Let's be honest about this. Either something very peculiar is going on or a lot of people are suffering the effects of global warming in their hats. This season's college football Top 20 is ruled by the sun kings of the sport. The top four teams—Florida State, Miami, UCLA and USC—play in places where people have traditionally gone to get away from where they play good college football. Places where your sun tan lotion SPF rating has usually mattered more than your Top 20 ranking.
Barring a total eclipse of the sun, the best college football this season will be played in Tallahassee, a town where the average high temperature during the three football months is 79°. FLORIDA STATE is No. 1, and the Seminoles will almost certainly hang on to that lofty ranking at least until this Saturday, when they play Miami in their very first game of the season to decide who has the nation's best team. Thanks to the network television folks, who evidently just couldn't bear the suspense and moved this climactic contest to the top of the schedule, the winner will deserve to be called the supreme and undisputed sun king of the sport—at least until Nov. 19, when UCLA and USC stage their own duel in the sun.
For the Seminoles and their All-America cornerback Deion Sanders, playing Miami, the national champion, on the road and with their top ranking at stake is the kind of challenge they relish. Sanders, whose nickname is Prime Time, owns enough hats to cover two walls of his room, and they are always worn cockeyed. "That's just me," he says. "I can't wear a hat straight on." Or a ballcarrier. Sanders loves verbally baiting opposing ballcarriers, although he adheres to a strict code of ethics. "I won't say anything about a player unless I have a quote already, him about me," he says. Sanders and the ominously monikered Stan Shiver, a savage tackier at strong safety, will make the Seminoles' defense tough to crack.
If there is a question about Florida State, it is at quarterback. Danny McManus is gone, so his backup, senior Chip Ferguson, and junior Peter Tom Willis will probably alternate on a yank-the-struggling-starter basis. With Sammie Smith, who rushed for 123 yards per game last year, to hand off to, and with 300-pound offensive tackle Pat Tomberlin anchoring a line that allowed only six quarterback sacks during the regular season, it might not matter much who plays quarterback.
At MIAMI, of course, it always matters intensely who plays quarterback, and this year even more so. With the emergence of junior quarterback Steve Walsh, nobody left games last fall talking wistfully about the likes of Kelly, Kosar and Testaverde. Walsh threw for 2,249 yards and 19 touchdowns, and he showed an uncanny ability to audible the perfect play at the line of scrimmage. "We're not a 10-2 team," Walsh says serenely. "That wouldn't be successful."
Of course, that might not even be realistic with a road schedule that includes Michigan. Notre Dame and LSU, but the Hurricanes are road warriors, winners of 19 straight away from home, the best visiting record in the land. And coach Jimmy Johnson has built such a powerhouse that those sober "starters lost" figures don't mean a thing in Miami. The 'Canes rolled up so many lopsided scores last season that the subs saw nearly as much playing time as the first-stringers, and there is a defensive front wall that Johnson believes may be the best he's ever had. The cornerstone of that line is defensive end Bill Hawkins, who will start work on a master's degree in business this fall. Hawkins says the team has developed a strategy for handling the pressure in big games. "We just try not to do anything stupid," he says.
In Los Angeles they just try not to do anything boring, and let stupid take care of itself. L.A. has always loved a good quarterback controversy, and this year it should have one in trying to decide whether Troy Aikman of UCLA or Rodney Peete of USC is the best quarterback in town, and—on a slightly less provincial level—if one of them isn't the best in the whole blessed country. Aikman finished second in the nation in passing efficiency last year, throwing for 2,354 yards and 16 touchdowns, while Rodney (Sweet) Peete—the name is actually a testament to his sweet tooth—threw for 2,460 yards and 19 touchdowns, and finished fourth in passing efficiency. "Without question, Aikman is the best pure passing quarterback in the Pac-10 since John Elway," says USC defensive coordinator Chris Allen. But Peete is not far behind.
Aikman's gun arm might not do the Bruins a lot of good if he doesn't have targets, and UCLA has only one wide receiver returning who had more than four catches last season. He is Mike Farr, who had 24 receptions but also had surgery during the off-season to remove a bone tumor from his left leg. At tailback, in a change of colors, Brian Brown has replaced Gaston Green. Like Green, Brown can get outside, downshift and burn his alliterative name into the turf. Meanwhile, Aikman should help to make the defense better, mostly by keeping it off the field. Last year he threw just six interceptions, and only three in the first 10 games.
