Everybody starts out tied for first, the saying goes. Then the season begins, and well before the first frost, the college football landscape starts taking on a familiar look. Oh, there are the surprises, the upsets and the upstarts, but the game always settles comfortably into its three-tiered hierarchy. There is, as we have noted, the Top 20. Then there are those teams celebrated as the "others receiving votes." Some of those schools will find their way into a bowl game at the end of the season. Some will even rehire their coaches. But the bulk of the Bottom 86 are schools that get, well, eighty-sixed on a regular basis. They are the visitors at all those homecoming games. The mispronounced teams. Teams that visit Clemson for its opener. Teams even Keith Jackson hasn't heard of. Teams that have been rebuilding for so long that their brand-new, state-of-the-art stadiums are nearly eligible for landmark status. And teams to whom the word bowl means what the linebackers' coach does with his wife every Monday night.
So, which of the Bottom 86 are the almost great, which are the supremely mediocre and which are the just plain rancid? Paul? Music for this?
Last September, when Florida State signed on with the Atlantic Coast Conference, the league enacted the 'Fraidy Bill, which called for a one-year waiting period before the Seminoles could join the conference and mow down their new mates. So until 1992 this conference is a race among Top 20 contenders Georgia Tech, Clemson and North Carolina. Virginia, so thrilling in its sudden ascent last season, is dominant no Moore—Shawn and Herman are both gone—and that No. 1 ranking is but a warm memory. Wide receiver Herman is irreplaceable, though Terrence Tomlin and Brian Satola will try their best, while stepping in for quarterback Shawn, with better odds of success, is Matt Blundin. Tailback Terry Kirby, who moonlights as a basketball player, is expected to be the Cavaliers' main offensive threat.
At North Carolina State, noseguard Ricky Logo is the favorite to succeed his grandfather as one of the four district chiefs of Samoa. If 80-year-old Gatia Lavatia should die, Logo will give up his scholarship and return home to assume the throne. That is the only title the Wolfpack is likely to attain in Raleigh, in spite of a defense featuring two All-ACC candidates, linebackers Tyler Lawrence and Clayton Henry. Four offensive linemen at Maryland actually nabbed a perpetrator this spring when he tried to break into their dorm. If only these guys had been half as attentive on the field last season, then perhaps quarterback Scott Zolak might not have suffered 40 sacks. Zolak is gone, but Jim Sandwisch will have more of the same to look forward to this fall. Any hopes for a Duke basketball/football national championship double in 1991 were snuffed out when Wallace Wade resigned as the Blue Devil football coach in 1950. The Duke attack is solid, but the defense, which gave up 377 yards per game last season, has to improve. What's to be said about Wake Forest? Well, there is no depth and no speed, but there is experience. There is also one of the grand names in football history at tight end: Rhett Blanchard is the grandson of Doc Blanchard, the 1945 Heisman Trophy winner from Army.
In the Big East, Alonzo Mourning is back at Georgetown, and look for Villano...hold on...huh?...they're playing what? O.K., so this league is kicking the ball for the very first time, and the local bully—if you consider South Florida to be in the same neighborhood as Boston and Syracuse—is definitely Miami. The Hurricanes are Top 20 contenders again this season. Syracuse has a fine young quarterback in Marvin Graves, but a shaky offensive line and a dearth of experienced receivers could be the undoing of the Orange. Temple was Division I's most improved team last season (from 1-11 in '89 to 7-4), but the Owls have two big trouble spots this season: quarterback and defense. This year's Kerouac Cup will be awarded to Virginia Tech quarterback Will Furrer, who steers the Hokies on the road to North Carolina State, South Carolina, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Orlando, to play Florida State, in consecutive games. West Virginia offensive guard Ron Bunofsky caught a man who jumped out of a third-floor window from a burning building in Morgantown, last January. Bunofsky and his beefy linemates also will be relied upon for heroics on the field, though the defensive line is a major question mark. Boston College is the place to see many of the sport's All-Americas this season. Unfortunately for Eagle fans, they will all be wearing visiting uniforms. Michigan, Miami, Georgia Tech and Louisville all go to Boston this fall. At Pittsburgh, coach Paul Hackett had to cancel the annual spring game because of a lack of players at skill positions. Rutgers can only hope that it is as good as Pitt.
