By Richard Rothschild

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO – Imagine a bowl season in which no national rankings were at stake, three of the nation’s top five teams didn’t even play and the lowly Sun Bowl featured the most interesting matchup.

So it was 40 winters ago, when the 1966 college football season sputtered to a most unsatisfying conclusion.

College football fans who have a bone to pick with the Bowl Championship Series, and there are many, would have been aghast at the 1966-67 bowl lineup, which drew little interest outside the participating campuses.

The big game that season, or of nearly any season, was the titanic 10-10 tie between No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State on Nov. 19 in East Lansing.

Under today’s rules, the Fighting Irish and Spartans would have settled matters in overtime or could have met in a rematch in the BCS title game.

Forty years ago, those were not options.

Notre Dame had a no-bowl policy that wasn’t changed until 1969. After the Irish walloped Southern California, 51-0, in their finale to fortify the No. 1 ranking, their work was done.

Michigan State was handicapped by the then-Big Ten rule barring a school from consecutive Rose Bowl appearances. Because the conference would not allow Big Ten teams to compete in other bowls, the redoubtable Spartans roster of Bubba Smith, George Webster, Clinton Jones and Gene Washington would never take the field again.

Then there was the odd case of No. 5 UCLA. The 9-1 Bruins should have been seeking a second straight Rose Bowl title after defeating archrival USC, 14-7, in their finale.

Yet it was the Trojans who went to Pasadena because the 1966 conference schedule had given the Bruins one fewer Pac-8 game, and UCLA finished a half-game behind USC in the final standings, 4-1 to 3-1.

The Pac-8 also would not allow member schools to compete outside the Rose Bowl, meaning that Bruins quarterback Gary Beban and running back Mel Farr never again shared the same backfield.

Instead, the Rose Bowl matched Big Ten runner-up Purdue, which had lost to Notre Dame and Michigan State, against thrice-beaten USC. The Granddaddy of Them All was the Second Cousin of Bowls that season.

Because all the major polls had completed their final votes before the bowls, the remaining games were glorified scrimmages.

The best of the traditional bowls appeared to be the Sugar, where No. 3 Alabama faced No. 6 Nebraska. Ken Stabler, however, passed and ran all over the Cornhuskers in a 34-7 rout. Crimson Tide cries that 11-0 “Bama should be No. 1 went unheeded.

The Cotton Bowl was a ho-hum affair with No. 4 Georgia beating No. 10 SMU. The game is best remembered for the presence of SMU wide receiver/kick returner Jerry Levias, the first black to play football in the Southwest Conference.

The Orange Bowl bid farewell to the Jim Crow era with its last all-white matchup as No. 11 Florida, featuring “66 Heisman Trophy winner Steve Spurrier, defeated No. 8 Georgia Tech.

It was left for the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, to provide the best postseason entertainment with two schools far from the national spotlight: Wyoming and pre-Bowden Florida State. Future Miami Dolphin Jim Kiick and the Cowboys rallied to beat the Seminoles, 28-20.

Meanwhile, as college football appeared unable and unwilling to match its best teams in postseason play, professional football was taking a historic step.

After a half-decade of bidding wars for the top college talent, the National Football League and American Football League had agreed to a merger, with the two league champions meeting in the first Super Bowl on Jan. 15, 1967. The game would reaffirm pro football’s standing as the nation’s preeminent sport.

The Green Bay Packers’ 35-10 win over the Kansas City Chiefs was as dull as most of the college bowls, but the pros finally were settling matters on the field.

Four decades later, even with vast improvements in the bowl structure, many would argue that college football still hasn’t figured out how to do the same.

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