SHOULD SOUTHERN CAL FALTER, AUBURN AND SEVERAL OTHER TEAMS ARE CAPABLE OF WRAPPING UP THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

August 27, 1995

2. AUBURN

As the son of Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, Terry Bowden
knows about chasing a legend. But he understands this, too:
Sometimes the legend must chase you. Indeed, there was Bobby, 34
years in the game and, according to his son, "the favorite coach
of every mama in America," pursuing Terry through South Florida
during the final, frantic days of the recruiting season last
January. One afternoon the elder Bowden was leaving the Fort
Lauderdale-area home of Martavious Houston, one of the Sunshine
State's top prospects, only to bump into Terry as he was walking
out the door. "If you can get rid of him pretty quick, I'll
double back and come see you again," Bobby told Houston and his
mother. Houston laughed. Soon afterward, Martavious signed with
Terry.

Frequent January forays into South Florida early this year had
generated the rumor that the 39-year-old Bowden was considering
the Miami job, which was available at the time. Instead, he
walked out of the region not only with Houston but also with
four more of the state's finest schoolboys, a stunning coup.
"Terry's real good," says one rival coach. "You're not supposed
to be able to pull off something like that--not when you just got
off probation." But after going 20-1-1 while serving a two-year
term for pay-for-play violations, the Tigers have trained their
eyes less on the future than on a more immediate goal. Need you
ask what that is?

With eight starters back on offense, this may be Bowden's most
talented team yet in his three years at Auburn, one that could
make it all the way to the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. After a
slow start last fall, quarterback Patrick Nix was one of the
most consistent passers in the SEC. Even more vital to Auburn's
fortunes will be the performance of senior tailback and Heisman
Trophy candidate Stephen Davis, who rushed for 1,263 yards last
fall. With the departure of wide receivers Frank Sanders and
Thomas Bailey, Davis will have an even greater share of the
offensive burden. "People ask what separates Stephen from Bo
Jackson," says Bowden. "The answer is Bo routinely produced the
big play, the 50- and 60-yard runs. That's what we need more of
from Stephen this year."

Bowden should get that. Davis will run behind one of the
country's best lines, one which has all five starters from last
year, including All-America candidates Shannon Roubique and
Willie Anderson. With his 6'6", 306-pound frame and size 19E
shoes, Anderson is so large that doctors once had to conduct an
MRI on his knee at Auburn's College of Veterinary Medicine with
a machine used to accommodate cattle and horses.

There are question marks. On defense, the loss of all four
starters on the line has forced coordinator Wayne Hall to switch
to a 3-4 alignment. There are also hints of a quarterback
controversy. Despite his strong finish last season and the solid
backing of Bowden, Nix will face a challenge from Dameyune
Craig. And, of course, there is the schedule. To make a run at
the national title, the Tigers will most likely have to defeat
Florida twice.

Then again, everybody knows that a Bowden doesn't lose to
Florida. Although Terry remains cautious about this season, at
times he can barely conceal his anticipation: "We have a chance
to be a real good team. I know that. Fans should have high
expectations."

Other Tigers are more direct. "It's our time," says senior
linebacker Anthony Harris.

These are not empty words. And with the cosmos aligned just so,
the legend should again find himself chasing the son, this time
all the way to Tempe.

--Christian Stone

3. TEXAS A&M

The time has passed for gentle reminders in College Station.
Thus the framed picture of Sun Devil Stadium that hangs just
inside the Texas A&M locker room. FIESTA BOWL. HOME OF THE 1995
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP reads a silver plate attached to the
glass. For emphasis, a poster of the national-championship
trophy is next to the stadium photo. The message screams at
players who enter and depart the room beneath the west stands of
Kyle Field.

"Those pictures were up there when we got back from Christmas,
just to remind us of the opportunity," says Aggie cornerback Ray
Mickens. Their window yawns wide in front of them. One season
left in the weak and fading Southwest Conference, one season
before joining the Big 12. "This is a unique year, in many
ways," says coach R.C. Slocum.

The Aggies are 32-3-1 over the last three seasons and haven't
lost to an SWC team in 29 games, yet they haven't played on New
Year's Day with a shot at the national title. The Aggies were on
NCAA probation last season and excluded from bowl games, but
they were hurt in previous years by a weak schedule. "We need
'statement' games, because we don't play the toughest schedule
in the world," says offensive guard Calvin Collins. This year
they have one of those games--Sept. 23 at Colorado, an
intersectional, made-for-TV game that should lodge the winner
among the poll elite.