Twenty years ago the Big Eight settled its differences with the epic Game of the Century between the league's two titans, Oklahoma and Nebraska. Since then, there have been as many Games of the Century in this conference as play-action passes: about 20 each. Over the last two decades, the Sooners and Huskers have won or shared all but two conference championships. Guess what? This is not a rerun. Reserve the La-Z-Boy for Nov. 29.
Colorado, last year's co-national champion, lost 13 starters and three assistant coaches, but a soft early-season schedule may ease the learning process for some of coach Bill McCartney's inexperienced players. Junior cornerback Deon Figures is the best of the veterans. This fall the beef is at Iowa State, where the Cyclones can roll out 336-pound tackle Lance Keller, 319-pound tackle Todd McClish and 308-pound guard Doug (Tiny) Skartvedt. With the loss of 15 scholarships courtesy of the NCAA, Oklahoma State has begun a campus recruiting drive called Uncle Pat Wants You. Coach Pat Jones, who presided over one of the nation's 10 worst passing teams in 1990, has reportedly been seen scouring the intramural fields looking for a few good spirals.
It's a case of beauty and the beast at Kansas State, where the Wildcats are whispering about—sssshhh—a winning season. On the one hand, tight end Al Jones modeled last summer in Stockholm; on the other, 5'11", 315-pound nosetackle Evan Simpson has the training regimen of a hippopotamus. "I just like to eat as much as I can," Simpson says, "then lie down and sleep." They're also looking classier at Kansas, where they haven't seen .500 in a decade. Senior tailback Tony Sands wears a tuxedo to every game, but during the off-season he keeps in shape by pushing a pickup truck one block at a time. Since this is Kanas football we're talking about, Sisyphus comes to mind. On defense, Missouri was truly the team of the 90's—93rd in scoring defense (32.7 points per game) and 98th in total defense (443.6 yards per game). Things got so bad, it was almost as if opposing offenses were getting a fifth down.
The big three in the Big Ten are Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State, but don't overlook Michigan State, where a wide-open play is when tailback Tico Duckett runs outside the tackles. While studies show that three out of four insomniacs are cured by watching Spartan football, you can't quarrel with coach George Perles's success. In yet another instance of off-season heroics by a lineman, Illinois guard Tim Simpson tackled a burglar running from his girlfriend's apartment and held him in a headlock until police arrived. When not otherwise occupied, Simpson anchors a front wall that is the best in the league this side of Ann Arbor. September in Indiana means that it is time once again to talk about a flashy tailback. This fall it's Vaughn Dunbar, who rushed for 1,224 yards last season and scored 13 touchdowns. The year will open on a sour note for the Hoosiers, though, as they face Notre Dame, in South Bend, for the first time since 1958.
In popularity, Minnesota coach John Gutekunst ranks somewhere between Bill Musselman and Mike Ditka around the Twin Cities. Despite his critics, Gutekunst has proved to be the most stubborn Gopher since Caddyshack. This season, led by Joel Staats at linebacker and Sean Lumpkin at safety, Minnesota will be the best team not to go to a bowl; the NCAA hit the Gophers with a one-year probation for financial aid violations. Last year Purdue's average rushing play gained about as much as a tailback falling on his face (1.9 yards). The Boilermakers' good fortune is being in the same conference with Wisconsin, where second-year coach Barry Alvarez still has a long way to go to produce a winner, and with Northwestern, which is an excellent academic institution in Evanston, Ill.
If the Big West disappears from Division I-A, as has been rumored, would anybody notice? This league sported the big time's three lowest attendance averages last season, and there are more independence movements here than in Yugoslavia. The only arena in which bodies always outnumber empty chairs is at Fresno State—and the Bulldogs are defecting to the Western Athletic Conference after this season. With quarterback Mike Barsotti and tailback Anthony Daigle, Fresno will do lots of scoring, but the defensive line gives up yards quicker than a wholesale carpet outlet. The only obstacle for opponents is safety Marquez Pope, the league's co-defensive player of the year.
Memo to staff: Find out what's in the water at Utah State. In recent years the Aggies have successfully recruited title-type talent, including the league's best backfield tandem, Roger Grant and Floyd Foreman. Then last winter, 25 of the 29 recruits who visited the campus decided to stay. If State has enough healthy bodies left after back-to-back games against Nebraska and Oklahoma, it could make a run at the conference crown. San Jose State will play in every continental time zone this season and won't taste home cooking until Oct. 19. This will be a rebuilding year for the Spartans, who lost a lot of talent at the skill positions. Pacific quarterback Troy Kopp ranked third in the nation last season in passing yards per game, touchdown throws and total offense per game, and with all of his favorite receivers back, he might guide the Tigers' run-and-shoot to a major improvement over 1990's 4-7.
