Poll vaulting

Top four before Nov. 3, 1990

1. Virginia

2. Notre Dame

3. Nebraska

4. Auburn

Also: 9. Colorado

Top four after Nov. 3, 1990

1. Notre Dame

2. Washington

3. Houston

4. Colorado

Heading into the final month of the 1990 regular season, Colorado seemed to be a long shot in the national title race.

At 7-1-1, the Buffaloes were ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press poll that was released on Oct. 30 of that season. Typically, teams outside of the top five that late in the season don't win championships.

Colorado quarterback Darian Hagan fights for yardage against Nebraska on Nov. 3, 1990, a day that would be pivotal in the Buffs’ march to the
Colorado quarterback Darian Hagan fights for yardage against Nebraska on Nov. 3, 1990, a day that would be pivotal in the Buffs' march to the national championship. (John Leyba / The Denver Post)

Undefeated Virginia (7-0) was the front-runner entering November, with 44 of the 60 first-place votes. The Buffs also sat behind - in order - Notre Dame (6-1), Nebraska (8-0), Auburn (6-0-1), Illinois (6-1), Houston (7-0), Washington (7-1) and Miami (5-2).

To make a title run, CU needed a lot of help. And on one Saturday afternoon, the Buffaloes got it. Nov. 3 brought a seismic shift in the championship race and ultimately proved to be the pivotal day in CU's season.

In Charlottesville, Va., No. 16 Georgia Tech upset top-ranked Virginia. That, of course, proved to be the key win for the Yellow Jackets, who finished 11-0-1 and won the UPI/Coaches national title.

No. 4 Auburn visited The Swamp in Gainesville, Fla., and got crushed by the Gators, 48-7.


Iowa rolled to a 54-28 win at No. 5 Illinois, the only team to beat CU that season.

Of course, none of that would have mattered if the Buffs didn't win in Lincoln, Neb., that day, which they did, 27-12.

"I remember going into that game, (assistant coach Gary) Barnett, he was the guy that wanted to make sure we were focused," CU quarterback Darian Hagan said. "I remember him coming in there in the quarterback room and telling us these guys (ranked ahead of CU) lost, and we have to go out there and win this game, so we can play for a national championship again."

Indeed, after all that carnage among the top five on Nov. 3, CU suddenly found itself in the thick of the championship hunt. Notre Dame moved up to No. 1, followed by Washington and Houston. Colorado vaulted all the way up to No. 4. (Georgia Tech made the biggest jump of anybody, up to No. 7).

While Notre Dame, Washington and Houston survived the day of upsets on Nov. 3, they didn't hang on long. Washington and Houston both lost on Nov. 10 and Notre Dame lost on Nov. 17.

When the Nov. 20 poll was released, the national title was CU's to lose. The Buffs were ranked No. 1. That didn't change the rest of the year, as CU completed one of the most unlikely late-season climbs in college football history.

Of the eight teams ranked ahead of CU on Oct. 30, seven lost at least once.

How unusual was CU's title run? In the history of the AP poll (since 1936), only two other teams have entered November at No. 9 or lower in the rankings and wound up as the champion - Oklahoma in 1985 (No. 9 entering November) and Ohio State in 2014 (No. 13 going into November).