The National Championship Game That Never Was

Bowl Bound game by Avalon Hill.

It’s the matchup college football fans were denied 54 years ago, and it played out on my tabletop.

Top-ranked Texas and second-ranked Penn State were both 10-0 at the end of the 1969 season, but (as was not uncommon in the sixties), Texas was declared national champions before the bowls by UPI, the National Football Foundation and (oddly and famously), President Richard Nixon.

President Richard Nixon presented University of Texas coach Darrell Royal with a plaque anointing the Longhorns number one status after their 15-14 win over Arkansas on Dec. 6, 1969.

Today, we wait for the dust to settle on conference championship weekend before we find out who will go where, but bowl invitations were a land rush back in the 1960s. With a noon ET NCAA deadline on Monday, Nov. 17, 1969 to solidify their invites, and, to avoid being left without an attractive matchup, the four New Year’s Day bowls (out of the quaint total of 10 postseason games) took their chances with two weeks to go in the season.

The wild card in the scenario was Notre Dame. By breaking their self-imposed 45-year tradition of staying home for the postseason (saying the $300,000 they would receive from the Cotton Bowl was “desperately needed” to finance minority student programs and scholarships), the Fighting Irish moved up in the pecking order despite their 7-1-1 record and number nine ranking because of the ticket sales and television eyeballs they would bring to the table.

Texas (8-0 and ranked second at the time) wasn’t even assured of being the Southwest Conference representative in Dallas, as the Longhorns had a Dec. 6 date at fourth-ranked Arkansas to determine the conference championship. The winner would go to the Cotton, while the loser would go to the Sugar Bowl against SEC leader Ole Miss, who had throttled Tennessee 38-0 two days before the bowl bid deadline.

Penn State, then 8-0 and ranked fifth, voted (prior to Texas’ game against TCU) to accept a second-straight Orange Bowl bid to play Big Eight co-leader Missouri.

And the number one team in the country? That was Ohio State, who, despite being 8-0, could not represent the Big Ten because of an archaic conference rule precluding back-t0-back appearances in the Rose Bowl. (Michigan beat the Buckeyes 24-12 on Nov. 22 anyway to earn the trip to Pasadena.)

But what if Notre Dame hadn’t jumped back into the bowl business, or if the Cotton Bowl had guessed correctly that Penn State would win its final two games (against Pittsburgh and North Carolina State) to set up a 1 vs. 2 matchup? What if the Longhorns and Nittany Lions had settled things on the field on Jan. 1, 1970? That’s what I set out to find out using Avalon Hill’s old Bowl Bound simulation game.

Like many sims, Bowl Bound has dice and charts based on team performance and probability. It does not have individual player cards or ratings, so you’re left to kind of use your imagination, which I have done in the wrapup below.

Penn State took a 7-0 in the first on a Charlie Pittman five-yard touchdown run. The Nittany Lions dominated the early going with 140 total yards to -2 for the Longhorns.

Penn State opened the second with a four-yard Lydell Mitchell run, but the PAT went awry. After an exchange of punts, the Longhorns finally got their offense untracked and moved 81 yards in 13 plays, capped by James Street’s keeper from three yards out on the option. It was 13-7 with Texas driving late in the half, but Street threw an interception with :10 left and we went to halftime with the Nittany Lions up 13-7.

The halftime stats showed PSU with 13 first downs to 7 for Texas and with 194 total yards to the Longhorns’ 101. Penn State quarterback Chuck Burkhardt went 7-for-10 for 85 yards for the Lions, while Street (who never had to throw much all season) was just 3-for-7 for 31 yards and that interception.

Burkhardt’s five-yard touchdown run was the only score of the third quarter and staked Penn State to a 20-7 lead entering the fourth. Another Street interception on the first play of the period turned into a Franco Harris touchdown and a 27-7 lead.

Texas then went on a 15-play, 70-yard drive but got only a Happy Feller field goal out of it to make it 27-10.

Street later led Texas on an eight-play, 80 yard drive capped by Jim Bertelsen’s three-yard score. But Feller missed the PAT and the Longhorns’ final drive ended with their third interception and fourth turnover of the day in a 27-16 loss.

Burkhardt was the outstanding offensive player, as he went 9-for-13 passing for 125 yards and scored on that keeper. His clutch bootleg pass on 4th-and-1 preceded Harris’ touchdown and was the key play of the second half.

Penn State’s defense held Texas to just 294 total yards and forced four turnovers. The Nittany Lions ran for 200 yards. In this alternate universe, the final AP poll gave Penn State the number one ranking, while Texas could still claim the UPI, NFF and Presidential claims to number one.

As for the game itself, it’s okay. Feels realistic enough. The Priority Chart (that tells you which offensive or defensive result takes precedence on a given play) takes some getting used to, and when a play breaks down, it gets funky. But my big thing is a lack of individual players, making it minimalist and not great for a season replay.

Still, it was fun enough for an afternoon and an interesting look at what might have been.



Kenn Tomasch

Kenn Tomasch

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