QUESTION: Although junior quarterback Todd Collins filled in admirably in two starts last year when Elvis Grbac, now of the San Francisco 49ers, was injured, how will he do now that he's No. 1 and playing behind a line that lost four all-conference performers?
ANSWER: Fine, as long as he can hand off. As usual the Wolverines have built a fine offensive line out of the previous year's understudies, and they are so deep at tailback—Tyrone Wheatley, Ricky Powers, Jesse (House Cat) Johnson and Ed Davis—that Illinois coach Lou Tepper says any one of the four would start at any other Big Ten school. Also returning are five excellent receivers, led by Derrick Alexander (the Great).
Q: After seven linebackers missed part of spring practice with injuries, Michigan coach Gary Moeller said, "The linebacker positions are messed up. "Are they?
A: With juniors Matt Dyson, who had seven sacks in '92, and Steve Morrison, who led the Wolverines with 124 tackles last year, every team would love to be this messed up. Also, the offense has so much talent that the wealth has spread to the defense. Because of the queue in front of him at tailback, freshman Charles Winters, who coaches felt could someday be an all-conference running back, switched to free safety. He'll join cornerback Ty Law and strong safety Shonte Peoples, two of the best defensive backs in the country.
Q: Can junior quarterback Terry Dean fill the cleats of three-time All-SEC selection Shane Matthews?
A: Under the tutelage of coach and quarterback-maker Steve Spurrier, he probably can. In fact, the offense may be even better this year. With the entire line back and the explosive ability of tailback Errict Rhett, who needs 1,055 yards to pass Emmitt Smith as the school's alltime leading rusher, Spurrier will be able to emphasize his running game a little more. And when Dean does pass, it'll be to a receiving corps led by Willie Jackson, who had an SEC-high 62 receptions in '92.
Q: Is there any reason to think the Gators can beat the three teams—Tennessee, Mississippi State and Florida State—that defeated them during the regular season last year?
A: Yes. This season the Vols, Bulldogs and Seminoles all come to Gainesville, where Florida is 18-0 under Spurrier.
Q: Although junior quarterback Jay Barker is 17-0 as a starter and led the Crimson Tide to its sixth national championship last season, many 'Bama fans doubt his competence. When the team he quarterbacked lost the spring game to one led by sophomore Brian Burgdorf, those doubts were renewed. Should Barker be the Tide's No. 1 quarterback?
A: Until he loses, he should. Last year Alabama averaged only 27.7 points and 362.8 yards a game. In fact, this season it may be the offense that sweeps the Tide back to New Orleans on New Year's Day. The line returns virtually intact, and Chris Anderson, the team's leading rusher as a freshman three years ago, should be more than adequate at tailback. Flanker David Palmer will again be a threat to break away anytime he has the ball.
Q: Even with six starters returning on defense, can any defense survive the loss of first-round draft picks John Copeland, Eric Curry and George Teague?
A: Copeland, Curry and Teague are irreplaceable. Period. However, senior cornerback Antonio Langham and senior linebacker Lemanski Hall form the heart of a defense that may be almost as overwhelming as last year's. Besides, it's not as if 'Bama has to improve very much to win. As in '92, the Tide's schedule has national champion written all over it. In addition to not having to face Georgia or Florida (at least not until the SEC title game in Birmingham), Alabama plays only three teams that made it to bowls last season.
Q: Coach Bill McCartney, who last season junked his I-bone offense in favor of a passing attack, was only half pleased with the result. And with good reason, The passing part was fine, but the Buffaloes averaged only 2.7 yards per carry on the ground. Can Colorado rediscover a balanced offense?
A: Yes. The Buffaloes have 10 starters back on offense, including Kordell Stewart, who passed for a school-record 2,109 yards last season despite missing two games because of injuries. And the running game is bound to improve; it's almost all the team worked on this spring.
Q: How will Colorado replace five All-Big Eight performers on defense?
A: In part with another good quarterback. The Buffaloes' best defensive player, outside linebacker Ron Woolfork, was a quarterback when he came to Boulder in 1989. Last season he had 13½ sacks, tops in the Big Eight. He alone can't replace five star players, but he sure can read offenses and get inside the mind of the opposing QB.
Q: The Hurricanes, a team that was embarrassed 34-13 by Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, lost nine starters on offense and six on defense. Just how deep is Miami's talent pool?
A: Bottomless. The Hurricanes will be loaded with gifted players who are willing to brag about how good they are. Says safety Tern's Harris, this year's team spokesman, "I want to help this team go 12-0 and get another ring. Hopefully we can get back to the Sugar Bowl and play Alabama again and just bruise them. I'm talking no remorse."
