No doubt you, the serious fan, are intensely interested in how the Miami Hurricanes will do without Jimmy What's-his-name on the sidelines and whether it bothers Michigan's Bo Schembechler that he's now one national championship behind his school's rookie basketball coach. You may even be intrigued by the knowledge that Dixie's best team will once again not come from the proud Southeastern Conference and that Nebraska's schedule is a joke. Of course, you've probably noticed that Oklahoma has become State Pen U while Penn State U has become Rutgers, or something, that West Virginia quarterback Major Harris could be demoted to private behind this year's offensive line and that Notre Dame's Tony Rice might be only the second-most-serious Heisman Trophy candidate in his own state, behind Indiana's splendid tailback Anthony Thompson.
But you know what? Notre Dame, for one, doesn't care about any of these distractions. All the Irish really care about is building on the serendipity of last season's completely unanticipated 12-0 record and national championship.
The Irish are playing for a place in the record book—no college team has won back-to-back consensus titles since Oklahoma accomplished the feat in 1955-56—and the truth is, Notre Dame can be better than last year, even without getting the sort of breaks the '88 squad got in its 31-30 home win over Miami. That game, and not the easy 34-21 victory over overrated and over-hyped West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl, was the real battle for the title.
The losses of linebacker Michael Stonebreaker, tailback Tony Brooks, defensive tackle George Williams and defensive end Arnold Ale have stung the Irish (page 38), but that still leaves 14 returning starters, led by Rice, the athletic quarterback whose 700 yards rushing smashed Joe Theismann's old school record of 384, set in 1970. Rice's once-shaky passing has improved to at least the point of respectability, which is fortunate, because two of his brilliant young receivers, flanker Raghib (Rocket) Ismail and tight end Derek Brown, both are back for their sophomore seasons.
Ricky Watters, a flanker last season, will line up at tailback, and Anthony Johnson, a South Bend native who once worked as a runner for stadium ushers, is "the most underrated fullback I've ever been around," said coach Lou Holtz.
On defense, end Frank Stams and linebacker Wes Pritchett, two buddies who liked to crack jokes when they weren't cracking ballcarriers, have been lost to graduation. But linebacker Ned Bolcar, a fifth-year senior, is cocky enough to believe his unit still will be plenty tough. After a spring scrimmage, Bolcar said this to Johnson: "Anthony, you're one great fullback, and that makes us one great defense, because we kicked your butts today."
The only problem with picking Notre Dame to win it all is that the verdict could be overturned as early as Sept. 16, when the Irish visit Michigan. A year ago, remember, the Wolverines' Mike Gillette was a smidgen wide on a 49-yard field-goal attempt on the last play of Notre Dame's season-opening 19-17 victory in South Bend. That heart-breaker, another 31-30 squeaker to Miami and an inexplicable 17-17 tie with Iowa were the only blemishes on an otherwise brilliant season that was capped by a 22-14 romp over Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl, Schembechler's second win in Pasadena in nine tries.
Schembechler can't be too jealous of basketball coach Steve Fisher's national title, because, as athletic director. Bo is the guy who booted Bill Frieder out the door before the NCAA tournament for taking the Arizona State job. To the contrary, Bo was so delighted with the championship that he was heard to growl, in a rare moment of optimism, "Maybe, just maybe, we can carry it over to the fall." The strongest tie to the basketball team is cornerback Lance Dottin, a cousin of Final Four hero Rumeal Robinson and his back-court partner in high school.
Dottin is only one of many fine athletes wearing the maize and blue, so pay no attention when Schembechler grouses about his kicking game, his offensive line and his secondary. "It's a mind game," says safety Tripp Welborne, "but that's why he's a great coach." Welborne, tackle Mike Evans and linebacker J.J. Grant will anchor the defense, while the offense will be built around the likes of flanker Greg McMurtry, tailback Tony Boles (the nation's fourth-leading rusher, with 135.9 yards per game) and fullback Leroy Hoard.
New starting center Steve Everitt, a sophomore, earned Schembechler's affection in the spring when, after smashing his right hand in a door and losing two fingernails, he learned to snap with his left hand and didn't flub a single exchange during the spring game. Until last week, Schembechler's biggest dilemma was deciding who would take most of Everitt's snaps: Michael Taylor, who was leading the conference in passing efficiency when he broke his collarbone on Nov. 5, or Demetrius Brown, who filled in admirably and engineered the Rose Bowl win. As it turned out, Bo's decision was made for him when Brown flunked out of school.
