The Atlantic Coast Conference can be rather neatly divided into two tiers: 1) newcomer Florida State and 2) everyone else. Clemson, the winner of four of the last six ACC titles, meets the Seminoles on Sept. 12, and from there on, the Tigers will be cast in the unfamiliar role of bridesmaid. The best battle in this league will be for runner-up behind Florida State. Virginia, which has finished second three times since 1987, will need a monster season from tailback Terry Kirby to stay in the hunt now that 6'7" quarterback Matt Blundin has gone to the Kansas City Chiefs. Blundin's replacement, 5'11" Bobby Goodman, came off the bench last season to pass for 229 yards and three touchdowns in a 24-21 loss to Georgia Tech.
The toughest shoes to fill will be those of Bobby Ross, who left Georgia Tech after five years and a share of the 1990 national title. His successor is Bill Lewis, who was named national Coach of the Year by his peers last season for leading East Carolina to a best-ever 11-1 finish. Lewis will build his team around senior quarterback Shawn Jones and fullback William Bell, who returns to the Yellow Jackets after missing all of last season due to a suspension for stealing school supplies.
The most surprising political announcement in the ACC occurred in January when North Carolina State noseguard Ricky Logo informed his fellow American Samoans that he would not succeed his grandfather as the islands' high chief. Instead, as a Wolfpack co-captain, Logo will try to lead N.C. State to its fifth straight bowl bid. This past spring NFL scouts declared that North Carolina was one of the five fastest teams in the country after clocking 17 Tar Heels at 4.5 or under in the 40. The best of this swift group is wideout Corey Holliday. Fittingly, the Terrapins of Maryland are the slowest team in the league. New coach Mark Duffner will try to install the same run-and-shoot offense that helped him achieve a 60-5-1 record at Holy Cross.
The conference's best-known unknown quarterback is Wake Forest sophomore Jim Kemp, the son of Jack Kemp, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and a pretty fair passer in his day. The smartest team, as usual, is Duke. But when it came to thinking on the field last season, the Blue Devils posted dismal marks in 1991—surrendering an average of 36 points over their final four games.
As the Big East prepares to embark on its second season of football, it can already boast as many national champions (one, Miami '91) as the Big West, MidAmerican and Western Athletic conferences combined. With the Hurricanes looking to pad that total in '92, some teams in the Big East can take solace in the fact that the conference is still a year away from its full round-robin schedule. The toughest intraleague road destinations that won't require sun block are Syracuse and Morgantown, W.Va. The Mountaineers are strong up the middle. Six-foot-seven center Mike Compton should clear dump truck-sized holes for the conference's best trio of runners: Adrian Murrell, Garrett Ford and Jon Jones. But for West Virginia to improve on last year's six wins, aptly named wide receiver James Jett, an Olympic sprinter, must get his hands on the ball more often.
Pittsburgh senior Alex Van Pelt, the league's best quarterback, missed spring drills to recover from elbow surgery on his throwing arm, but sometime in September he should surpass Dan Marino's 8,597 career yards and become the Panthers' alltime leading passer. The most eagerly awaited homecoming in the league is that of Rutgers quarterback Bryan Fortay, who returned to his native New Jersey after riding the bench for two years at Miami and sitting out his mandatory transfer year. Virginia Tech has the dubious honor of being the least-experienced team in the conference. The Tech tenderfeet face five opponents who played in bowl games last season. Boston College will have a stylish retro feel to it with junior quarterback Glenn Foley playing the same position for the Eagles as his father, Ed, did nearly 30 years ago. Temple won only two games last year, but one Owl who is still likely to soar is 36-year-old walk-on punter David Klukow, a former member of the Flying Wallendas high-wire troupe.
The biggest surprise in the Big Eight last fall was a burst of aerial attacks as every team passed for more than 1,000 yards for only the seventh time since 1907. Don't expect anyone in this league to break the 1-2-3 grip of Oklahoma, Colorado and Nebraska just yet, but the turnaround of Kansas and Kansas State—last season both schools finished with winning records for the first time in 58 years—is causing the most excitement Tornado Alley has experienced since the days of Gale Sayers. No one laughs at Kansas anymore, but folks do get a chuckle out of the Jayhawks' 305-pound all-conference tackle, Keith Loneker, a dead ringer for Curly of The Three Stooges. Loneker will see to it that quarterback Chip Hilleary isn't thwarted in his quest to become the only Jayhawk to pass for more than 4,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 in a career. At K-State, coach Bill Snyder has some real talent in linebacker Brooks Barta and defensive tackle Jody Kilian.