On personnel alone, the Aggies belong near the top. Their
franchise is tailback Leeland McElroy, a 5'11", 202-pound junior
who patiently awaited the departure of upperclassmen Greg Hill
and Rodney Thomas by averaging an astounding 42.4 yards on 21
kickoff returns. Now McElroy has the ground game to himself. He
is a breathtaking athlete who can bench-press 390 pounds, run a
4.27 40-yard dash and leap 40 inches vertically. But what's most
remarkable about him is his vision.

"One of the first days he was here, he made this odd cut, and
one of our coaches started yelling at him," says Slocum. "I just
said, 'Hey, don't be coaching him too much.'"

To help McElroy, Texas A&M has four-year starting quarterback
Corey Pullig, a hardened survivor of two Cotton Bowl losses to
Notre Dame. Having dominated recruiting in Texas for half a
decade, the Aggies are two deep on defense at every position.
Their defense is so swift and so aggressive that after a gang
tackle, Aggies will meet at the defensive huddle and shout, "Did
you get a piece? Did you? Did you?"

Linebackers Reggie Brown and Larry Walker are pursuit
specialists, both 6'2", 230-ish, both faster than many wideouts,
both immersed in a mad competition with the other. "He makes
plays on my side; I make plays on his side," says Brown.

Brown and Walker can take risks because cornerbacks Mickens and
Donovan Greer are solid man-to-man defenders and 6'4", 275-pound
junior end Brandon Mitchell (from Abbeville, La., the only A&M
starter from outside Texas) is a dangerous pass rusher. As we
said, this team has national championship-type talent.

Which is why Slocum ordered that picture placed on the locker
room wall. "I believe in visualizing goals," he says. Whenever
someone asks him for directions, Slocum pulls out a map for
effect. "If you tell me you want to go to San Antonio, it's
easy," Slocum says. "Take Route 21 to San Marcos and pick up
I-35. But you've got to tell me where you want to go."

Easy. His team wants to head to Tempe. Go through Boulder and
keep winning. Can't miss it.

--Tim Layden

4. NEBRASKA

Nebraska won its first national title of the Tom Osborne Era on
Jan. 1. It meant everything. It means nothing. "We think about
it every day," says Husker senior defensive tackle Christian
Peter. "There's a sign that reads 1994 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS in
the locker room, and after practice we all look at it. But that
was last year. We're nobody this year."

He's right. He's wrong. Yes, it's a what-have-you-done-lately
world and a new season: Last year's euphoria is history. Yet
something carried over. By pounding Miami in the Orange Bowl,
the Huskers discarded every old slam on the program's bullyboy
ways. No longer can Nebraska be accused of waltzing through a
lame schedule and then folding when it counts most. In the quest
for No. 1, the Huskers are forevermore somebody.

"There is a totally different attitude," Peter says. "People are
more confident now. There used to be that thing, but we played
in Miami and we won it. We know what it takes."

Even with that knowledge in hand, this promises to be an equally
compelling autumn in Lincoln. The questions may never rival
those asked during last season's parade of quarterback maladies,
but the answers may be more elusive. Can the Huskers repeat?
With seven starters gone, can the nation's most underrated
defense maintain its superiority? And yes, the big question:
With Tommie Frazier's blood clot in his right leg and Brook
Berringer's collapsed lung now healed, who's the better
quarterback? Frazier is a Heisman Trophy candidate who was the
hero of the Orange Bowl, but Berringer was 7-0 as a starter last
year and has been pressing him throughout the spring and summer.
The instant the offense sputters under Frazier, the entire state
splits in two.

However, as last season proved, neither man may be as important
as junior I-back Lawrence Phillips. Never has a player rushed
for 1,722 yards so quietly. Last fall Phillips excelled in the
sport's glamour position but still somehow was overshadowed not
only by the quarterback who didn't play each week but also by
the offensive line. Phillips won't be able to hide anymore. Four
fifths of Nebraska's best-ever line is gone, and defenses will
key on him as never before.

"I'm going to miss them a lot," Phillips says of his linemen.
"They were always talking, telling me where they were going,
asking me, 'What can we do? Is everything all right?'"

Not that he had it so cushy. Phillips rushed for at least 100
yards in 11 straight games in '94 despite a pulled groin, turf
toe, sore ankles--and despite the fact that with Frazier and
Berringer ailing, he basically became the Husker offense for
three games. Against Oklahoma State he ran 33 times for 221
yards. Against Kansas State he handled the ball on 19 of
Nebraska's first 24 possessions before jamming his left thumb
just before halftime. "It swelled up and was just huge,"
Phillips says. "I thought it was broken."

