Author’s Note: This is Part II of a two-part article. Part I can be found here.
The 1983 Penn State-Nebraska matchup was touted as a rematch/revenge game for Nebraska. The Cornhuskers did more than enough to deliver a meal best served cold. The Nittany Lions were walloped by Nebraska by a score of 44-6. A touchdown by Penn State with 20 seconds remaining in the 4th quarter prevented a complete shutout (the point after kick was blocked). From 1968-1999 Penn State existed in its Golden Age. The program made an appearance in the AP top ten nearly every season and missed out on a bowl game only three times. (1) It was the era that established Penn State as one of the top college football programs. The 1983 Nebraska game would ultimately be the most lopsided defeat Penn State would suffer in this era.
But the Nebraska game would only be the beginning of Penn State’s troubles. Despite the loss Penn State remained ranked only to lose its second game. This time to Cincinnati marking the first time Penn State suffered consecutive losses since Paterno’s first season 17 years prior. But if that wasn’t enough to add insult to injury Cincinnati was technically an FCS school that year. (2) The year prior in 1982 the NCAA had purged Cincinnati and 38 other schools out of FBS and relegated them down to FCS. Cincinnati was the lone school to successfully fight back winning a court injection against the NCAA stopping their relegation. The result was Cincinnati playing the 1982 season as an FBS school despite not meeting the qualifications to be an FBS school. The following season a number of purged schools once again met FBS requirements and were allowed to rejoin FBS. By this point Cincinnati’s injunction had expired and the NCAA decided they must spend the 1983 season at the FCS level as a sort of punishment as other programs had been forced to do the same the season prior. If that wasn’t enough of a quirk to this story Cincinnati spent the 1983 season fully in compliance with FBS standards, was ineligible for the FCS playoffs as they had an FBS level scholarship count, and the NCAA doesn’t officially recognize Cincinnati as an FCS school for that year. Cincinnati had to remain fully FBS compliant for 1983, while technically being an FCS school in order to rejoin FBS for 1984. The NCAA’s position on the matter is that the court injunction was a court order they had to abide by but not officially recognize. Thus the NCAA declared Cincinnati FCS for 1982 and FBS for 1983 according to its record books in a blatant act of revisionist history. It is this quirk in the record books that is the reason most people are unaware of this (technically an) FCS verse FBS upset.
Meanwhile Penn State at this point had lost its ranking and then proceeded to lose its third consecutive game. This time the Nittany Lions lost to an Iowa team featuring Chuck Long (3) by a score of 42-34 in Happy Valley. This time Penn State would suffer the insult of having the most points ever scored against them in a loss at Happy Valley. This record still stands today with the caveat that it was tied again by Iowa in 2002. Although it is worth noting Iowa needed a touchdown in overtime to tie their 1983 record. In a twist of irony it was the controversy of Paterno chasing down a referee over a perceived bad call after the 2002 Iowa game that proved to be a catalyst to bringing instant replay to the Big Ten.
Thus concluded what is arguably the worst three game stretch in Penn State history. Penn State would ultimately bounce back winning eight games in the 1983 season and would even knock off 4th ranked West Virginia. Nebraska would win all 12 regular season games only to lose to Miami by a single point in their bowl game.
The following is a list of all other season openers involving highly ranked teams.
In 1968 #3 Notre Dame played #5 Oklahoma. The Fighting Irish would win 45-21. Notre Dame would finish the season 7-2-1 while Oklahoma would finish 7-4.
In 1982 #1 Pitt would play #5 North Carolina with the Panthers winning by a single point. Pitt would finish the season with a 9-3 record whereas North Carolina would finish unranked with an 8-4 record.
In 1984 #1 Auburn would play #10 Miami. Miami would win by two points only to finish with an 8-5 record. Auburn would finish with a 9-4 record. It is worth noting that Miami was ranked 4th in the Coaches Poll. So if you are only willing to look at rankings in that poll it would tie Penn State-Nebraska for highest combined ranking.
In 1986 #1 Oklahoma would play #4 UCLA. The Sooners would crush UCLA 38-3. The Bruins would finish the season with an 8-3-1 record while the Sooners would finish with an 11-1 record.
In 1988 #1 Florida State would play #6 Miami in a game that would be a #1 verse #5 in the Coaches Poll. Both teams would finish the season 11-1, but unfortunately for the Seminoles they would be walloped 31-0 by Miami.
In 1999 #3 Penn State would play #4 Arizona (the two programs had the same rankings vice versa in the Coaches Poll). This game would be an incredible case of Déjà vu for Penn State. In their 1983 game Penn State scored in the final seconds of the Kickoff Classic to prevent a 44-0 blowout. Their 1999 game was part of the Pigskin Classic, which was the West Coast version of the Kickoff Classic. Penn State won 41-7, with Arizona scoring their only touchdown in the final seconds of the game to prevent a blowout. Penn State would finish the season with a 5-6 record. Arizona would finish with a better record of 10-3.
In 2011 #3 Oregon would play #4 LSU. The Tigers would win 40-27 but both programs would have successful seasons with each winning 12 games or more.
In 1992 #3 Notre Dame played #6 Michigan and the two teams battled each other to a tie. Notre Dame would finish the season 10-1-1 while Michigan would finish the season with 9 wins, three ties, and technically undefeated. I included this game out of order because it wasn’t a true opener as it was Michigan’s first game of the season but Notre Dame’s second game of the season. I only included it just for the sake of its historical context
The final tally is out of the eight “true” season openers involving teams with a combined rank of eight or higher, four were complete blowouts, and two more weren’t competitive for the duration of the game. This should be an ominous sign for Florida State and Alabama fans that one of your teams is going to be in for a rough time on Saturday.
1) This was significantly harder to accomplish from 1968-1999 as there are twice as many bowls today as there were in the 1990s and four times as many bowls today as there were in the 1970s.
2) The terms FBS and FCS were created in the 2000s. To avoid confusion I use their modern names rather than Division I-A and I-AA which is what they would have been called in the 1980s.
3) For those who are unfamiliar with 1980s college football: Chuck Long would narrowly lose to Bo Jackson in one of the closest Heisman votes of all time (1509-1464).