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Of The Independents' big four—Miami, Notre Dame, Florida State and Penn State, all of which occupy spots in our Top 20 forecast—the Irish may be the only team still playing the loner next year. Penn State is joining the Big Ten, and Miami and Florida State may join the SEC, the ACC or even a brand-new league. A football Big East may not be far off, either. After this season, Pitt might decide to come in from the cold. Independence will be a tough road for the Panthers this fall, with games against Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Miami. If new defensive coordinator Fred vonAppen, with the help of super soph defensive end Keith Hamilton, can turn the D around, Pitt might be able to overcome its demanding schedule. New head coach Paul Hackett has the pieces of a dream attack in quarterback Alex Van Pelt and tailback Curvin Richards.

Quarterback Major Harris left West Virginia early for the CFL, a move that delighted Greg Jones. After being stuck behind Vinny Testaverde in Miami, Jones transferred in 1987 and got stuck behind Harris. Now a senior, Jones will be protected by a line that features man-mountain tackle John Ray (6'10", 330 pounds). Syracuse's record-setting receiver Rob Moore also made an early exit, to the NFL. He will be replaced by Qadry Ismail, younger brother of Notre Dame's Raghib. Louisville has had back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1977-78, and the streak will continue this fall with strong-armed (if immobile) quarterback Browning Nagle; a talented group of receivers, including Greg Brohm and Anthony Cummings; and a cream-puff schedule. The Cardinals' greatest improvement has been on defense, where 10 starters return.

After upsetting Florida State in its opener last season, Southern Miss went, well, south, losing four straight. The Golden Eagles were 4-2 after that, and they should remain upward bound if quarterback Brett Favre can rebound from a July auto accident. East Carolina will rely on the heavy hitting of linebacker Robert Jones, while South Carolina will count on the accurate toe of kicker Collin Mackie, the Gamecocks' alltime leading scorer. Both schools must replace top quarterbacks, as must Southwestern Louisiana, which lost run-and-shoot artist Brian Mitchell. James Freeman and Jeff Miller will run-and-gun for his spot.

Northern Illinois has no such void, with wishbone wizard Stacey Robinson and nearly everyone else returning from a 9-2 team. Robinson, a senior, rushed for 19 touchdowns and an NCAA-quarterback-record 1,443 yards last year. At Army, halfback Mike Mayweather already has the Cadets' career and single-season rushing records. Tulsa had an eye-catcher too, in pass catcher Dan Bitson. But Bitson suffered severe injuries in an off-season car crash and may never play football again.

Most of a very good offense returns intact at Louisiana Tech, but a flimsy defense may not see much improvement. The high point of Virginia Tech's '89 season was the Hokies' 12-10 upset of West Virginia, and though 11 starters are back, Tech will be hard-pressed to equal its 6-4-1 record of '89. New Rutgers coach Doug Graber is seeking ways to establish better relations between the football team and the student body. A good start would be to improve on the Scarlet Knights' two wins of '89.

Over the past two seasons, Boston College is 5-17, and prospects for 1990 are not encouraging. There are many holes to fill on both sides of the line, and the schedule, which includes Miami, is a bruiser. Navy will set sail with a new coach, but with the same quarterback, Alton Grizzard, one of the few standouts on a mediocre team. Akron will be guided by a quarterback, Jeff Sweitzer, who has taken fewer than three dozen collegiate snaps in his career, and the chances of approaching last season's surprising 6-4-1 record are remote. Tulane, Memphis State and Cincinnati are lucky to have each other to knock around, and with visits to Wyoming, Penn State, Tennessee and Pitt, Temple will consider the season a major triumph if it doubles last season's victory total of one.