At Florida State, quarterback Peter Tom Willis has the grades but not the experience. Willis, a fifth-year senior, who is replacing Chip Ferguson, is around only because he lost a coin flip with Ferguson to see which one would be redshirted when they were freshmen. In his one start last season, Willis directed a 59-0 romp over South Carolina, in which he completed 17 of 20 passes for 271 yards.
Wide receivers Lawrence Dawsey, Bruce La-Sane, Ronald Lewis and Terry Anthony, known as The Fab Four, will give Willis plenty of targets, while Dexter Carter, only 5'9" and 168 pounds, will attempt to replace tailback Sammie Smith, who chose to enter the NFL draft and was taken in the first round by the Miami Dolphins. "Offensively," says coach Bobby Bowden, whose 13-year record in Tallahassee is 112-38-3, "we should be pretty salty."
The defense, led by noseguard Odell Haggins, will be as fearsome but far quieter than last season's group, mainly because trash-talking defensive back Deion Sanders is gone. "You're going to see a lot less hotdogging this year," says Bowden, who knows his team will need all the concentration it can muster to handle a killer schedule that includes eight bowl teams, five of which were ranked in the final AP Top 20.
The schedule isn't the problem at Southern Cal, it's the confidence factor. Last season ended with losses to Notre Dame (27-10) and Michigan (in the Rose Bowl) after 10 straight wins. To help insure a return trip to Pasadena—with a happier outcome—coach Larry Smith went back to basics in the spring, looking for more discipline and better execution. The Trojan offense may take a while to adjust to the loss of quarterback Rodney Peete. Last year's backup, Pat O'Hara, beat out ballyhooed redshirt freshman Todd Marinovich for the job. But last Friday, O'Hara broke his leg in a scrimmage, and sooner than expected, Marinovich will get a chance to live up to his notices. With no O.J. Simpson or Marcus Allen in sight, the tailback position will be shared by Scott Lockwood, Aaron Emanuel and Ricky Ervins.
At least the Trojan offense will be given plenty of time to jell, thanks to a terrific defense that returns almost intact from last season, when it allowed only 268.9 yards per game, including a mere 76.6 on the ground, second best in the nation behind Auburn. Safeties Mark Carrier and Cleveland Colter (page 78) and tackle Tim Ryan are the names to remember.
At Nebraska, meanwhile, the defense is rebuilding, but it won't need to be overpowering to throw a shutout or two against the Huskers' non-conference schedule of—are you ready for this?—Northern Illinois, Utah, Minnesota and Oregon State. Gone from the early-season slate are UCLA, Arizona State and Texas A & M. Coach Tom Osborne says, "The games might be a lot more interesting than people think—or want." Is this guy a scream or what?
Because both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will be down and the rest of the conference is weak, only Colorado will stand between the Huskers and an unbeaten regular season, especially if Osborne makes good on his promise to put some new wrinkles into the stale I formation that generated only 17 points in the final three games of last season. Not that Osborne is panicking, understand. To the contrary, he's quick to point out that Nebraska is the decade's leader in winning percentage (83.8), scoring (38.97 points per game), rushing offense (362.19 yards per game), total offense (476.66) and scoring defense (12.11), and he doesn't expect those numbers to dip. The Huskers could blossom early if sophomore Mike Grant develops into a worthy replacement for Steve Taylor at quarterback and if I-back Ken Clark has another year like '88, when he was the fifth-leading rusher in the nation with 1,497 yards.
Nebraska was destroyed 23-3 in last season's Orange Bowl by Miami, which then claimed that it deserved the national title instead of Notre Dame. Immediately, the Hurricanes and their fans began looking forward to Notre Dame's return visit to Miami on Nov. 25, but the departures of coach Jimmy Johnson and quarterback Steve Walsh to the Dallas Cowboys have tempered emotions.
Rest assured, however, that the Hurricanes still will be the Hurricanes with the Erickson boys—new coach Dennis and quarterback Craig—running the show. Erickson the coach is being careful not to tamper with Miami's winning formula—it has produced a 44-4 record over the past four years—except to give Erickson the quarterback a passing game that calls for more receivers and shorter routes. After facing the new offense in the spring, Hurricane linebacker Maurice Crum said, "I'd rather get ready to face our old offense than this one." Crum will back a veteran defensive line (Greg Mark, Russell Maryland, Jimmie Jones and Shane Curry) that could be the country's stingiest.