At UNLV the energetic Hunkie Cooper passes, runs, catches and returns kicks. Willie Brown replaced the late George Allen as coach at Long Beach State and hired two other former Raider cronies, Mike Davis and Jimmy Warren, as assistant coaches. There's nobody to carry the bags to the bus at New Mexico State, because there is only one freshman. Nineteen of the Aggies' 20 recruits this season are junior college signees. State's end-of-season win over Cal State-Fullerton ended a string of 27 straight losses. Budget cuts nearly cost Fullerton its football program last fall, which might have been a fitting response to the Titans' 1-11 record and average home crowd of 2,738.
The Mid-American Conference hasn't had a repeat champion in 11 years, but the Chippewas of Central Michigan could end the jinx behind the talented trio of quarterback Jeff Bender, tailback Billy Smith and wide receiver Ken Ealy. If the Chips fall, look for Miami of Ohio to continue its rise from the depths of 1989, when the Redskins went 2-8-1. Jon Wauford, a 255-pound defensive end, is the conference's best defensive player. Ball State's best-known fan, alumnus David Letterman, will be rooting for the Cardinals to find a replacement for tailback Bernie Parmalee, a four-year star, but otherwise Ball has six returning starters on offense and seven on defense. Western Michigan has a solid running game and 6'6", 330-pound tackle Paul Hutchins, who is only the second-biggest player in the league. Toledo has its third coach in three years, and at least seven players on defense will be starting at their positions for the first time. How about a name change at Bowling Green? Let's face it, the Falcons have been to two bowls in 72 years, though green aptly describes rookie coach Gary Blackney. Speaking of names, Eastern Michigan has a linebacker named Eddie Nwagbaraocha (pronounced Nwagbaraocha). The fiercest competitor in Ypsilanti has to be the play-by-play man. Kent has nearly everyone back from last season's 2-9 team, including quarterback Joe Dalpra. Ohio's troubles begin at quarterback and get worse from there.
A Pac-10 team hasn't won even a share of a national title since Southern Cal finished atop the UPI Coaches' Poll in 1978. Washington stands the best chance of ending that drought, though the Trojans could spoil everything for the Huskies when the two teams meet on Nov. 9. Poor UCLA plays half of its games at the Rose Bowl, but it hasn't booked New Year's Day there for six years. The Bruins might not have to wait much longer if sophomore quarterback Tommy Maddox blossoms as expected. Maddox could turn out to be better than Troy Aikman, the former Bruin who is with the Dallas Cowboys. For now, though, UCLA would be happy to win the championship of Los Angeles—the Bruins have not beaten USC since 1986 (they tied in 1989). One of college football's more exciting revivals is taking place at California. The Bears hadn't been to a bowl since 1979 (remember that Garden State showdown with Temple?). Then two years ago coach Bruce Snyder lassoed tailback Russell White, the most highly prized recruit in the state, and last season, as a sophomore, White ran for 1,000 yards. The result was a date with Wyoming in the Copper Bowl (Cal won 17-15) and even grander hopes for '91. White's Uncle Charles won the Heisman Trophy as a USC halfback in 1979, and before he's done, young Russell could become the first Bear ever to win the prize.
Nobody is safe around Stanford's 6'7", 300-pound Bob Whitfield, especially his friends. The junior tackle sprinkles hot sauce in sleeping Cardinal mouths and steals their clothes while they shower. When he gets serious, Whitfield is also one of the top three offensive linemen in the country. Oregon is diving into the gene pool to replace its departed leader, quarterback Bill Musgrave. Bill's kid brother, Doug, and former USC quarterback Sean Salisbury's younger sibling, Brett, are two of the rookies looking to win the starting job. Most observers had expected Arizona State's Larry Marmie to be deposited into the Grand Canyon of coaches by now. But despite a 4-7 record last year, a 16-16-1 career mark and zero wins over Arizona, Marmie is a great favorite of his players and is admired by school president Lattie Coor. The high school class of '91 was one of the best ever in the state, and Marmie skimmed off the cream, but that still puts the Sun Devils at least a year away.
