This season the national champion of college football might come from an old familiar place. Like the Rose Bowl. You do remember the Rose Bowl? Well, nobody can blame you if you don't, because it has been 19 years since an AP national champion emerged from Pasadena. And what about the Big Ten? We're not kidding. The league that gave us the Galloping Ghost, Old 98 and Woody Hayes is ready to deliver its first consensus national champion since—is it possible?—1968. And here's the kicker: Michigan, home of the most rousing fight song in the game, is the team to beat. Never mind that the Wolverines' most recent national title was in 1948, when Bennie Oosterbaan was the coach and Benny Goodman was still on the pop music charts.
Too often during the Bo Schembechler era Michigan was Miss-Again at the end of New Year's Day, but this could be the season when the Wolverines outshine the Florida powerhouses and outluck even the Fighting Peacocks, or whatever it is that NBC plans to call Notre Dame. Last season Michigan was 9-3 in its first campaign under Schembechler's successor, Gary Moeller, but could easily have been 12-0. Besides, who's going to argue when Greg Skrepenak, Michigan's 6'8", 320-pound offensive tackle (page 62), says, "We hope to be playing in Pasadena for the Number One ranking."
For that to happen, the Wolverines will have to survive one of the toughest schedules in the country. Michigan plays host to Notre Dame on Sept. 14 and Florida State on Sept. 28 before plunging into the Big Ten season on the road against defending champion Iowa and Michigan State. But Moeller has more than enough talent for the task at hand.
Although tailback Jon Vaughn (1,364 yards rushing as a sophomore) jumped to the pros, the Wolverines have capable replacements in Ricky Powers and backup Tyrone Wheatley, a true freshman. When Skrepenak and his companions on the offensive line aren't ripping open holes for Powers and Wheatley, they will be pass-blocking for quarterback Elvis Grbac and a receiving corps led by Desmond (Magic) Howard, whose many catches include one of Michael Jackson's hat at a concert. Howard had 63 receptions and was second in the nation in kickoff returns.
The Wolverine defense will have three new starters in the secondary, but defensive coordinator Lloyd Carr is so pleased with free safety Corwin (Cornflakes) Brown, cornerback Dwayne Ware and strong safety Otis Williams that, in spite of their inexperience, he feels they will be the strength of the unit. Initially, however, the anchor will be inside linebacker Erick Anderson, who has led the team in tackles for three straight years. "Erick is the complete package," Carr says. "He has the best instincts—being consistently accurate and not getting fooled—and is a tough, competitive athlete."
2. Florida State
Anderson and his Michigan teammates will need all the instinct and toughness they can muster to beat the Seminoles, even with the game being played in Ann Arbor. Florida State has finished among the nation's top four for four consecutive years but has nary a title to show for it. Now, though, Bobby Bowden may have assembled his best team yet.
He has 17 starters back from last season's 10-2 team, and he has signed seven high school All-Americas, led by running back Marquette Smith and safety Derrick Brooks. While they mature, they will be learning from such quality players as linebacker Marvin (Shade Tree) Jones, cornerback Terrell Buckley and tailback Amp Lee. Says quarterback Casey Weldon, "At every position we're two or three deep. Amazing. Everybody is expendable." Except Weldon, who completed 61.5% of his passes last season and led Florida State to six straight victories after becoming the starter in midseason.
If Florida State doesn't stumble early, then its Nov. 30 meeting with the Gators in Gainesville might be for much more than the championship of the Sunshine State. The Gators have so much firepower that they just might be able to outscore anybody on their schedule, including Southeastern Conference titans Tennessee and Alabama, both of whom will visit Gainesville this fall.
In the spring of 1990, soon after he returned to Florida, where he had won the Heisman Trophy in 1966 as a quarterback, coach Steve Spurrier ordered the artificial turf at Florida Field ripped up and replaced with grass. Then he installed the sophisticated passing attack that earned him national recognition at Duke. The result was a season that was both exciting and nearly injury free.
