need to justify anything, we won, end of story."

    - Jim Hawks

    First, it is really not very fair to say that people who are truly passionate about BYU football are not "true fans" because they feel a need to justify the 1984 National Championship. Since when did being a true fan involve anything more than "truly" being "fanatic" about the sport or team? What gives you the right to decide who is and who is not a true fan?

    Second, as Scott has aptly said himself, it is not a matter of justifying it to OURSELVES, or even justifying it at all. The fact is, there are people who criticize and dismiss the BYU National Championship (and the fact that such critics are still talking about that 1/4 century later I think tells us all something about THEM). Would a "true fan" really just let critics attack without putting up some kind of defense? If we really want to talk about criteria for "true fans," I think a decent argument could be made that "true fans" should feel obligated to defend the team they love. After all, why would someone who is not "truly" a fan get defensive over the criticisms against the 1984 Championship? If one is not a "true fan" why do would they care if some is criticizing this or that, etc.?

    "the fact that BYU fans (not just this author) are compelled to justify the '84 championship to themselves or anyone who will listen simply underscores how tenuous and unimpressive that championship season was. 26 years later, the Cougar faithful are still trying to make their case . . ." - jclarke

    The fact is, as long as there are people who wish to criticize the legitimacy of the 1984 Championship, "true fans" should be willing to step up and defend that Championship. Unfortunately, 26 years later, people are still making a big deal about it, so BYU fans SHOULD feel a need to respond.

  11. All I have to say is GO COOGS!! Even if we're down this year we are going to be fantastic in the next 3-4.

    And a unanimous #1 needs no explanation whatsoever.

  12. Blogger,
    Quit with the contradictions. You are honestly making the argument that strength of schedule doesn't matter and then you go on to defend BYU's SOS and argue about how Tulsa was a conference champion. Why do you even make this argument if you think strength of schedule is bogus?
    Your logic is so screwed up. The NCAA would be an absolute joke if people with your ideas were in positions of authority. If it really just takes winning all of your games then why doesn't an average Pac-10 or Big-10 school transfer to the sorry Mountain West and go undefeated and claim a championship. Because that's not how it works. If you want to be the best, you got to beat the best! BYU did not do anything in 1984 to prove that they were better than Washington. There's no way for you to get around that. Why do you think BYU is in the process right now of trying to schedule Texas, Notre Dame, and other big name schools? Are they purposely sabotaging their program? Are they stupid? Why don't they listen to you and schedule games strictly against the WAC and other sorry schools? Because, quality of wins does count!
    It sounds like you went to BYU, so you must have some sort of brains in your head. I know you have the ability to reason and understand how beating a bunch of sorry schools doesn't make you a championship, but you won't see it that way, because you choose not to observe anything objectively when it comes to your school.
    It's all the blind zoobies like you that are the reason I have to cheer for the boys up north even though I attend BYU. I love that you agree with what Max Hall said, way to exemplify tradition, spirit, and honor.

  13. I remember the year byu was given the national title. In spite of the fact that they went undefeated, I've have never felt that they deserved it. They beat some quality teams that had bad seasons. Big Ten, Pac Ten, and Southwestern Conference teams beat each other up all season. The WAC, Mountain States conferences don't. When you want to claim championship of the big boys you have to play them and beat them all year long, not just occasionally!


Post a Comment