Q: Who will replace the Ruthless Posse, that group of four talented—and talkative—receivers?
A: The Afros, which is an acronym for America's Finest Receivers on Saturday. Their names are Jonathan Harris, Chris Jones and A.C. Tellison.
Q: Is coach Dennis Erickson adding a two-back set because he lacks confidence in junior quarterback Frank Costa, who's taking over for '92 Heisman winner Gino Torretta?
A: Maybe. But maybe he's doing it to take advantage of a surfeit of running backs and four offensive linemen who weigh at least 295 pounds. Don't worry too much about Costa: Miami's four national titles have come in odd-numbered years and with first-year starters at quarterback.
Q: The Orangemen must replace three offensive linemen from a team that averaged 433.5 yards per game. How good will the offense be this year?
A: Very. With senior quarterback Marvin Graves, who's already the school's alltime passing leader, Syracuse will have one of the most high-powered attacks in the nation, new linemen or not. Graves's main targets will be flanker Shelby Hill, who might be a better deep threat than Qadry Ismail, and tailback Terry Richardson, who'll wear the famed number 44 that once belonged to Jim Brown, Floyd Little and Ernie Davis.
Q: Syracuse hasn't won the national title since 1959, and to win another will likely require a victory over Miami in the Orange Bowl on Oct. 23. Can the Orangemen do something no team has done since Sept. 7, 1985: Win in Miami?
A: Yes, they can. But they won't.
Q: How will the Vols respond to new coach Phillip Fulmer, who was 3-0 last season when he filled in for coach Johnny Majors while Majors recovered from heart surgery?
A: By most accounts the team is already more relaxed than at any time last year. One reason the Vols are happy is because Fulmer has opened up the offense to take advantage of the considerable talents of junior quarterback Heath Shuler (page 66) and three proven tailbacks—Charlie Garner, Aaron Hayden and James (Little Man) Stewart.
Q: Spring practice began with only four scholarship players in the secondary—and all were freshmen. Can they handle the potent offenses of SEC rivals Florida and Georgia?
A: In a word, no. If the defensive backfield doesn't come together soon, the Volunteers will be dead in the pass-happy SEC East. However, coordinator Larry Marmie hopes to shore up the secondary by using junior Ronald Davis, the team's fastest wide receiver, to play some cornerback. A freshman or two from this year's crop—one of the best in the nation—will also pitch in.
Q: Will the Vols, who have lost seven games in a row to Alabama, beat the Tide in Birmingham on Oct. 16?
A: Alabamans are convinced that Tennessee has forgotten how to beat their team. They might be right.
Q: Even if the Huskies, who on Sunday were hit with severe sanctions by the Pac-10 (page 11), were eligible for the Rose Bowl, would a team that lost its top two quarterbacks, three starting linebackers and three first-string defensive backs—not to mention its coach, Don James—have made it to Pasadena?
A: Yes. At quarterback, sophomore Damon Huard and junior Eric Bjornson are as good as the Mark Brunell—Billy Joe Hobert tandem was last season. And if any team can survive the loss of senior tailback Beno Bryant, who was suspended as part of the Pac-10 sanctions, it's Washington. The Huskies lose nothing in turning to junior Napoleon Kaufman, one of the fastest running backs in the country. They might also have their best group of wide receivers ever and, in Mark Bruener, perhaps the nation's finest tight end. Despite the losses to graduation, the Washington defense is still blessed by an extraordinarily fast group of linebackers, led by two-year starter Andy Mason, and some excellent athletes in the secondary. Now with no Rose Bowl to point for, the Huskies will be forced to concentrate on a realistic goal—like, say, going 11-0.
Q: How long will it take the team to adjust to new coach Jim Lambright's system?
A: Not long. Lambright bleeds purple and gold. He played defensive end for Washington in the early '60s and was the only assistant coach retained by James when James came to Seattle in 1974. As defensive coordinator for the last 16 years, he developed a swarming scheme that countless other schools have copied. Says linebacker Jamal Fountaine about Lambright, "He's been in the system longer than the system."
10. Fresno State
Q: After leading the nation in scoring for the second consecutive season and shocking Southern Cal 24-7 in the Freedom Bowl, can the Bulldogs sneak up on anybody anymore?
A: No, but just because opponents know quarterback Trent Dilfer, tailback Ron Rivers and receiver Malcolm Seabron are coming doesn't mean they can stop them. The 6'5", 230-pound Dilfer passed for 3,000 yards and 21 touchdowns last year, Rivers rushed for 1,007 yards, and Seabron caught 42 passes for 994 yards and nine touchdowns.
Q: Will Fresno State's porous defense put too much pressure on its superb offense?
