1. Central Florida
Want to assemble Division I-AA's best team? Here's how: a) seed your program in the nation's most fertile talent bed; b) offer recruits a hedonist's dream world of sunshine, nightspots and Disney diversions; c) play your home games at the polished, 70,000-seat Citrus Bowl; d) schedule a move up to Division I-A; and e) provide an all-you-can-eat meal plan for your linemen.
It has worked perfectly for Central Florida, which will win the national championship in its last season of I-AA postseason eligibility before officially moving up in class in '96. The Golden Knights" roster—a collection of home-state talent that includes Florida State transfer Marquette Smith, the third-leading rusher in state high school history—is so deep that coach Gene McDowell's main concern is a backup center. "We need players who are good enough to play for Florida State," says McDowell, "because we'll be playing the Seminoles next year."
Coming off three consecutive appearances in the championship game—two losses and a win, all against Youngstown State—the Thundering Herd lurks as the most dangerous obstacle in Central Florida's path. While coach Jim Donnan's son, Todd, has developed into a top quarterback, running back Chris Parker remains the team leader. In 1993, two years after he was the driver in a car accident that killed three people, a mature, focused and resolute Parker ran for a school-record 1,750 yards.
3. Youngstown State
Were Thornton Wilder writing today, he might have set Our Town in Ohio instead of New Hampshire and named it Youngs Town. You know. "On the whole, things don't change much around here." Year after year, the Penguins, the winningest team of the '90s in all of Division I (A and AA), contend for the title and provide a rallying point for a town that has struggled since its steel mills began to close in the mid-'70s. "People need something to count on, and that's us," says assistant coach Ken Conaster. The loss of two star tailbacks from last year's championship team won't prevent the Penguins from a typical, town-tingling run at the title this fall.
Even in the linger-stiffening cold of the Grizzlies' 49-48 home loss to Delaware in the playoffs last November—a game in which 27 points were scored in the final 2:44—the only things running were some near-frozen noses. Savvy Montana quarterback Dave Dickenson completed 37 of 44 passes in the game without being intercepted. Dickenson, who led the nation in total offense last year, will again thrive in the widespread, multiple-set offense employed by coach Don Read, who literally wrote the book on passing (The Complete Passing Game).
5. Northern Iowa
The Panthers love being at home they've won 28 consecutive regular-season games at the UNI-Dome—and they love their Mumma. Dominant center D.J. Mumma, a senior, guides a young offensive line, and sophomore running back Jeff Stovall (17 touchdowns in '93) will follow Mumma the way ducklings followed Konrad Lorenz. The Panthers also rely on a ferocious, big-play defense led by All-America senior linebacker Andre Allen.
6. Stephen F. Austin
Turns out the school is named after the American settler, not the Six Million Dollar Man, but still this team will run faster and be more powerful than ever before. Among coach John Pearce's 18 returning starters are his son, Michael, a marvelous playmaker at wide receiver, and Octus Polk, a 330-pound offensive tackle who can dunk a basketball. The death of popular, all-conference strong safety Cally Belcher (from a ruptured blood vessel in his brain last March) gives added purpose to a team that thrashed Youngstown 35-15 last year.
7. Eastern Kentucky
Unhappy in Happy Valley last autumn, Penn State quarterback John Sacca left football and embarked on a solitary sojourn to discover inner peace. Now he has found a Kentucky home under coaching legend Roy Kidd, who has 247 wins and has reached the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons. The 6'4", 225-pound Sacca has impressed his Colonel teammates with his humility, and he accepts that Kidd won't abandon his I-formation ground attack for anyone—not even for a quarterback who came from the big-time of Division I-A.
8. McNeese State
A perfect Saturday afternoon during the autumn in Lake Charles, La., invariably includes the following words: "The Cowboys trail, and it's getting late." Behind quarterback Kerry Joseph, who also throws the javelin on the track team, McNeese has won nine games in the final two minutes over the past two seasons. Joseph, a junior, runs and passes well out of the shotgun, but should he stumble. All-America kicker Jose Larios lends a sure foot.
9. Georgia Southern
The run-all-day Eagles and their flexbone offense are powered by a pair of slashing slotbacks—seniors Shafton Fraley and Chris Wright—who both averaged about seven yards a carry last fall. Relentless middle linebacker Paul Carroll sets the tone for the tone-setting defense: "Carroll won't stoop," drawls coach Tim Stowers.
10. Boston University
After a disheartening 3-8 season in 1992, the Terriers needed someone to somehow invigorate them. Enter quarterback Robert Dougherty, a transfer from College of the Sequoias, a junior college in Visalia, Calif. Ideal in coach Dan Allen's run-and-shoot offense, the 5'9" Dougherty and his forceful arm (he threw for 2,875 yards) led Boston University to its first undefeated season. The magical season continued in the playoffs, in which the Terriers rallied from a 21-6 deficit to beat Northern Iowa in overtime before losing to Idaho in the quarterfinals. Dougherty's back, and so is the magic.
Parker carries Marshall's hopes for a fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA title game.