The conference's most intriguing slogan belongs to Iowa State, whose players have taken to wearing baseball caps with MEN OF THE CIRCLE sewn on the front. "It's our motto," says sophomore quarterback Bob Utter. "It's a show of team unity." This comes as a surprise to those who watched State's spring practice; the Cyclones did more fighting among themselves than a Liverpool soccer crowd. In between breaking up brawls, coach Jim Walden and his assistants taught their toughs a triple-option offense. The conference's least-effective defense is Missouri's read-and-react. Coach Bob Stull scrapped it before spring practice because in '91 the Tigers didn't read or react—they allowed a second-worst-in-the-nation 505 yards a game. With Oklahoma State nearing the end of a four-year NCAA probation, coach Pat Jones offered his players the nation's most morbid motivational display. He gathered his team at Lewis Field and with great ceremony buried a small wooden casket representing the last three years of sanctions. It will take more than theatrics by Jones to dig this program out.
Because the Big Ten is still a year away from allowing Penn State a chance to run for the roses, for the 20th time in the last 25 seasons the conference will be represented in Pasadena by either Michigan or Ohio State—with Iowa having an outside chance. The unhappiest loser in the conference is Michigan State coach George Perles, who was forced to relinquish his contemporaneous post as athletic director in favor of former NCAA assistant executive director Merrily Dean Baker. "I will watch over Michigan State no matter what my title," said Perles, whose 3-8 Spartans did more losing last season than any other team from East Lansing since 1982. State was ninth in the conference in total offense, but the Big Ten's most exciting player this time around could well be sophomore receiver Mill Coleman, who reminds folks of former Spartan wideouts Andre Rison and Mark Ingram.
Stability at quarterback is one of Illinois' major strengths, thanks to the Big Ten's total offense leader, Jason Verduzco, who returns for his senior season. The Illini also boast one of the nation's biggest kickers in 249-pound Chris Richardson. Running back Jeff Hill returns to Purdue, where last season he helped to boost the Boilermakers' team-rushing total past 1,000 yards for the first time since 1985. The biggest hole in the conference exists at Indiana, where coach Bill Mallory must find a tailback to replace Vaughn Dunbar, the school's third alltime leading rusher.
As the fourth Minnesota coach in 10 years, Jim Wacker takes on the biggest rebuilding task in the conference. The Gophers finished at or near the bottom of the league in nearly every major statistical category last season. The nation's oldest freshman quarterback has to be Wisconsin's 22-year-old Darrell Bevell, who will need to call on all his years of wisdom to jump-start the weary Badger offense. Bevell is accustomed to challenges: For the past two years he was off on a Mormon mission to exotic...Cleveland. The last time Northwestern had a winning conference record, Watergate was just a building. The Wildcats are hoping that kicker Brian Leahy, the nephew of former New York Jet Pat Leahy, can connect from long range.
As the least of the self-proclaimed big conferences, the misnamed Big West is neither big (since its rechristening in 1988, it has never had a team grace the final AP poll) nor west (starting next season, it will have four schools east of Kansas). Three of the seven Big West programs are welcoming new coaches, and both San Jose State's Ron Turner and Pacific's Chuck Shelton will inherit potent offenses. The Spartans are led by junior quarterback Jeff Garcia, the nation's top returning player in passing efficiency. At Pacific, quarterback Troy Kopp and receiver Aaron Turner are only two touchdown passes away from setting an NCAA career mark for most scores (31) by a tandem.