Peete's most remarkable achievement has been making people forget that Southern Cal is Tailback U and that the Trojans are the Thundering Herd. USC, which celebrates its 100th year of football this season, is no longer embarrassed to put the ball in the air, and the reason for this lack of embarrassment is Peete. The Trojans also return their top five rushers, including Steven Webster, who gained 1,109 yards last season, and their top three receivers from a year ago. The offensive line, as usual, will be larger than life, and the entire front wall of a defense that led the nation in turnover margin is back. A national championship to celebrate the centennial would be, well, sweet.
Out on the plains of NEBRASKA they have lately come to equate excessive sun with the drought and the crop failures that it has caused. But in their heart of hearts, Nebraskans have felt few droughts more acutely than the 16-year dry spell their beloved Cornhuskers have suffered through without a national championship. "The hunger has set in so deep it's down to the bone now," says Broderick Thomas, the Huskers' superb outside linebacker. Thomas saw the anguish in Nebraska coach Tom Osborne's eyes when yet another shot at a national title slipped away with a 17-7 loss to Oklahoma last November. "I've got a B.A.—bad attitude," Thomas says. "I'm on a mission now. I want to leave here with the man smiling."
For that to happen, Nebraska will have to muster outstanding performances from Terry Rodgers—son of Nebraska's 1972 Heisman winner Johnny Rodgers—who could challenge senior Tyreese Knox for the starting I-back position, and from 5'10", 240-pound middle guard Mike Murray, a walk-on who was once told he was too short to play major college football. "You'd like him to be a little bigger," concedes defensive coordinator Charlie McBride, "but he's all over the place." The Huskers just hope he's in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2, probably sitting on somebody's shoulders so he can see.
Texas A & M linebacker John Roper actually seems to prefer sitting on people's shoulders, or their sternums, or even their heads, if that's what it takes to get their attention. "I like to hear the air come out of the quarterbacks when I hit them," says Roper. Roper and Aaron Wallace—who collectively accounted for 180 tackles last season—spearhead the best collection of linebackers in the country. They'll get help from cornerback Alex Morris, who spent much of his time in opponents' backfields (eight sacks and three tackles for losses).
The Aggies began their season slowly on Saturday night in the Kickoff Classic, losing 23-14 to Nebraska. Bucky Richardson got the call from coach Jackie Sherrill at quarterback and responded by going 5 for 17, for 42 yards and two interceptions. Sherrill may be tempted to switch to sophomore Lance Pavlas. But the Roper-led defense forced four Husker fumbles. If the defense gets a little help from the offense, A & M will be hard to beat the rest of the way.
After three seasons spent either at or near the top of the weekly rankings, OKLAHOMA will not be making as strong a run at a national title this year. Only nine starters return, the fewest in 15 years, and for the first time since 1981 the Sooners will not have an All-Big Eight player returning on defense. But this is still Oklahoma, after all, where the depth chart reads like a Who's Who of Southwest high school football legends; where the '87 team's fourth-leading rusher. Patrick Collins, got drafted in the eighth round. So don't expect the Sooners to fall into the lower 10. Led by halfback Anthony Stafford, Oklahoma has the best collection of runners it has had in years, and in freshmen Mike Gaddis and Rod Fisher it will also have the big backs the Sooners have not had since the days (day?) of Marcus Dupree.
Clemson will once again defy conventional wisdom and prove that it can win with a quarterback of only modest skills. Senior Rodney Williams isn't quick and he doesn't have a great arm, but last year he led the Tigers to a 10-2 overall record and threw for 214 yards—56 of them to his favorite target, Gary Cooper—at the Florida Citrus Bowl in a 35-10 rout of Penn State. Williams gets to practice every day against the best defensive secondary in the country, which returns intact after allowing only 5.6 yards per reception in '87.
For IOWA to be a contender, quarterback Chuck Hartlieb will have to have the kind of year that people are expecting of Aikman and Peete, and there's no reason to believe he can't. Hartlieb languished on the bench in the early part of the season when all the attention was focused on alleged wonderboy Dan McGwire, who eventually flopped and transferred to San Diego State. At midpoint of a 9-3 season, Hartlieb erupted, passing for more than 300 yards on five occasions and rallying the Hawkeyes to come-from-behind, fourth-quarter triumphs four times. Forty-one Iowa lettermen return, among them running back Tony Stewart, and the schedule is favorable. "If there is still a Big Two in the Big Ten," says coach Hayden Fry, "we must be one of the two."