A: Yes, but if the defense, which has no starters from the line returning, can just figure out how to defend the wishbone—the Bulldogs face four wishbone teams—the offense should boost Fresno State to the top of the WAC.
11. Notre Dame
Q: How will the Irish plug the holes created by the departures of quarterback Rick Mirer and running backs Jerome Bettis and Reggie Brooks?
A: The offense will simply need some help from another quarter—the defense. Before the D takes the field, it huddles on the sideline and chants, "9-1-1." With seven starters returning on defense, that sound should come as great comfort to a discombobulated offense. Coach Lou Holtz moved several offensive players to new positions in the spring, leaving only center Tim Ruddy starting at the spot he did last season. Undoubtedly Holtz will also be forced to use some of his freshmen, even at quarterback. Top recruit Ron Powlus is sure to be calling signals by midseason.
Q: When will Holtz finally realize that tight ends are eligible receivers too?
A: This year's tight end—and future first-round draft pick—is 6'5", 251-pound senior Oscar McBride, who caught five passes in '92, four for touchdowns. He follows Derek Brown, who was chosen in the first round by the New York Giants in 1992, and Irv Smith, who was taken in the first round by the New Orleans Saints last spring.
Q: How will a team that lost 12 starters fare against a schedule that includes Florida State, Michigan, Stanford, BYU, Boston College and Southern Cal?
A: Not well. Even the strongest Irish team couldn't expect to defeat all of this year's foes. And this is far from the strongest Irish team.
Q: Is this Danny White as good as that Danny White?
A: After years of trying to land a passer who would enable him to open up the Wildcats' attack, coach Dick Tomey might have finally found his man in White, a 6'5" sophomore transfer from Penn State. White is already the second-best quarterback named Danny White in the state's history. The best was the fellow who played at Arizona State in the early '70s before going on to further glory with the Dallas Cowboys.
Q: After almost upsetting Miami and beating Washington last season, the Wildcats climbed as high as ninth in the polls, only to lose their final three games. Can Arizona, the only Pac-10 team never to appear in the Rose Bowl, finally make it to Pasadena?
A: Yes. Led by All-America noseguard Rob Waldrop and safeties Brandon Sanders and Tony Bouie, the Wildcats have one of the nation's finest defenses. They have two other things going for them, too: a schedule on which Washington does not appear and on which the toughest nonconference game is against Illinois on the road and, more important, the fact that Washington is ineligible for the Rose Bowl.
Q: Who's going to replace I-back Derek Brown, who ran for 1,015 yards last season, now that he's carrying the ball for the Saints?
A: Calvin Jones, that's who. Brown's departure just means that there will be more opportunities for Jones, a junior who ran for 1,210 yards last year and might challenge Mike Rozier's single-season school rushing record of 2,148 yards.
Q: Will sophomore quarterback Tommy Frazier improve upon his 44% completion rate of last season?
A: Sure, if he just aims lower: Wide receivers Reggie Baul, Corey Dixon, Abdul Muhammad and Riley Washington are each 5'9" or shorter.
Q: The Huskers collapsed in the Orange Bowl, losing 27-14 to Florida State. Is there any reason to think Nebraska, which is 0-6 in bowls in the last six years, won't fold again?
A: Well, the Huskers are starting to catch up to the rest of the country. Literally. They have junked their read-and-react 5-2 defense in favor of an attacking 4-3 because, as senior linebacker Trev Alberts puts it, "you've got to be able to get from point A to point B fast." It's getting to point C (a championship), however, that has been troublesome for Nebraska.
13B. Texas A & M
Q: Is there any reason to think the Aggies, who have almost everyone back from a team that went 11-0 last fall but who have lost the last two Cotton Bowls by a combined score of 38-5, won't find themselves facing a superior team on Jan. 1 once again?
A: Not really, especially when you consider that—stop us if this sounds familiar—they are waiting to hear how the NCAA will punish them for various alleged rules infractions. One of the players involved is tailback Greg Hill, who will be virtually unstoppable this year, unless the NCAA does it. So if the Aggies can survive the investigation and a Sept. 11 game against Oklahoma in Norman, the only remaining question will be who'll expose them again in the Cotton Bowl.
Q: Will coach Bill Walsh find someone to replace running back Glyn Milburn, who averaged 176.8 all-purpose yards per game in '92? How about someone to take the place of All-America linebacker Ron George? Or safety John Lynch, another All-America?
