PSU '94 Urban Legend: PSU lost #1 for not blowing out Indiana

What Really Happened?

#1 Penn State, #2 Colorado, and #3 Nebraska were not separated by very many poll points, prior to the October 29 weekend games. Each had a fair number of first-place votes (Penn State 19, Colorado 16, and Nebraska 24).

On October 29, Nebraska blew out #2 Colorado, while Penn State blew out #21 Ohio State. Both Nebraska and Penn State picked up first-place votes from Colorado, but Nebraska gained more poll points and edged ahead of Penn State for the #1 spot.

Ironically, Penn State lost the #1 spot on a weekend when they did run up the score on an opponent... not on a weekend when they failed to do so.

Further, Nebraska fans point out that Penn State jumped over Nebraska in the polls two weeks prior... and therefore they suggest that PSU fans are in no position to whine about getting jumped themselves. If it were somehow "illegal" to jump in the polls over a team that didn't lose, PSU would never have reached the #1 spot to begin with.

Disclaimer: I don't really care one way or the other about the PSU program, or Nebraska for that matter. In my opinion, PSU definitely deserved a share of the 1994 national title. But that's not the point here -- what is at issue is that this particular falsehood has survived for so long among the PSU fanbase, that it has become part of their "nobody respects us" lore. It has been used as an excuse for running up the score on other teams, even.

The Proof

1994 week-by-week AP #1 teams Here are the week-by-week #1 teams of 1994, courtesy of the Official NCAA Football Records Book (p. 68 of the 1999 edition).

Note that Penn State lost the #1 spot in the (Tuesday) November 1, 1994 poll, and that they only held it for two weeks.

If you look closely you can see the "(3)" beside Penn State's record in the 10-18 row -- it's kind of hard to see because the book's binding screws up the scan of the edge of the page. This means that Penn State was #3 before they took the #1 spot. The previous #1 (Florida) lost to Auburn on October 15, and #2 Nebraska was jumped by Penn State.

1994 Penn State schedule Here's Penn State's 1994 schedule, courtesy of the Street and Smith College Football Preview (p. 120 of the 1994 edition).

Note that Penn State played Indiana on November 5, 1994... the weekend after they lost the #1 spot!

Some have questioned whether this is really Penn State's 1994 schedule, because the scores listed are from 1993. That's what Street and Smith did in their printed schedules -- each team's upcoming-year (1994) schedule included previous-year (1993) game scores for all opponents on the coming schedule that were also played in the previous year. Note that Temple doesn't have a score, because while Temple was on PSU's 1994 schedule, PSU didn't play Temple in 1993.
For further proof that this is a 1994 schedule, compare the dates and opponents to those listed under 1994 in James Howell's Penn State all-time opponents/dates/results. It matches exactly.

The Polls

Below are the top teams in the AP polls 10/11 (the last poll before Penn State took over the #1 spot) through 11/8 (the poll after the PSU-Indiana game). I have these printed from the Columbus Dispatch, but the microfilm copy is grainy and probably wouldn't scan legibly.

In the 10/11 poll, #1 Florida has over two-thirds of the first-place votes ("FPV" in the table) and a comfortable lead of 66 poll points. #2-#4 (Nebraska, Penn State, and Colorado) are fairly close together.

10/11 AP
Rank Team FPV Points
1 Florida 44 1,527
2 Nebraska 12 1,461
3 Penn State 2 1,427
4 Colorado 4 1,410
5 Michigan - 1,251

On 10/15, Florida lost to Auburn. Penn State won at #5 Michigan. Nebraska beat #16 Kansas State. Colorado blew out #22 Oklahoma.

Florida's first-place votes ended up being split fairly evenly between Penn State (gained 17), Colorado (gained 11), and Nebraska (gained 13). A few went to Auburn as well. Here's the key to understanding Nebraska's later jump over Penn State: Nebraska ended up at #3 despite having the most first-place votes. This means that Nebraska must be behind both Colorado and Penn State on most of the ballots where a team other than Nebraska is #1. Similarly, Penn State being #1 means that they must be #2 (not behind Colorado) on a lot of the ballots where Nebraska is #1.

10/18 AP
Rank Team FPV Points
1 Penn State 19 1,487
2 Colorado 15 1,474
3 Nebraska 25 1,463
4 Auburn 3 1,402
5 Florida - 1,196

On 10/22, Penn State was idle. Colorado beat #19 Kansas State. Nebraska blew out unranked Missouri.

One of Nebraska's first-place votes shifted to Colorado, but otherwise there wasn't significant movement in the point totals. Note that the top three teams' point totals are all fairly close -- 25 points separate #1-#3, while #4-#5 are 151 points apart.

10/25 AP
Rank Team FPV Points
1 Penn State 19 1,486
2 Colorado 16 1,482
3 Nebraska 24 1,461
4 Auburn 3 1,397
5 Florida - 1,246

On 10/29, Nebraska blew out #2 Colorado. Penn State blew out #21 Ohio State.

Penn State (+9) and Nebraska (+9) each gained exactly half of the 18 first-place votes lost by Colorado (-16) and Auburn (-2). The reason Nebraska passed Penn State was (as noted above) that Penn State wasn't behind Colorado on as many ballots as Nebraska was. Thus, when Colorado dropped, Nebraska would have moved up on more ballots than Penn State would have, even if no voter swapped the two teams on any ballot.

Note that PSU's poll point total increased by 28 points in the following poll. PSU lost the #1 spot even though their poll position on average increased. Also note that 28 spots is more than the number of ballots that had Colorado #1 (16), and that PSU was probably #2 on most ballots where neither PSU nor Colorado was #1. This means that PSU moved up more than the minimum required by Colorado dropping out of the undefeated ranks.

11/01 AP
Rank Team FPV Points
1 Nebraska 33 1,520
2 Penn State 28 1,514
3 Auburn 1 1,427
4 Florida - 1,322

On 11/05, Penn State beat unranked Indiana. Nebraska blew out unranked Kansas.

Six of Penn State's first-place votes shifted to Nebraska, widening the gap in poll points between the two teams.

11/08 AP
Rank Team FPV Points
1 Nebraska 39 1,525
2 Penn State 22 1,507
3 Auburn 1 1,430
4 Florida - 1,321