When Erickson departed Washington State for Miami, he left behind a decidedly mixed legacy. The Cougars had their best season (9-3) since 1930, but the program's academic record was a dismal failure—a collective 1.94 grade point average for the fall semester—and five players have since been convicted of crimes ranging from assault to forgery. Erickson was anything but a disciplinarian at State, which seems to suit Hurricane center Bobby Garcia just fine. "I think too many rules tend to make people act certain ways." says Garcia, "like they want to break them because they feel confined." Got that, everybody?
The Hurricanes are one of the few teams over the last several seasons that have had more success than UCLA, which has won seven straight bowl games and which put together two straight 10-win seasons for the first time ever in 1987 and '88. This season's chances will depend on whether the Bruins are able to make the transition from the pass-happy days of Troy Aikman to a more conservative style of offense.
"I've got my Rommel hat back on," says coach Terry Donahue, who intends to take the overland route this season. The job of succeeding Aikman will most likely fall to sophomore Jimmy Bonds in the beginning, but redshirt freshman Bret Johnson is emerging as a strong leader. Bonds and Johnson will be handing off a lot, mostly to sophomore Shawn Wills, and that could prove frustrating to the Bruins' terrific receiving corps. Charles Arbuckle and backup Corwin Anthony may be the best set of tight ends in the nation, and senior wideout Mike Farr will be hoping to beat the school-record 66 receptions he had last year.
On defense, UCLA's first string, led by linebacker Craig Davis and tackle Mike Lodish, will be solid but lacking in depth. Injuries to some key players could grind this unit down. A big plus is the Bruins' schedule, with six games at home, including a date with Michigan that, if the Trojans falter, could be a Rose Bowl preview.
Of course, those nonconference games can be real killers, as Louisiana State found out last season when it was humiliated 44-3 by Miami on Nov. 19 in Baton Rouge. Many SEC fans regarded the Miami whipping as proof that LSU was the weakest conference cochampion in years (Auburn owned the other half). The problem was mainly on offense, where quarterback Tom Hodson had a disappointing season laboring behind an inexperienced line, and without injured running star Harvey Williams and wide receiver Wendell Davis, who had graduated. This season, Williams has recovered from the dreadful knee injury he suffered while gaining his 1,001st rushing yard in the Tigers' 1987 regular-season finale against Tulane. The blocking will be better too, meaning that Hodson should have the sensational year as a senior he was expected to have as a junior.
In tough early games against Texas A & M, Florida State, Florida and Auburn the offense will have to put enough points on the board to cover for an inexperienced defense, and senior David Browndyke, who has converted all 80 of his college extra-point attempts and 47 of his 61 field-goal tries, will be expected to perform as heroically without the tee, which has been banished by the rule makers.
It was a late Hodson to Eddie Fuller touchdown pass and a Browndyke extra point that gave LSU a 7-6 win over Auburn, costing coach Pat Dye's team sole possession of the SEC championship and a chance to contend for No. 1 in the polls. Gone from that team are 14 starters, including Outland and Lombardi Trophy winner Tracy Rocker and nine others who were drafted by the NFL, yet Auburn is expected to be almost as formidable this season. The defense won't be quite as potent—that would be nearly impossible—but it will have a frightening familiarity, especially with little brother David Rocker filling Tracy's spot at defensive tackle and inside linebacker Quentin Riggins finally coming into his own as the anchor of the unit.
The offense, which stalled too often inside the 20 in big games, should be better. Quarterback Reggie Slack, who led the SEC last season in passing efficiency, will operate behind a line that Dye ranks "as solid as any five we've ever started with." Sophomore left guard Ed King is the bulwark of the group. Both of last season's leading rushers, Stacy Danley and James Joseph, return to share the tailback spot, unless Teapot Brown comes up empty at fullback, in which case Joseph will be shifted into his spot.
Dye's situation at Auburn is almost identical to the one Ken Hatfield faces at Arkansas, where only three starters are missing from the offense but only three return on defense. The difference, of course, is that the Razorbacks don't face the same level of competition in the scandal-ridden Southwest Conference that Auburn must contend with in the SEC. Because the NCAA disciplined six of the SWC's schools over the past three years, squeaky-clean Hatfield and his Razorbacks have become the league's dominant program.