Arizona has a great righty-lefty combination at quarterback. The interesting part is that both arms are connected to the same guy, George Malauulu. The junior option quarterback can pass equally well with either arm, though he has yet to throw righty in a game. Washington State's brightest star is premed placekicker Jason Hanson, who has hit 14 of 21 field goals from 50 yards or farther in his career. Oregon State has had 20 straight losing seasons, and things aren't looking much better this fall. The Beavers thought they had found their salvation when they signed Texas high school star quarterback Don Shanklin this spring, but he has yet to score high enough on his ACT to gain admission to Oregon State. New coach Jerry Pettibone will be forced to rely on journeyman senior Ed Browning to run his spread option offense.
Bear Bryant wouldn't recognize this newfangled Southeastern Conference. In a league in which coaches once lasted longer than Volvos, there are now only three men who have been on the job for more than three years. The plan of attack has also changed, from three yards and a cloud of red clay, to sprint past the magnolia and go to the post. Florida sets the pace in the SEC, but Alabama, Tennessee and Auburn are hot on its cleats. After two years in which LSU looked like a Three Stooges rerun, the Tigers decided to hire Curley, as in Hallman, as their new coach. Hallman inherits 22 of 24 starters, which is not necessarily a good thing. The quarterback is premed Chad Loup, who is familiar with critical cases. At Mississippi the Rebel yell was quieted to a whisper down the stretch, as Ole Miss lost two of its last three games after an 8-1 start. The Rebels get a break from the schedule—they don't play Alabama or Florida.
Georgia players had all kinds of trouble passing last season. They didn't throw the football well either. In response, coach Ray Goff has cracked down on those Dawgs who don't crack the books, and he has pulled the offense out of the Mesozoic Era with a flashy innovation called the drop-back pass. It should be Dooley noted that Georgia's 4-7 record last season was its worst in 30 years. After his own 4-7 debut at Kentucky, coach Bill Curry shouldn't be blamed if he was a little relieved not to be forced to install unbreakable living-room windows. In an attempt to give the defense some grit, Curry is calling the best of the group the Black Watch, which harks back to Curry's days as the coach at his alma mater, Georgia Tech, and not to his recent, unhappy stop at Alabama. New Vanderbilt coach Gerry DiNardo is a long-distance runner who has completed three marathons. Just ask his predecessor, Watson Brown, if anybody ever finishes, much less wins, the Nashville marathon. At Mississippi State, Rockey Felker is out. Jackie Sherrill is in. Can NCAA executive enforcement director David Berst be far behind?
For the first time since 1984 not a single Southwest Conference team's postseason plans will be spoiled by the NCAA, and fans will finally have a chance to see more than 10-second highlights of Houston's Heisman hopeful, quarterback David Klingler, whose Cougars will battle the Texas Longhorns for the trip to the Cotton Bowl. Klingler should be wary of Texas A&M, though. Since 1985, the Aggies have played the team featuring that year's Heisman winner in every season but one, and their record in those games is 4-1. At Baylor, great things are expected from defensive tackle Santana Dotson, who, as the story goes, got his unusual name because his mom was a fan of the famous rock guitarist. At Texas Tech, receiver Rodney Blackshear is also the conference's most feared return man, and the Red Raider faithful are convinced that he is this year's Rocket Ismail. Black-shear averaged 25.9 yards per kickoff return and caught 44 passes for 973 yards and nine touchdowns from his wideout spot.
Rice is simmering. The Owls came within a two-point conversion of their first winning season since 1963, and they could be even better this year with their fine game breaker, tailback Trevor Cobb, who is only 47 yards away from becoming the school's alltime leading rusher. TCU's fortunes are as malleable as Clay. Last season the Frogs were 5-1 with quarterback Leon Clay but 0-5 after he broke a thumb. The junior quarterback is so cool in the pocket that he has been dubbed Freon Leon, but with an inexperienced line this season he may become known as Feet of Clay. At not-yet-ready-for-the-SEC Arkansas, coach Jack Crowe is stirring the pot to turn his team around from last season's disastrous 3-8 record. Gary Adams will be the quarterback, but tailback Ron Dickerson, one of the team's best players, may be moved to the secondary or to receiver. This year, the initials SMU stand for Sacrificing Many Underclassmen. Rookie coach Tom Rossley has only seven seniors, four of whom have never earned a letter, which may be one reason why athletic director Forrest Gregg left the sideline for the luxury box.