A: No one will pick up where Milburn left off, not right away, but freshman Mike Mitchell might soon. Rated one of the best high school backs in the country last year, Mitchell ran for 2,201 yards at Brophy Prep in Phoenix. And keep in mind that the Cardinal offense is still quarterbacked by junior Steve Stenstrom, who is the ideal Walsh disciple. He spreads the ball around, has a nice touch on short passes and can air it out with accuracy. The defense, which led the Pac-10 with 34 takeaways, will miss George and Lynch but has solid performers in cornerback Vaughn Bryant, nosetackle Jason Fisk and end Tyrone Parker. And should the Washington, Colorado or Notre Dame games come down to kicking contests, Stanford is set. Sophomore Eric Abrams connected on 16 of 20 field goals last season.
16. Penn State
Q: Can coach Joe Paterno restore his troops' self-respect after the Nittany Lions, who got off to a 5-0 start, dropped five of their last seven games?
A: He can try. After last season he met with all his players. "They told me I make decisions and don't stick to them," says Paterno. "I do something one way for this guy and another way for someone else. I think we straightened out a lot of our problems."
Q: O.K., but what about the encounter group meetings that take place on the field?
A: Penn State will depend on its defense. Hero back Derek Bochna, who led the team in interceptions last season, is back, as is linebacker Phil Yeboah-Kodie, its leading tackier in '92. At tackle, Lou Benfatti and Tyoka Jackson match up well against anybody in the country. Offensively, Richie Anderson's decision to leave early for the NFL has opened up the tailback spot for sophomores Mike Archie, Ki-Jana Carter and Stephen Pitts, who have each been impressive in practice.
Q: How will the Nittany Lions be welcomed by their new Big Ten brethren?
A: With open arms and clenched fists. Every school will be pointing toward its game against Penn State. It's too much to expect this team to beat a psyched-up Iowa or Ohio State on the road or Michigan at home.
17. Boston College
Q: The Eagles' three losses last year—to Notre Dame, Syracuse and Tennessee—came by a combined score of 119-40. How will coach Tom Coughlin keep this team in big games?
A: He'll rely on quarterback Glenn Foley. A fifth-year senior, Foley is a born leader (his father, Ed, played quarterback for BC from 1963 to '65). Last season Foley passed for 2,231 yards to move into second-place on the Eagles' alltime passing list, behind Doug Flutie. It doesn't hurt that Foley has an outstanding crop of receivers, led by tight end Pete Mitchell. Coughlin won't have to wait long to find out what this year's team is made of. The opener on Sept. 4 is against Miami.
Q: What makes coach Gary Gibbs, who has a 1-10-1 record against Colorado, Nebraska and Texas, think the Sooners can beat those teams this year?
A: These Sooners are better than last year's. Quarterback Cale Gundy will benefit from working with new offensive coordinator Watson Brown, who's known for his ability to teach the passing game. The ground attack, which ranked only 49th in the nation last season, should be aided by freshman tailback James Allen, who was rated by some experts as the nation's top schoolboy running back in '92. The defense will be built around outside linebacker Aubrey Beavers, whose 11½ sacks last season surpassed the school record of 10 set by Tony Casillas in 1984.
Q: What will it take to satisfy the increasingly frustrated Sooner fans?
A: They'll be happy if their team goes 3-8—as long as the three wins are against Colorado, Nebraska and Texas.
Q: The Bulldogs lost three starters off the defensive line and three more from the secondary. They also had to replace two underclassmen: tailback Garrison Hearst, who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft by Phoenix, and without Andre Hastings, who was taken in the third round by the Steelers. Is that all?
A: That's all, but Georgia won't miss Hearst and Hastings as much as you might think. New starting tailback Terrell Davis averaged more yards per carry last season than Hearst (7.3 yards to 6.8), and wideout Hason Graham averaged 19.5 yards on 13 catches. Junior quarterback Eric Zeier already owns most of the school passing records, and he'll be operating behind a line that includes senior tackle Bernard Williams (6'9", 310 pounds), who might be the No. 1 pick in next year's NFL draft.
20. Southern Cal
Q: How do you restore respectability to a once proud and confident program that lost its last three games on the way to a 6-5-1 finish?
A: Well, you could call in Penn State's Joe Paterno, or you could hire John Robinson, who led the Trojans to a 67-14-2 record from 1976 to '82. He took over for ousted coach Larry Smith a few days after USC's Freedom Bowl loss to Fresno State and immediately reopened practices to fans. Next thing you knew alums like Marcus Allen, Mark Carrier and Rodney Peete were kibitzing on the sidelines. Robinson also declared that he would reestablish the running game that earned Southern Cal the nickname Tailback U during his prior reign. Next he installed a 4-3 defense to give more freedom to 6'6", 245-pound senior end Willie McGinest, who last year had 23 tackles for losses, including 16 sacks. Now all Robinson has to do is figure out how to beat Penn State, Arizona, Notre Dame and Washington—on the road.