It wasn't, but Phillips couldn't hold the ball in his left hand.
"So I just carried it in my right." He finished with 117 yards,
and then the next week--still one-handed--he gained 110 yards
against Missouri. He never considered resting.

Phillips figures to get even more carries this fall, which can
only raise the final question: Phillips or Frazier? Who wins the
Heisman? In Lincoln the debate is already starting. "I'd be
thrilled to win it," Phillips says with a laugh. "But we don't
discuss it that much. We know there's talk, but we just take it
in stride."

--S.L. Price

5. FLORIDA STATE

By the time senior quarterback Danny Kanell takes the snap in
Florida State's "fast break" offense, the play's success or
failure may already have been sealed, thanks to final
adjustments made by a Seminole field general who's far less
conspicuous than Kanell. The man in charge during the crucial
seconds before the snap--the man who surveys defensive alignments
and calls cadence--weighs 280 pounds and wears number 53. Senior
center Clay Shiver is the de facto quarterback of the deepest,
slickest-operating and best-synchronized offensive line in
college football.

On national TV this group is referred to indirectly as "Big hole
for Warrick Dunn" and directly as "Excellent protection for
Kanell." Coach Bobby Bowden, in his 20th year in Tallahassee,
has always had teams loaded with skill players who can make big
plays. "Yet when it comes down to it," says Bowden, "the
offensive line is still the most valuable area of your darn
football team."

Florida State runs its fast-break offense from the shotgun
formation, and when Kanell makes that slight kick with his right
leg before the snap, he is not setting the fast break in motion
but simply signaling Shiver to take charge. "Danny kicks his leg
to let me know he's ready," says Shiver. "Then I look up. A lot
of defensive teams will try to disguise or change what they're
doing."

"You can see linebackers ready to tee off on somebody, getting a
running start toward the line of scrimmage," says split-side
guard Lewis Tyre. "They come up at 90 miles an hour, and Clay
will just hold the ball--so they have to stop. That makes it
easier on all the linemen."

Up and down the depth chart, FSU's offensive line is experienced
and savvy. Shiver says that when he spots last-second changes in
defenses, "These guys pick it up like that." He snaps his
fingers. "The play clock is ticking," says Shiver, "and it's up
to me to snap the ball. If a younger guy were beside me, I'd
have to stop and say, 'Listen, they've walked that safety up;
he's really not the linebacker, he's the safety.' But these guys
know. They see it happening."

"Our linemen have been supremely tested," says Bowden. "They've
gone up against the Notre Dames, the Floridas, the Miamis. We've
played the big boys."

It is difficult to designate the Seminoles' interior-line
starters, because seven players rotate at the five positions.
Five of them are fifth-year seniors: Shiver, Tyre (6'5", 272
pounds), split-side tackle Juan Laureano (6'5", 283), tight-side
tackle Forrest Conoly (6'6", 325) and swingman Jesus Hernandez
(6'2", 288). Two juniors, tight guard Chad Bates (6'3", 269) and
tight tackle Todd Fordham (6'5", 292), complete the rotation.

Conoly is trying to come back after sitting out all but two
games last year. He was hit with a four-game suspension for
taking merchandise from agents, and then he missed six games
with a knee injury. Hernandez, meanwhile, "has the bad luck or
good luck of being the best athlete on the line," Bowden says.
He can play any of the four positions other than center.

Most of the linemen were around for Bowden's crash course in
sophisticated pass protection in 1992, when he designed the fast
break around quarterback Charlie Ward, the Seminole quarterback
at the time who would win the Heisman Trophy the next year. "It
was," says Bowden, "like saying to the linemen, 'Son, when you
come here, we're not going to get into algebra; we're going to
jump into trigonometry right away.' They had to learn more,
quicker."

No problem there.

--Ed Hinton

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS Anthony Harris thinks the Tigers will be in the hunt come crunch time. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Davis will be counted on to carry the load for the offense. [Stephen Davis] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS Brown has a big hand in a fast and aggressive Aggie defense. [Reggie Brown] COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Can Frazier (15) keep his job and keep the Cornhuskers on top? [Tommie Frazier] COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND The nation's top line gives Kanell plenty of time to air it out. [Danny Kanell]

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