In the last decade Brigham Young has won seven Western Athletic Conference titles, but this is not the year to be complacent. Though the Cougars have the Heisman returnee in quarterback Ty Detmer, the WAC is up for grabs. Detmer's line and his receivers will be younger and less experienced, which makes it unlikely that he will join Ohio State's Archie Griffin as the only other two-time Heisman winner in history. Pushing the Cougars hard will be Colorado State, where the quarterback is talented fifth-year senior Kevin Verdugo. Coach Earle Bruce has instilled discipline at Fort Collins, and last season he coached the Rams to their first bowl in 42 years. When they talk about big shoes to fill at San Diego State, they're serious. Dan McGwire took his 6'8" frame and his size 14 feet to the NFL, leaving 6'7" Cree Morris to fit into the quarterback slippers. At the helm of one of the nation's most potent offenses, Morris will have the supreme joy of throwing to All-America wide receiver Patrick Rowe. Hawaii, which will visit the mainland more often this season than it ever has, still likes small defensive linemen. That means that at least some of its opponents will run over the Rainbows. But tailback Jamal Farmer is an explosive runner, and the schedule is a breeze until Notre Dame hits the beach, on Nov. 30. Pass at your own risk in Wyoming. The Cowboys have averaged more than 50 sacks per season since 1986. Defensive end Doug Rigby is this season's sackmaster.
One team that doesn't fear the rush is Air Force, which has become an oxymoron in the WAC. The Falcons completed exactly zero touchdown passes last season and averaged just 35.1 yards per game through the skies. Utah has a Nicaraguan exile, Ed Castillo, and a former U.S. Marine, Gary Potts, on its offensive line. Says coach Ron McBride, "We're going to tell Ed that opposing defensive linemen are Sandinistas and tell Gary that they are Iraqi elite guards trying to get away." Last year, this space noted that UTEP's "greatest weakness might be a lack of strength." In fact, the Miners had many even greater weaknesses. Sophomore Barron Wortham is a fine linebacker, but he is only one man. The license plates say that New Mexico is the LAND OF ENCHANTMENT, and you won't get any argument from visiting football teams. If it wasn't for rival New Mexico State, the Lobos would really look bad. New Mexico quarterback Jeremy Leach has thrown for 7,987 yards and 44 touchdowns, and he's not certain to be the starter. Go figure.
To be among the Independents these days is like not having a date for the prom. Though still posturing as loners, Florida State and Penn State finally decided to come inside for some punch, though not until '92; South Carolina, where they are excited about a running back named Cleon Jones Jr., will join the SEC next season; and even a geek like Virginia Tech has found a match with the Big East. Of course, Notre Dame still insists on hanging out by itself—but as long as the money's good, why not? So who are the remaining wallflowers? Louisville, for one, which turned the Tide crimson with a 34-7 thrashing of Alabama in last year's Fiesta Bowl. Quarterback Browning Nagle is gone, and this year could be a different story. Memphis State is still going it alone, with a tough schedule and a soft defensive secondary. Three years ago Louisiana Tech was in Division I-AA, lost to four of its Division I-A opponents by a combined score of 220-26 and announced it was going up to the big time. Folks giggled. Last year the Bulldogs and Maryland tied 34-34 in the appropriately named Independence Bowl.
At Southern Mississippi, Jeff Bower takes over as coach, and Donell Brannon, who led the Golden Eagles in sacks last season, moves from defensive tackle to offensive tackle. Tulsa is hoping that quarterback T.J. Rubley can rebound from knee surgery and that receiver Dan Bitson, who has 154 catches in three seasons, can recover from a serious car crash. When the players at Southwestern Louisiana started joking about their offense last season as the run (three plays) and shoot (the offensive coordinator) it was time to give the pro-I a whirl. East Carolina has a fine flock of junior college transfers, including tailback Charles Miles. Tulane lost tailback Terrance Strickland to a knee injury, and starting quarterback Billy Duncan has thrown only two career passes, both incomplete.
As he does for every game, Northern Illinois fullback Adam Dach wore his Mr. Bubble T-shirt under his jersey when the Huskies rushed for 733 yards and stunned powerful Fresno State 73-18 last season. Guess where Northern travels for its 1991 opener? Look for Mr. Bubble to burst. As if they haven't already done enough this year, Army and Navy will each play 11 games this fall. Third-year Cincinnati coach Tim Murphy can count his Bearcat career wins on two fingers, but to tally the average points his defense gave up last season, he would need nine hands. This year Murph may have to take off his shoes. Gerry Faust is still plugging away, trying to build a major power at Akron.