Quarterback Shane Matthews, now a junior, was almost unstoppable, throwing for 2,952 yards and 23 touchdowns, each a second-best total in SEC history. Also returning are wide receiver Tre Everett, tailback Errict Rhett and center Cal Dixon. The defense will be built around big-play specialist Tim Paulk, who has forced 17 turnovers during his three seasons at inside linebacker, and tackle Brad Culpepper, who was recently elected vice-president of the Florida student government on the Vision Party ticket.
4. Penn State
Speaking of vision, the most famous specs in the game still belong to Joe Paterno, who will go into his 26th season in Happy Valley looking for more victories (the Nittany Lions were 9-3 last season) and less lip from quarterback Tony Sacca, whose views about passing have never jibed with Paterno's. "I really like Tony," Paterno says. "He's no phony! He says whatever he thinks. Unfortunately, what he thinks, a lot of the time I don't like."
Replies Sacca, "He's got his way and I've got mine, but he's calling the shots."
Sacca's soul mate on the other side of the ball is linebacker Mark D'Onofrio, who has also seen Paterno's doghouse from the inside, in his case because of his penchant for taunting opponents, a no-no at Penn State. D'Onofrio believes the Lions should have won the national championship last season—"We lost three games we should have won," he says—and is determined that this year will be better, despite a schedule that includes Georgia Tech, Southern Cal, Brigham Young, Miami and Notre Dame.
Penn State should be better, mainly because wide receiver O.J. McDuffie and offensive guard John Gerak, out last season with injuries, and tailback Richie Anderson, who redshirted, will be returning. Gerak, a backup fullback two years ago, says he had an easy time switching positions. "At Penn State a fullback is a guard," he says. "You just line up four yards behind the line. The other reason I like it is that I don't have to worry about my weight anymore. When I was a fullback, I'd go up to 260 pounds during the summer and have to listen to Joe yell about getting down to 240. Now I weigh 280 and nobody is complaining."
5. Notre Dame
Most of the yelling around South Bend is about the Irish defense. "From what I've heard from the coaching staff," says junior linebacker Demetrius DuBose, "we have one of the greatest defenses ever to play at Notre Dame." Which is news to the reporters who cover the Irish. All they have heard from coach Lou Holtz, who has turned poor-mouthing into an art form, is that Notre Dame will need every bit of its fabled luck. "I would be very concerned about the 1991 season," says Holtz, "except that I, like our coaches, feel that our athletes and the Notre Dame spirit can't be disregarded."
Gone to the pros are Raghib (Rocket) Ismail and nine other starters from last season's 9-3 team. But don't feel too sorry for the Irish. Returning are quarterback Rick Mirer, tight end Derek Brown, defensive tackle George Williams, kicker-punter Craig Hentrich and tailbacks Rodney Culver and Tony Brooks.
The most interesting newcomer is wideout Mike Miller, a true freshman from Texas, who may be missile enough to replace the Rocket. "They think I am faster, and I am," says Miller. "The coaches told me if I didn't come in and play, they'd be a little disappointed." Officially, the coaches are saying wait and see. As promising as Miller looks, Ismail will be missed, as the schedule includes seven teams that played in bowls last season.
At least Ismail departed voluntarily, which was not the case with Husky quarterback Mark Brunell. Despite wearing a green vest indicating his no-contact status during spring practice, Brunell got hit so hard that both of the major ligaments in his right knee were ripped, putting him out of action until at least November.
After an impressive 46-34 Rose Bowl victory over Iowa, the Huskies were touted as a potential No. 1 team, even with the addition of a Sept. 21 road game against Nebraska. They still could win it all, but only if sophomore Billy Joe Hobert can adequately fill in for Brunell. Since coach Don James was already faced with the task of replacing brilliant tailback Greg Lewis, the strength of the offense is uncertain. Hobert is not as fast as Brunell, but he has the confidence of his teammates. The top runners are Beno Bryant (4.29 for the 40) and freshman Napoleon Kaufman, an electrifying kick returner.
The Washington defense might be even deeper and faster than last season's squad, which led the nation in rushing defense and turnover margin. The defense is so good that linebacker Chico Fraley, a three-year starter, was demoted to the second team in spring practice and told to improve his classwork. Washington will again be able to blitz its linebackers frequently because its cornerbacks are fast enough to cover man-to-man.