A fitting symbol of the Razorbacks' ascension is redshirt freshman running back E.D. (Extremely Dangerous) Jackson, a Texan who declined to visit any of the Texas universities and signed with Arkansas only three days after visiting Oklahoma. Anthoney Cooney, a senior cornerback who tried to tackle the 5'10", 197-pound E.D. in a scrimmage, missed the next week with a bruised collarbone. Strength coach John Stucky, who worked with Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders at Oklahoma State, says E.D. has the same potential as the NFL backs.
Jackson should fit nicely into a new offensive style that will employ both options and pro sets. The Razorbacks will need to go for six more often, now that automatic placekicker Kendall Trainor, who hit 24 field goals in a row last season, is gone, and the defense is inexperienced. But that should be no hardship for quarterback Quinn Grovey (an Oklahoma native ignored by the Sooners) and his versatile stable of backs. "We've got stallions now," says backfield coach Larry Brinson. "The best and most people since I've been here."
The prospects at Colorado are brighter than they've been since 1971, when the Buffaloes finished third in the nation. Last season, coach Bill McCartney's team was a solid 8-4, losing to Nebraska and Oklahoma by a total of 10 points, and now, with 17 starters back, including linebackers Alfred Williams and Kanavis McGhee, the Buffs should be poised for a Top 10 breakthrough. Tragically, starting quarterback Sal Aunese, who accounted for 1,401 yards last season, was found to have inoperable cancer during the off-season. He did not participate in spring practice, but his understudy, sophomore Darian Hagan, developed as "even more of a pleasant surprise than I anticipated," according to offensive coordinator Gerry DiNardo.
Because of Hagan's inexperience, McCartney has changed his offense from the wishbone to the power I to place more responsibility on his huge offensive line and a deep and talented tailback corps led by junior Eric Bieniemy, a bowling-ball type (5'6", 190 pounds) who rolled for 1,243 yards, sixth best in the nation.
Such a runner is missing at West Virginia, but the Mountaineers still have the marvelous Major Harris to befuddle defenses with his strong arm and quick feet. He is so good that even without the eight seniors who were drafted by the NFL, the Mountaineers should be able to earn their seventh bowl appearance in the 10-year stint of coach Don Nehlen. West Virginia's assets will be a less-than-killer schedule, including Ball State, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati, and a defense that returns seven starters, including the linebacking trio of Renaldo Turnbull, Chris Haering and Theron Ellis. Unlike last season, when Harris & Co. averaged more than 41 points a game, the offense will struggle behind a rather green line. If he has time to look downfield, Harris will loft bombs to 6'6" wide receiver Reggie Rembert, perhaps the nation's best at his position.
The West Virginia of this season—the team that comes from the fringes to challenge for the Top 10—could be North Carolina State. When coach Dick Sheridan turned down the chance to replace Vince Dooley at Georgia, that should have been a hint that he likes what he has in Raleigh. The Wolfpack will know early whether it will be able to unseat perennial champion Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference, thanks to a crazy schedule that has N.C. State opening the season with four straight league games. Coming off an 8-3-1 year, N.C. State has an offense that's comfortably deep at quarterback and tailback, and a defense that has a couple of big-time hitters in strong safety Jesse Campbell—first team all-ACC as a freshman—and tackle Ray Agnew.
Still, Clemson won't be easy to dislodge, especially since the big Oct. 21 game with the Wolfpack will be played in Death Valley, and the Tigers will be out to avenge last season's 10-3 defeat. With Rodney Williams gone, Clemson is shaky at quarterback, but that's of little concern to the Tigers, who have run the ball 75% of the time in coach Danny Ford's 10-year career. The best of a solid corps of tailbacks, junior Terry Allen will become the school's alltime leading rusher, with 2,915 yards, when he gains his 750th yard this season—which should be no problem considering the blocking he figures to get from fullback Wesley McFadden and a strong line.
The good and bad of Barry Switzer's 16-year reign at Oklahoma will be debated for years. But give the former coach credit for stockpiling so much talent that neither the well-publicized off-the-field scandals—in which five players were charged with or convicted of major crimes—nor the three-year NCAA probation can shut down the factory. Under new coach Gary Gibbs, Switzer's defensive coordinator for eight years, the Sooners will be more imaginative with the ball and as tough as ever on defense.