Fresno State, which won three of the last four Big West titles, has departed for the Western Athletic Conference, and Nevada, which is making the jump from Division I-AA, could be the team to replace the Bulldogs at the top of the standings. The Wolf Pack brings a high-scoring Big Sky-style offense to the Big West and will easily prevail over UNLV, which is young and searching for a quarterback, in college football's newest instate rivalry. Utah State can brag of having the biggest-name offensive coordinator—former Seattle Seahawk Jim Zorn. He will need to draw heavily on his 12 years of pro experience as he tutors five Aggie prospects who have never thrown a pass in major college competition. The league's most-seasoned tight ends belong to Cal State-Fuller-ton, where Robert Bedford, Gerry McDonald and Jeff Williamson are 27, 25 and 25 years old, respectively. New Mexico State possesses the nation's top kickoff-return man in senior Fred Montgomery (29.4 yards per runback), and little else.
For the past 11 years the Big West champion has met the Mid-American Conference victor in the California Raisin Bowl. But this season the two leagues will square off in the first-ever Las Vegas Bowl. The MAC, which hasn't had a repeat champion in nine years, will again be a crapshoot, with every team returning at least 12 starters. Spearheading a Miami of Ohio defense that was ranked fifth in the nation in '91 is the league's best player, linebacker Curt McMillan, who averaged an NCAA-best 18.6 tackles a game. The league's big game will be on Halloween, when the Redskins' defense will try to contain Bowling Green quarterback Erik White, who led the conference in four offensive categories, including touchdown passes (17), last season.
The most woeful midseason skid of '91 took place at Toledo; the Rockets lost four of five games between Oct. 12 and Nov. 9. Little Marcus Goodwin (5'8", 154 pounds) is a solid all-around threat. Of the MAC's three compass-point schools in the Wolverine state, Western Michigan has the best chance at clawing its way to the northernmost reaches of the standings. Despite leading the MAC in passing for three of the last six seasons, the Broncos will now rely on a bevy of big backs (six running backs average 6'1", 208 pounds) to provide offensive punch. Central Michigan is the most mediocre of this trio; it established a dubious record in '91 with four ties. At Eastern Michigan, coach Jim Harkema is soliciting kickers from the Eagle soccer team, and he may have found a keeper in senior Bill Adam.
Rumor has it that Ball State alumnus David Letterman tried to book the Cardinals' inept backfield on the Stupid Human Tricks segment of his show. Last season's Ball State backs could muster barely 90 yards a game. The happiest administrators in the MAC are at Ohio University, which finished fifth overall in the NCAA's graduation sweepstakes. The bad news is that those bright young Bobcats haven't had a winning season since 1982. After first-year Kent State coach Pete Cordelli watched his team lose 10 of 11 games last season, he said rather bluntly, "We need to improve our intensity, technique and fundamentals." He also needed an even worse team to come along to take some of the pressure off his Golden Flashes. Fortunately for Kent State, Akron zips into the MAC this fall after spending four years as an Independent.
Since 1972, 14 Pac-10 championships have been claimed by one or the other of the Los Angeles schools. But with nouvelle-power Washington earning the conference its first share of a national crown since '78, when Southern Cal and Alabama were co-champs, the Huskies may wish to clear out some cabinet space of their own. The Huskies also won the conference title in 1990, and no one looks ready this season to trip up Washington on its way to the hat trick. The shortest-lived celebration in the league will be for Bill Walsh, who returns to Stanford, where he coached in 1977 and '78. In his absence the Cardinal went 62-80-3 and had only three winning seasons. Shortly after he was named to replace Dennis Green, now with the Minnesota Vikings, Walsh announced, "This is my bliss"—but that must have been before he looked at the schedule, which includes away games against Texas A&M, Notre Dame and Washington. Another difficult road game for the Cardinal will be its Oct. 10 visit to UCLA. Although the Bruins must find a replacement for quarterback Tommy Maddox, who bolted Westwood for the Denver Broncos two seasons early, they still have, at least for the moment, second-team All-America receiver Sean LaChapelle—the league's most indecisive player. He was set on turning pro with Maddox but then changed his mind 15 minutes before a scheduled press conference.
Coming off its worst record (3-8) in 35 years, Southern Cal is hoping that winning is like riding a bicycle—something you learn once and never forget. For inspiration, the Trojans ought not to look at their tailback, Estrus Crayton. The former junior college All-America missed last season's trip to Notre Dame when he fell off his bike while returning from a grocery store. But Trojan coaches are less worried about Crayton's injuries (a bruised elbow and minor abrasions) than his penchant for coughing up the football (he fumbled on four of his first six possessions in 1991). Last year's Cinderella team was Cal, for whom Russell White—the league's best back—rushed for 1,177 yards and 14 touchdowns in leading the previously dormant Golden Bears to 10 wins. The architect of this revival, coach Bruce Snyder, has departed for Arizona State, which is why the Sun Devils could be this year's Cinderellas. Receiver Eric Guilford may be just the spark Snyder needs to fill the seats at Sun Devil Stadium again. Most of cross-state rival Arizona's no-shows were its players: One after another, 28 starters went down with injuries.
