(AP) — There are big college football games and then there are those that rise to the level of being called Game of the Century. To be one of those games, what’s needed is a No. 1 and No. 2.
The Associated Press poll has been ranking college football teams for 80 years, helping to set the agenda for the season and provide context for big games. A matchup of undefeated teams or rivals with winning records is appealing. Make it 1 vs 2 and now you have something special. Maybe even a Game of the Century.
In 1966 Notre Dame and Michigan State played a Game of the Century that still holds up today. It produced a memorably unsatisfying result and led to a vote in the AP poll that is still debated.
College football in the 1960s began with an AP championship by Minnesota, its last before fading away as a Midwestern power, and ended with a Texas title, the last by an all-white team. In between, coach Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide was the most dominant team, winning three national titles. But the centerpiece was a 10-10 tie between the Fighting Irish and Spartans that put more focus than ever on before on who finished No. 1.
There were nine 1 vs. 2 matchups before the Notre Dame-Michigan State game on Nov. 19, 1966.
This was different. Television was now a part of the equation. The game was initially not scheduled to be televised nationally because of restrictions about how many times each school could be on a national broadcast. Pressure from fans on the West Coast and down South helped persuade ABC to air the game everywhere on tape delay.
It was the final regular-season game for Michigan State and second-to-last for Notre Dame. With the last poll still being taken before the bowls were played, it was apparent the winner would be in line for a national championship.
The buildup was unprecedented. “There was too much emphasis on the game,” said 89-year-old Roger Valdiserri, who was Notre Dame’s sports information director in 1966. “We had press conferences every day. There was so much interest in that game.”
Michigan State received more than 600 requests for media credentials, Valdiserri said.
“That was unheard of at the time,” he said.
Playing with a banged up team and confident a tie would be enough to hold on to the No. 1 ranking going into the Southern California game the next week, Fighting Irish coach Ara Parseghian played it safe with the ball in his own end of the field and mostly ran out the last 70 seconds of the game.
As Parseghian suspected, Notre Dame held the top spot in the poll, thumped USC 51-0 the next week and won the championship. Michigan State was second and unbeaten Alabama third.
The result of the game and the vote led Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty to call for a major college football playoff — in 1966!
Crimson Tide fans understandably felt slighted by the vote and wondered if AP voters from outside the region held the contentious politics of Alabama Gov. George Wallace during the Civil Rights movement against the football team. Despite Alabama’s success in the 1960s, the Tide was only voted No. 1 nine times, less than Texas (23), Southern California (19), Ohio State (17), Notre Dame (16) and Michigan State (13).
Alabama appeared in 77.78 percent of all polls taken.
Texas, 71.43 percent.
Southern California, 64.29 percent.
Texas vs. Arkansas. While Southern Cal vs. UCLA was great, Frank Broyles’s Razorbacks and Darrell Royal’s Longhorns were at the top of the old Southwest Conference. Their famous 1969 game was a 1 vs. 2 matchup that effectively decided the national championship, with the help of President Richard Nixon.
Notre Dame changed course and started participating in the postseason in 1968, the same season the AP decided for good that the final poll would be taken and national title awarded after the bowl games.