Author’s Note: This is Part I of a two-part article. Part II can be found here.
The 2017 football season will feature a rare top-five matchup in its first week when #1 Alabama plays #3 Florida State. The rarity of such event and the abnormally high combined rank has caused fans and media to label it the most hyped season opener of all time. And while that may be true, 1983 Penn State-Nebraska is a worthy challenger to that title. The purpose of this article is to talk about that matchup 34 years ago to show why it remains a challenger to the title of the most hyped season opener of all time.
It was one of the most innovative games of the modern era.
The 1983 matchup was created specifically by NCAA legislation allowing for a type of game that would become known as the Kickoff Classic. The Kickoff Classic was originally touted as a preseason game, but it would end up taking the role of an additional bowl game played just before the start of the season. The 1983 Kickoff Classic played at Giants Stadium was a success and would continue with a different matchup each year. Inspired by the success of the Kickoff Classic the NCAA eventually allowed for an additional licensed classic. The Pigskin Classic was created in 1990 as the West Coast answer to the Kickoff Classic.
The idea would eventually swell with the creation of four additional licensed classics in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But by that point the NCAA had had enough. The NCAA formally ended the practice in 2002 although one would survive until 2004 to satisfy its television contract.
The six “Classics” would be played each year from their start dates until 2002 when the NCAA ended the practice. The concept would eventually be rejuvenated with the creation of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in 2008, and the Cowboy Classic would follow in 2009. Like the original classics the idea would soon swell and at least six games currently exist under this concept. However a distinct difference is the original classics were additional games that acted as a de-facto preseason bowl games whereas the new classics/kickoffs are traditional regular season games that only try to replicate the style of the original classics.
Penn State-Nebraska 1983 was the first Kickoff Classic and ultimately inspired a generation of them that continue to this day. Due to it’s status as being the first Kickoff Classic the game features a number of “firsts.” It marked the first time an FBS or FBS equivalent game was ever played in August. It was the first time a program played a 12th regular season game outside of the Hawaii exemption, and the first time two programs played a 12th game against each other. (1) Lastly it was a neutral location, played at an NFL stadium, which was incredibly rare concept for a preseason game prior to 1983, but became a more popular concept in later decades. (2)
It was one of the greatest revenge games of the modern era.
The 1983 was not only a high profile matchup between two teams ranked in the top five, it was a compelling rematch game. Nebraska and Penn State played each other in the previous season. Penn State would be victorious defeating Nebraska 27-24, only to lose their next game to Alabama who was then ranked fourth. Nebraska and Penn State would each finish the season with one loss. Despite Nebraska playing an additional game due to the Hawaii exemption, and despite Penn State’s “quality loss” to Alabama floundering as the Crimson Tide lost their final three regular season games, the voters chose Penn State as their National Champion. (3)
The 1982 matchup between Penn State and Nebraska would ultimately become the de facto national championship game of the season. If that wasn’t enough to make Nebraska enter the 1983 game looking for revenge, they had another major motivating factor. Their loss to Penn State in 1982 that would ultimately cost them a national championship came due to one of the worst referee blunders of all time.
With 13 seconds remaining, Penn State was trailing 24-21 and held the ball near the Nebraska 17 yard line. Penn State wide receiver Mike McCloskey would catch a critical pass for a 15 yard gain. Only McCloskey was clearly out of bounds with his closest “in-bound” foot was somewhere between 18 inches and two yards out of bounds. The referees singled it a complete catch and Penn State scored the winning touchdown on the next play with four seconds remaining. The result was a consequential referee blunder matched only by the Colorado-Missouri fifth down and the 2002 Miami-Ohio State controversy.
The 1982 controversy was the first of it’s kind. It was the first time such a consequential referee blunder had happened in the modern television era where it could be easily seen, in color, and replayed. It was the first blunder of its kind to happen in the ESPN era. But if that wasn’t enough gasoline on the fire there was one final twist. The 1982 Penn State-Nebraska game came less than a week after an NFL lockout started. With the NFL out of action sports media gave additional attention to college football. The day after the 1982 matchup NFL Today on CBS replayed the controversial catch on its show. The replay was broadcasted and replayed at a rate that was never seen before in the college football world.
The combined rank of PSU-NU would never be surpassed until 34 years later by Alabama-Florida State. Despite being surpassed in combined rank the 1983 matchup holds a revenge factor the 2017 doesn’t really match. Another key difference is the 1983 game was the opener for not just the two teams but college football whereas the 2017 game will be one of the last opening week games played.
The purpose of Part I was to discuss why the 1983 PSU/NU matchup surpasses the 2017 Bama/FSU matchup based on pure hype. The 1983 PSU/NU matchup can only be touted for its hype/buildup because the game itself was a total let down. In Part II I will discuss the 1983 game itself and how things went horribly wrong for Penn State during the 1983 season. I will also focus on other season openers involving highly ranked teams and show why past history involving these matchups should be a cause of concern for Alabama and Florida State fans.
1) The Hawaii exemption allowed for the visiting team to play a 12th game but not the home team. Thus PSU-NU was the first game where both teams played a 12th game against each other.
2) I would like to thank Jeff Bovee of CFB Trivia for helping me research the history of 12th regular season games, opening round matchups between ranked teams, and the history of college football in August.
3) Today we joke about opponents of Alabama not being penalized for losing to the Crimson Tide. It’s not exactly a new phenomenon.