Strength In Numbers With scholarship limits having increased parity, what separates the contenders from the pretenders is depth

October 19, 2003

In this strange new world of college football, in which Northern
Illinois can beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Bowling Green can upend
Purdue in West Lafayette and UNLV can whip Wisconsin in Madison,
the line between the six BCS conferences and the five others
clearly has been blurred. The NCAA's 1992 ruling that reduced the
number of scholarships from 95 to 85 per team has resulted in a
wider distribution of talent across all conferences, and that,
combined with better coaching at the mid-major level, has led to
more parity. But one thing still separates the Miamis from the
Miami of Ohios: depth.

"There are still clearly five to 10 teams that are head and
shoulders above all others," says Boston College coach Tom
O'Brien. "Talent is the most important thing, then quality depth."

Superior depth is a major reason why second-ranked Miami was able
to extend its regular-season winning streak to 38 games with a
22-14 win over No. 5 Florida State in Tallahassee last Saturday.
The Hurricanes appeared to be in trouble without two key
starters, running back Frank Gore (out for the season with a torn
left ACL) and strong safety Maurice Sikes (strained right knee).
But as it has done so many times, Miami replaced them with more
than capable reserves. Running back Jarrett Payton carried 26
times for 97 yards and added a 14-yard TD catch, while Sikes's
replacement Greg Threat had a game-high seven tackles. "You're
going to have bumps, bruises and injuries," says Miami coach
Larry Coker. "And in our case we've had a lot of underclassman
leaving for the NFL. With [the 85-scholarship limit], you've got
to have depth, and we're glad we do."

The wannabes have impressive starters--at week's end, seven of
the nine top-rated passers in the nation were from non-BCS
conferences--but the perennial title contenders still hold a huge
edge in the middle of the depth chart. "The ones are very
similar; it's the twos that are better," says Clemson coach Tommy
Bowden. "When there is fatigue, injury or a suspension, the next
guy goes in there and he can play. At Florida State the first 11
are pretty good, but so is the next group. The third-team
tailback, Leon Washington, was the [best high school player] in
the state of Florida."

Even while the mid-majors argue for entry into the BCS, coaches
for non-BCS teams concede that they are more vulnerable to
late-season slides because they're not as deep. "We can't afford
the injuries that [bigger programs] can," says Northern Illinois
coach Joe Novak, whose team has beaten Maryland and Iowa State in
addition to Alabama. Adds UNLV coach John Robinson, who spent 12
years at USC, "The Mountain West and MAC are not that far away,
but where they would fall apart is if they had to play those BCS
conference teams every week."

Consider the way some recently successful mid-major teams have
fallen due to late-season personnel losses. After opening the
2001 season with wins over Colorado, Oregon State and Wisconsin,
Fresno State lost some key defensive players and finished 11-3.
That same year BYU won its first 12 games but then lost star
running back Luke Staley and dropped its final two, to Hawaii and
to Louisville in the Liberty Bowl.

Building quality second and third teams will be an uphill battle
for smaller programs. As long as those schools continue to have
subpar attendance numbers--the MAC, this season's biggest
Goliath-slayer, is averaging just 19,504 fans per game--the
mid-major conferences will likely be shunned by the BCS. And
without the financial advantages of playing in BCS bowls, they'll
continue to have smaller recruiting budgets and less television
exposure. Unless the system is modified (the BCS will renegotiate
its contracts in 2005) coaches at non-BCS schools will still
flinch when a player gets into trouble off the field or is
injured on it.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN Making his first start, Payton rushed for 97 yards and caught aTD pass in Miami's win over Florida State.