Even Colorado and Nebraska, the best teams on the weak Oklahoma schedule, will have trouble scoring against a defense built around tackle Scott Evans, ends Wayne Dickson and James Goode and noseguard Dante Williams. But the offense is a question mark, in part because the Sooners will do less grinding out of their trademark wishbone and more passing out of the I. This is big news, considering that the Sooners have ranked no higher than 97th nationally in passing during the last seven years. Without Charles Thompson, convicted of cocaine dealing, the Sooners don't have a proven quarterback. The candidates include Steve Collins and Tink Collins (not related), and Chris Melson, a converted defensive back. No matter who runs the show, however, the best weapon will be sophomore tailback Mike Gaddis, whom Switzer called "the best back in the Big Eight." Says offensive coordinator Jim Donnan, "We wanted to make sure he can get the ball, and it's a lot easier out of the I."
The Sooners aren't the only traditional power to find themselves in the lower reaches of the rankings. Though it has 43 lettermen returning from a 9-3 team, Alabama has a lot to prove, mainly because both of last season's leaders, quarterback David Smith and linebacker Derrick Thomas, are gone from a team that lost two games in the final two minutes. The new Tide quarterback figures to be Jeff Dunn, who, with an ailing shoulder, completed only a third of his passes while subbing for Smith. Assisting him will be running back Murry Hill, who filled in well for the injured Bobby Humphrey, and receiver Marco Battle. On defense, Keith McCants may eventually be as good as Thomas, while coach Bill Curry calls noseguard Willie Wyatt "a center's nightmare."
Speaking of nightmares, that's what John Cooper had in his first season at Ohio State, where the Buckeyes stumbled to 4-6-1 and seventh—seventh!—in the Big Ten. Now, with quarterback Greg Frey and tailback Carlos Snow (who is expected to recover fully from arthroscopic knee surgery) leading his 38 returnees. Cooper at least should have consistency. The same team that beat Syracuse and LSU was buried by Pitt, Illinois and Indiana. Whatever its final record, Ohio State should have plenty of fight going for it. Tight end Jeff Ellis is the son of former heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis, while linebacker Derek Isaman, who once lost a Golden Gloves match to Mike Tyson, will be back after sitting out last season to try out for the Olympic boxing squad, which he failed to make.
The Buckeyes could finish higher than expected and so could Houston, which once again will use coach Jack Pardee's run-and-shoot offense to light up scoreboards all over the Southwest. The Cougars have two fine defensive players in strong safety Alton Montgomery and linebacker Lamar Lathon, but it's the thrill-a-snap attack that gets the attention. The first option in the run-and-shoot is for quarterback Andre Ware to drop back and let fly. But on those rare occasions when Ware can't get the ball to one of his receivers, he hands it to Chuck (Spoon) Weatherspoon, a 5'7", 210-pounder who took advantage of the emphasis on passing to gain 1,004 yards on only 118 carries, an amazing average of 8.5 yards a pop.
Syracuse has been somebody for the last two seasons, finishing 21-2-1, and the Orangemen won't slip far. Heavy backfield losses on both sides of the line should be offset by a solid line-backing corps, a veteran offensive line and a fine runner in Michael Owens, older brother of basketball whiz Billy Owens. The Orangemen have won 15 straight in the Carrier Dome, but the streak is in peril as both Florida State and Penn State (in its last Dome appearance after canceling the 67-year rivalry) will visit. Another Syracuse streak likely to fall, considering the ban on kicking tees, is its national record of 260 straight regular-season extra points, dating back to 1978.
While Syracuse is used to being among the nation's elite, the experience is new for Southern Mississippi, which had the quietest 10-2 record in the nation last season. With eight returning offensive starters, including quarterback Brett Favre and wide receiver Alfred Williams, the Golden Eagles may be ready to step up to a midlevel bowl, assuming they can handle the most challenging schedule (Florida State, Auburn, Alabama and Texas A & M, to name four opponents) in the school's history.
1 NOTRE DAME
3 FLORIDA ST.
12 W. VIRGINIA
13 N.C. STATE
17 OHIO STATE
20 SO. MISS.