The other one is MICHIGAN STATE. In East Lansing there is talk of back-to-back Rose Bowl victories, something no Big Ten team has been able to accomplish since 1972, when the league first allowed a team to succeed itself in Pasadena. The veteran offensive line should do its part, particularly since the NCAA has cleared 6'6", 315-pound tackle Tony Mandarich to play the conference schedule. (Mandarich will have to sit out the first three games, all nonleague, as punishment for writing a letter to the NFL expressing his interest in adding his name to a supplementary draft, even though he withdrew the bid well before the draft.) With Mandarich around, quarterback Bobby McAllister might be able to throw long more often and take some pressure off the Spartans' running game, which is strong despite the loss of Lorenzo White, who carried the ball nearly 30 times a game last season. The defense is led by the rock-solid Percy Snow, who should probably be called Percy Sledge. "He's been blessed with the ability to really unload on people," says coach George Perles. Everybody say hallelujah, and pray for Snow.
And pray for NOTRE DAME while you're at it; the Irish have never been shy about accepting help in that department and, with seven '87 bowl teams on this season's schedule, they may need it. One miracle, divine intervention or not, has already come to pass in Indiana: Junior quarterback Tony Rice pulled passing grades in three summer classes and will be eligible to run (a lot) and pass (occasionally) for the Irish this fall.
The Irish defense should be much improved over the group that embarrassed itself in that 35-10 pasting by Texas A & M in the Cotton Bowl. The Irish have two first-rate linebackers in Ned Bolcar and Wes Pritchett, and experience in the secondary, but those units could suffer from overwork if a young line doesn't rise to the occasion. Mark Green, the team's leading rusher the last two seasons, returns at tailback, and coach Lou Holtz has moved sophomore Ricky Watters out from behind Green, where Watters was the team's second-leading rusher, to the flanker spot vacated by Heisman winner Tim Brown. "Ricky Watters is very much a Tim Brown-type player," says Holtz. "He's got Tim Brown instincts, he's got Tim Brown awareness...but I don't want to compare him to Tim Brown." Oh.
At GEORGIA there may be a lot of things going on this season that don't remind Bulldog fans of the past. Georgia coach Vince Dooley, who has returned for a 25th year despite heart problems that required three angioplasty procedures to clear arterial blockage, traditionally has chosen to build his offense around one dominant tailback. And though Rodney Hampton (7.1 yards per carry last season) could fill that role, Dooley has found himself with an abundance of talented running backs and a mobile quarterback. So, in short-yardage and goal-line situations, the Dawgs will run the wishbone. Senior Wayne Johnson, who beat out redshirt freshman Greg Talley for the quarterback job, is a conventional, drop-back passer, but he can motor when the occasion calls for it. The defense will also have a new look, going to a 3-4 alignment that will be revved up considerably by the presence of outside linebacker Richard Tardits, who grew up in France and once ran with the bulls in Pamplona.
The specialty of the house at LSU will be that perennial Cajun favorite, redshirts and rice. Coach Mike Archer red-shirted the entire freshman class last season, and after a bountiful recruiting year the Tigers will be deep at every position. LSU's greatest asset is quarterback Tommy Hodson (page 92), but the Tigers would feel a whole lot better facing just about the toughest schedule in the nation if running back Harvey Williams, who gained 1,001 yards then blew out his left knee in the last regular-season game, has recovered enough to provide some stability in the ground game. If Williams isn't fit, Hodson may truly stand alone; the Tigers lost tight end Brian Kinchen to graduation and lost Kinchen's younger brother, Todd, a wide receiver who may be the best athlete on the team, to a serious knee injury three weeks ago.
On another culinary front, the PENN STATE Creamery produces an ice cream flavor called Peachy Paterno, but that may be the only peachy thing on the Nittany Lion country safari this year. "This team is going to be young," coach Joe Paterno says. "It's going to have to get some things done on just sheer intensity." Three of the four best linebackers have departed, as has quarterback Matt Knizner, who often incurred the wrath of fans in an 8-4 year. Competing for the quarterback job are junior Tom Bill, and senior Lance Lonergan, whose career stats show three passes, three completions.
Tailback Blair Thomas, who tore a ligament in his right knee last December after rushing for the third most yards in Penn State history (1,414), had surgery in January, and if Thomas is hobbled, the Lions could tumble. In the end, Paterno may be the best thing Penn State has going for it. "There's a challenge out there," he says. "Let's lick it." When you've got a flavor named after you, you can get away with ice-cream-cone metaphors.
In the realm of metaphor, the AUBURN defense is like the mythical Hydra—it keeps sprouting new heads every time one gets hacked off. Enough good defenders departed the Tigers in the off-season to stock an Arena Football powerhouse, but rest assured, equally brutish ones will grow in their places. Questing quarterbacks will want to be particularly aware of linebacker Craig Ogletree. When he spelled the NFL's No. 1 draft pick, Aundray Bruce, last year, the drop-off in talent was not always noticeable. The Tigers lack a big running back again, and quarterback Reggie Slack is inexperienced, but in Lawyer Tillman, Slack will have one of the best wide receivers in the country.