The good news for Washington State quarterback Drew Bledsoe is that the Cougars' entire offensive line returns. The bad news is that he was sacked 56 times last year. If he can remain upright, Bledsoe could establish himself as the NFL's top quarterback prospect. Compare that with the situation at Oregon, where five different quarterbacks started in five successive weeks last season. Defensively, the Ducks have end Romeo Bandison, a native of Holland, to plug up an otherwise porous middle. Upon arriving at Oregon State two years ago, coach Jerry Pettibone installed an option offense and moved safety Chad Paulson to running back. One out of two ain't bad. Last season Paulson led the Pac-10's worst offense in rushing.
The Southeastern Conference has split itself into Eastern and Western divisions, with the respective winners scheduled to meet on Dec. 5 in Division I-A's first-ever conference title game. At stake is a New Year's Day trip to the Sugar Bowl. Florida is the likely candidate to limp into New Orleans, but Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi State and even new conference member Arkansas, possessor of the league's most intricate playbook, are formidable contenders. Tennessee will not be in the chase this season, despite coming off last year's 9-3. Coach Johnny Majors admits, "I wish we were reloading. But without question, we're rebuilding." The Volunteers lost a total of 18 players in the past two NFL drafts, and the only solid position this fall is tailback, with two sophomores, James Stewart and Aaron Hayden, sharing time.
Last season's most disorganized team was Auburn, which is happy just to be getting back to the business of playing football. Last fall former defensive back Eric Ramsey produced audiotapes of a number of coaches, including head coach Pat Dye, apparently discussing payments to Ramsey, which would have violated NCAA rules. One assistant said that Tiger coaches spent more time in staff meetings last season trying to recall conversations with Ramsey than they did planning for upcoming opponents. Proof of that lay in Auburn's 5-6 record, its first losing mark in 10 years. This year has not started off well for the Tigers cither; Dye landed Steve Davis, regarded as the top prep running back in the country, but he turned out to be a Prop 48 and won't be able to help them for a year.
LSU coach Curley Mailman is shaking things up a bit by switching the team's second-leading rusher, Vincent Fuller, to safety, while at Vanderbilt coach Gerry DiNardo gets the wipe-the-slate-clean award for introducing four players to new positions. One fellow who isn't likely to change his roster spot is quarterback Marcus Wilson, who scored 11 rushing touchdowns last year. At Kentucky, coach Bill Curry has installed a new, triple-option offense, but he has been looking for someone to direct it since quarterback prospect Antonio O'Ferral blew out his knee in a pickup basketball game in January. Depth is the biggest concern at Ole Miss, where after a 5-6 season coach Billy Brewer fired his offensive and defensive coordinators. "We lost our direction somewhere," says Brewer. "I thought it was time for drastic measures." Also likely to be lost in its first year of play in the SEC is South Carolina, which by November will be thinking of its former independent status as the good old days.
Texas A&M ran away with the Southwest Conference title last season and should prevail again. Baylor, in the last of 21 years under coach Grant Teaff—he will become athletic director in June—will put the most heat on the Aggies, though Teaff is guilty of the league's most overblown hype; his inexperienced defensive line, says Teaff, will be "a machine gun, and we'll cut down people by living to the ball." Texas Tech welcomes back Tracy Saul, the best player ever to come out of Idalou, Texas, and the top interceptor in Red Raider history. TCU is the first school in the league to switch from artificial turf back to real grass, a decision hailed by new coach Pat Sullivan. A former Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn, Sullivan had been an assistant at his alma mater in the SEC, in which two schools have already made the switch.
