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The nice thing about being an independent is that you keep all your revenue (instead of sharing the wealth with conference members) and you control your schedule (and hence your destiny). These days the independents are flourishing. The Top 20 includes free agents Notre Dame, Florida State, Miami, West Virginia, Syracuse and Southern Mississippi, and several others could easily break through. Take Pitt, for example. Coach Mike Gottfried could have an excellent squad, especially when the Panthers have the ball. Even without quarterback Darnell Dickerson, who was declared academically ineligible, the Panthers will be formidable, thanks mainly to tailback Curvin Richards, whose 1,228 rushing yards as a freshman evoked the inevitable comparison with former Panther Tony Dorsett. The biggest holes will be provided by center Dean Caliguire. The Pitt defense is more questionable, especially because Sean Gilbert, a high school All-America who had been penciled in at end, will be ineligible under Proposition 48.

The Pitt-Penn State game (Nov. 25 at Pitt) could again be a classic, provided that the Nittany Lions revive after the school's first losing season (5-6) in 50 years. Coach Joe Paterno is concerned about his team's health, and heading Paterno's worry list is senior tailback Blair Thomas, who missed last season recuperating from a knee injury, after rushing for 1,414 yards in '87. Tom Bill, the starter at quarterback last season until he dislocated his right kneecap in the Lions' third game, will also be trying for a comeback. Led by halfback Mike Mayweather, Army capped a 9-3 season by nearly upsetting Alabama in the Sun Bowl, and the Cadets could do as well this year. Since Jim Young installed the wishbone at West Point in 1984, the Cadets have been no worse than fifth nationally in rushing. Alas, neither the ground nor the air suits poor Navy, which will enter the season hoping that quarterback Alton Grizzard can find a way to snap a six-game losing streak.

Elsewhere in the East, Boston College will count on quarterback Mark Kamphaus, kicker Brian Lowe and defensive end Ivan Caesar to reverse 1988's 3-8 record. Rutgers, which finished 5-6, may climb above .500 behind record-setting quarterback Scott Erney. And Temple, which has had one winning season in the last nine years, hopes that new coach Jerry Berndt will bring with him the success he enjoyed at Penn (four Ivy League titles from '81 to '85) instead of the failure he encountered at Rice (6-27 in three years).

At Louisville, the Cardinals flew to an 8-3 season in '88, and coach Howard Schnellenberger made so much noise about not receiving a bowl bid that at least the bowl scouts will be watching to see if the Cardinals can do even better with a schedule that has seven road games, including one in Tokyo against Syracuse.

South Carolina started fast last season but fell to 8-4 in the wake of former player Tommy Chaikin's revelations (SI, Oct. 24) about the use of steroids among the Gamecocks. Then last February, coach Joe Morrison died of a heart attack. His successor, former Appalachian State coach Sparky Woods, has a talented but erratic quarterback in Todd Ellis, who has a career 8,579 yards and 39 touchdowns but also 67 interceptions.

East Carolina, recently the most overscheduled team in the nation, will get some relief in its first year under coach Bill Lewis, replacing West Virginia and Florida State with Bowling Green and Illinois State. Memphis State also has a new coach. Chuck Stobart, who, it is hoped, will do things a bit differently than did his predecessor. Charlie Bailey, whose tenure earned the Tigers a three-year probation from the NCAA.