Michigan coach Bo Schembechler is patrolling the sideline again after his second open-heart operation, and apparently the doctors will go on looking until they find one. "Bo is the same coach," says defensive tackle Mark Messner, "just more intense." Schembechler says he has the best group of tailbacks he's ever coached in Allen Jefferson, Tracy Williams and Tony Boles, and they'll look even better running behind the best offensive line in the nation. With that mammoth front wall, quarterback Demetrius Brown, who got Bo riled this summer by skirting the edge of academic ineligibility, should have no excuse for duplicating his 16 interceptions of '87, most in the Big Ten. There is concern that the defense will suffer from an inexperienced secondary, but corner David Arnold and safety Rick Hassel did have 43 tackles between them.
Last year the OKLAHOMA STATE Cowboys yielded a school-record 4,531 yards but still finished 10-2 and won the Sun Bowl. They did it by scoring fast and often, led by the Mutt-and-Jeff combination of quarterback Mike Gundy and wide receiver Hart Lee Dykes. When Gundy, who stands only 5'11" and has to scramble a lot, spots a cornerback attempting to cover Dykes, who is 6'4" and has a 36½-inch vertical leap, he just runs around for a while and then lobs something high enough so that only Dykes can get it. "That's how we get our biggest gains," says Gundy. "On broken plays."
When former TEXAS great Earl Campbell, now an administrator at the university, runs into the Longhorns' exciting tailback, Eric Metcalf, in the halls, he asks Metcalf why he always falls down when he's going into the end zone. "Why don't you stand up like I did, and just give 'em a stiff arm?" Campbell asks. And Metcalf, a graceful, high-stepping runner who bounds and cuts like a frightened deer, always has an answer. "He says, 'Yeah, but I've got this thing in my hips'—meaning moves," Campbell says. Metcalf had enough of them to finish third in the nation in all-purpose yardage last year, and this season he has a chance to win the Heisman and propel Texas back into the Top 20. The defense, led by linebacker Britt Hager, will have to do better than the 27 points per game—60 against Houston—it allowed last year if the Longhorns are to press the Aggies for Southwest supremacy.
Tennessee has most of its important players back on offense, but nobody is quite sure what that means because last year the Volunteers had to rally from behind in the fourth quarter four times, including their Peach Bowl win over Indiana. This is the sleeper team of the powerful SEC and of the Top 20; Tennessee will either disappear quickly—three of its first four games are against Georgia. LSU and Auburn—or rise among the honored few with early victories. The Vols like to use three wide receivers most of the time, and with Thomas Woods (26 catches), Terence Cleveland (23 catches at 18.1 yards a pop), and Alvin Harper and Carl Pickens (both of whom have high jumped 7'1") on hand, steady quarterback Jeff Francis should have no problem finding a target.
Finding a target wasn't a problem for SOUTH CAROLINA quarterback Todd Ellis during the past two seasons. Making sure the target was wearing the right color jersey was, as Ellis threw for 30 TDs but also had 46 interceptions (including the Gator Bowl). Now the Gamecocks have junked the flashy run-and-shoot offense in favor of a standard pro set that will feature more handoffs to tailback Harold Green. Defense is what this team is all about, though. Second-stingiest in the nation last season in points allowed, it lost half the unit to graduation, but returning cornerback Robert Robinson and linebacker Matt McKernan are as good as they come.
FOR SANDERS (2), "PRIME TIME" WAS ANYTIME HE HAD A HAND IN SPOILING THE BEST-LAID PLANS OF OPPOSING OFFENSES
WITH PEETE AROUND, TROJAN FANS ARE FORGETTING THE TAILBACKS OF YORE
DAVID L. JOHNSON/ACTION IMAGES
CLEMSON FANS HAD TO HAND IT TO COOPER FOR HIS FOUR TDS LAST SEASON
WITH HEISMAN WINNER BROWN GONE, GREEN (24), THE TOP RUSHER FOR THE IRISH, SHOULD GET MORE ATTENTION
COWBOY PASSERS FOUND DYKES (11) OUTLEAPING DEFENDERS DOWNFIELD 64 TIMES, FOR MORE THAN 1,000 YARDS IN '87
1 FLORIDA ST.
6 TEXAS A&M
10 MICHIGAN ST.
11 NOTRE DAME
14 PENN ST.
17 OKLAHOMA ST.
20 S. CAROLINA