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Conference membership may have its privileges, but some of the best teams in the nation are wild cards; so don't be surprised to find Pitt and South Carolina joining Penn State, Miami, Florida State and Notre Dame in the Top 20 by season's end.

The Panthers, a power in years past but patsies of late, are on the rebound, though their youth could delay them a year. Second-year coach Mike Gottfried has installed an unpredictable run-and-shoot/pro-set/wishbone offense that's bound to confuse opponents—provided a new quarterback and several other untested Pitt players figure it out first. If it fails at finesse, Pitt can just tuck the ball into the ample midsection of 260-pound tailback Craig (Ironhead) Heyward. The defense, ranked ninth nationally last year, returns seven starters, and the line is especially fierce—tackle Tony Siragusa has a year-old seven-foot python, and end Burt Grossman owns an alligator and a pit—or, as he prefers to spell it, Pitt—bull.

After a humiliating 3-6-2 record in '86, South Carolina is hungry for the magic that propelled the Gamecocks to the No. 2 national ranking for a week three years ago. Sophomore Todd Ellis, the best quarterback you've never heard of, set four NCAA marks last season, including most passing yards (3,020) and most touchdown passes (20) for a freshman. His favorite receiver, wingback Sterling Sharpe, who caught 74 passes for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns, returns with the rest of the starting offense. None of that will help unless there are drastic improvements on a defense that allowed 25 points per game last season.

Mix an inexperienced offense with one of the nation's toughest schedules (Southern Cal, TCU, Penn State, Pitt and Notre Dame) and what do you get? A tough year for Boston College. The Eagles need a new quarterback to throw to senior wide receiver Darren Flutie, and a replacement for Troy Stradford, the school's alltime leading rusher. Things look a bit more hopeful, though, on defense, where All-America linebacker Bill (I Like To Tear People's Heads Off) Romanowski spearheads an experienced 11.

Oddly enough, Temple might actually be better this season without tailback Paul Palmer, last year's Heisman runner-up. Because it takes four feet to fill his shoes, Todd McNair and Ventres Stevenson will split time at Palmer's old position as the Owls go to a more balanced offense.

No matter how you spell it, Syracuse features a big Mac attack. Quarterback Don McPherson is the Orangemen's top rusher, and he could be the best passer in the Northeast. The coach is Dick MacPherson, and he hopes to improve last year's 5-6 record by letting McPherson run the option as much as possible. The defense is led by Ted Gregory, an All-East candidate at noseguard, who missed most of last season with a broken leg. In the season opener, against Mississippi State, Gregory had 15 tackles and 1½ quarterback sacks.

Gerry Faust's Akron, 7-4 last season, makes its Division I-A debut with a testing-the-waters schedule that includes Temple. Oregon State and Louisville. Faust has a lot to prove after his South Bend sojourn, and he'll have to do it with a green quarterback. Andy Kubik, and six other first-time starters on offense.

Virginia Tech will miss Bill Dooley's boring but winning ways now that he's at Wake Forest. Frank Beamer takes over a spent program that returns only one interior lineman on either side of the ball. The other remaining asset is All-America Chris Kinzer, whose 22 field goals were the most in Division I-A.

Things turned sour for West Virginia last year as coach Don Nehlen suffered his worst season (4-7) since 1970. Nehlen's assessment of that team: slow, fat and lacking consistency. The task of turning the Mountaineers around falls to freshman quarterback Major Harris. One glimmer of hope: Pitt transfer Anthony Brown, a swift tailback.

Don't expect too much from Rutgers, which was hit hard by injuries in '86 and faces a tough schedule. Signal caller Scott Erney was thrown to the wolves last year as a freshman and the wolves tore him up with interceptions. If the line holds, Erney might locate tight end Bruce Campbell, a favorite of the pros.

Run-and-shoot is coach Art Baker's offense of choice at East Carolina, but after two straight 2-9 seasons the fans are getting restless. Patience. This year, the Pirates could actually improve. Quarterback Travis Hunter is just a sophomore, but the running backs are graybeards, and the blockers are big and fast.

Cincinnati can brag about senior quarterback Danny McCoin (2,831 passing yards and 64% in '86) and some talented targets, including wideout Joe Hice, but not much else. Army's Tory Crawford, the nation's top rushing quarterback, should again dominate the Cadet wishbone, but only three starters return on defense. Nevertheless, count on Army to beat Navy again in Philly. The Middies don't return anybody on D.

What's holding you up, Howard? Louisville's Schnellenberger, 5-17 over two seasons, has failed to duplicate his Miami magic. Running back Deon Booker and a soft schedule should help, but the Cardinals still aren't off the ground.



Siragusa is one of the rowdy linemen who will lead the reborn Panthers up out of the pits.