Like the Huskies, Miami also has tons of talent and a big question mark at quarterback. Gone is Craig Erickson, who guided the Hurricanes to the national title two years ago and a 10-2 record last season. His replacement, Gino Torretta, has performed capably as a backup. If Torretta is any kind of passer at all, he could pile up some big numbers; his deep and talented receiving corps includes Lamar Thomas, who averaged 17.3 yards a catch last season, and Horace Copeland, a Florida high school high-and long-jump champion, who can go right over defenders.
The Hurricanes are expected to be as rough as usual on defense, though not as blustery, because of yet another clamp-down on the hotdogging, taunting tactics that have been so much a part of Miami's sound machine. The NCAA Football Rules Committee cited Miami's misconduct in its 46-3 Cotton Bowl plundering of Texas (in which the Hurricanes racked up 202 yards in penalties) as a reason for establishing stricter rules against conduct unbecoming. The defense will be bulwarked by linebackers Darrin Smith, Jessie Armstead and Michael Barrow, and placekicker Carlos Huerta (141 of 141 PATs) will be back for his final season.
The Sooners, another team that had to clean up its act, will be back in the bowl picture after two years of NCAA probation. Coach Gary Gibbs has used the time well, guiding his team to records of 7-4 and 8-3 while building a powerhouse that could be 9-2 or better this season. The Sooner defense, built around linebacker Joe Bowden and safety Jason Belser, will be one of the nation's best.
Although the Sooners have perhaps the nation's best 1-2 fullback punch in Mike McKinley and Kenyon Rasheed, the offensive emphasis will be on passing, mainly because of quarterback Cale Gundy. After replacing Steve Collins as the starting quarterback in last season's seventh game, Gundy wound up with 904 yards passing for the year and is looking for a lot more this season. "My goal is to pass for at least 2,000 yards, and I would even say 2,500 yards, to be honest," he says. Keep in mind that Oklahoma's alltime single-season record for passing yardage is 1,548, by Bob Warmack in 1968.
Gundy sounds as if he wants to turn Oklahoma into another Houston, a school that is also finally out of the NCAA jailhouse. The Cougars are looking for another record-smashing year behind quarterback David Klingler (page 50). However, if they are to cope with Miami and Illinois in early-season road tests, the Cougars are going to have to improve on defense. Nine starters, six of whom were freshmen last season, return to that unit, so Houston should give up fewer points per game (27.5 in '90) under new defensive coordinator Ben Hurt.
10. Georgia Tech
Scoring points wasn't a problem for Coach Bobby Ross's Yellow Jackets, who will try to build on last season's 11-0-1 record and half share (the UPI Coaches' Poll) of the national championship. Tech scored 334 points last season, the most for the Ramblin' Wreck since coach John Heisman's 1918 team rolled up 462. But the quest to surpass those numbers received a blow in June when tailback William Bell, Tech's leading rusher in '90, and James Reese, a leading candidate for the fullback job, were kicked off the team for at least the 1991 season after they tried to sell textbooks and supplies stolen from other students (SI, July 1). That leaves Tech with only five returning offensive starters. Fortunately for Ross, one of them, junior quarterback Shawn Jones (2,285 yards in total offense last season), will probably be a prominent name in the weekly Heisman watch.
While the offense is sorting itself out, Tech will rely on a defense led by senior Ken Swilling (page 42), who is switching from free safety to strong safety, and Marco Coleman, the agile outside linebacker who led the ACC in sacks, with 12.
MICHIGAN'S GRBAC (15) AND FLORIDA STATE'S LEE (42) WILL LEAD THEIR TEAMS IN THE BATTLE FOR NO. 1
[See caption above.]
MATTHEWS (ABOVE) SHOULD KEEP THE GATORS IN THE CHASE; THE MIAMI DEFENSE (TOP, RIGHT) WILL SWARM AGAIN: RASHEED (33) COULD CARRY THE SOONERS TO THE BIG EIGHT CROWN
[See caption above.]