The respected John Mackovic moves from Illinois to Texas, where he inherits the most puzzling team in the conference. If defense wins games, how come the Longhorns—ranked third in the nation defensively—had a losing record (5-6) in '91? Mackovic has two Walkers at running back, Rodrick and Adrian, who will give the attack a boost. Houston, of course, still subscribes to the notion that it's O.K. for your opponent to score a lot of points as long as you score more. Last season the Cougar run-and-shoot offense self-destructed, producing a preposterous 42 turnovers. Although the conference's alltime leading passer, David Klingler, has departed for the NFL, Cougar coach John Jenkins will keep running and shooting with Donald Douglas. The best player in Houston is not a Cougar but an Owl. Rice tailback Trevor Cobb, who rushed for 1,692 yards in '91, could be the only player in the conference to get Heisman votes. SMU has lost 24 straight conference games since resuming football after a two-year hiatus following the imposition of the NCAA death penalty. "There is a place for us," insists Mustang athletic director Forrest Gregg. The question: Where? The school will decide by the end of December whether to move to Division III or drop sports altogether in the wake of relentless futility and a $4.9 million operating deficit.
Over the past 10 years the Western Athletic Conference has produced a national champion, a Heisman Trophy winner and three Outland Trophy winners. But what the WAC lacks is balance. BYU accounted for all but one of those honors (Air Force tackle Chad Hennings's Outland in 1987) while bullying its way to 13 of the last 15 league crowns. But there is a change in the wind. San Diego State, with splendid sophomore Marshall Faulk, is poised to topple the Cougars.
BYU does have one of the league's best-named players, though, in running back Thorpe Beigel, who was named after Jim Thorpe. (Beigel's brother, former Cougar linebacker Rockne, was named after....) Utah counters with defensive tackle Houdini Nua. Legend has it that Nua's father was watching a television show about the famous magician in the hospital waiting room during his son's birth. Air Force should win its fourth straight Commander-in-Chiefs trophy in the round-robin play with Army and Navy (last season the Falcons outscored the Cadets and the Middies by a total of 65 points). The most potent offense in the conference belongs to new member Fresno State, which led the nation in both scoring (44.2 points per game) and total offense (541.9 yards) in '91, its final season in the Big West.
"Defense is about collisions and recklessness," says UTEP coach David Lee. "And we'll continue to play it that way." No reason to mess with success: In '91 the Miners forced 27 turnovers. Hoping to steer itself back to the ranks of the bowl bound, Wyoming may call upon the league's most-seasoned guide, offensive tackle Cody Kelly, for direction. Kelly spent two summers running raft trips down the Snake River.
New Mexico is a long way from being a conference power, but the Lobos could soon have the most powerful players. First-year coach Dennis Franchione is having a $3 million weight room built inside University Stadium. Hawaii is looking for a few strong men to resurrect a defense that surrendered 351 points last season. After Colorado State watched its turnover ratio plummet from a +16 to a worst-in-the-nation-23 in one season, Ram coach Earle Bruce inaugurated the league's best new tradition: He designated a distant light fixture as the Ram Pole and made players committing turnovers in scrimmages run the one-mile trip to it and back.
The dwindling ranks of the Independents can still point proudly to Notre Dame, Penn State (for one more season) and East Carolina, where coach Bill Lewis rode the Pirate ship straight out of Greenville after a 10-1 season. A fine backfield should put East Carolina into its second straight bowl. Dave Rader is sticking around at Tulsa, which sneaked up on everyone last season—especially Texas A&M, a 35-34 loser—by winning nine games and the Freedom Bowl. This fall Miami is gone from the schedule, and the season ends with a day at the beach, in Hawaii.
After Southern Mississippi was out-scored 108-51 in its final four games last season, coach Jeff Bower smuggled in some help from across the border, hiring Louisiana Tech defensive assistants John Thompson and Joe Robinson. The crew will have its work cut out, because the schedule is a killer: During one 13-day stretch the Eagles play three games.
Louisville coach Howard Schnellenberger may have found a replacement for Browning Nagle, his star quarterback of two years ago, who is now with the New York Jets. Jeff Brohm, who missed most of last season because of a broken leg, was 19 of 24 for 197 yards in April's spring game, but halfback Ralph Dawkins remains the spark plug of the offense. As Arkansas State moves up to Division I-A behind new coach Ray Perkins (New York Giants, Alabama, Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Cincinnati may want to consider dropping down.