Poor Donnie Edwards. There he was late last Saturday afternoon, standing on the rug at the north end of Nebraska's Memorial Stadium, just flat befuddled. Losing he could handle. Number 13 UCLA was on the road at second-ranked Nebraska, and, hey, it happens. But 49-21, and really not even that close? "I can't believe we lost by this many points," said Edwards, a Bruin linebacker. Donnie, buddy: Read the papers. Watch SportsCenter. Inside all those colorful graphics there's some serious arithmetic going down in the Top 25.
Just about the time that Edwards was first pancaked by one of Nebraska's frightfully nimble 300-pound offensive linemen, No. 6 Penn State was hanging 45 points on Iowa in less than 30 minutes en route to a 61-21 starching in Happy Valley. And even as Edwards turned to leave the field, top-ranked Florida was in Knoxville, laying waste to all manner of myth about its incompetence on the road. "Twenty-four nothing, Florida, first half," squawked a radio in Lincoln, eliciting a soft groan from poll-conscious Nebraska fans, resigned to their Cornhuskers' remaining No. 2 for another week. And as Saturday night slipped away in Boulder, reserve quarterback Koy Detmer threw a short touchdown pass to tight end Christian Fauria, finishing seventh-ranked Colorado's 55-17 humiliation of No. 10 Wisconsin.
To review: That's last season's Rose Bowl participants, UCLA and Wisconsin, going into Saturday's games unbeaten only to be humbled by a combined score of 104-38. That's Iowa, a proud program that squeaked into a minor bowl last year and opened this season 2-0 against patsies, tying Roger Maris on defense. That's Tennessee, another Top 25 squad, swallowing a bagel at home.
So don't feel so bad, Donnie. Time was when a nice double-digit ranking was worth something, when No. 16 could play No. 5 and the game would be decided by fewer than six touchdowns. With scholarship reductions, theory had it that the age of parity was upon us. You know the drill: "On any given day...." Well, theory had it wrong. There is no Top 25, there is a Top 8, six of whom are members of the Blowout Bunch. On any given day, you can get your tail whipped by 10 touchdowns, which is just what happened to Kentucky on Sept. 10, when the Wildcats followed an emotional win over Louisville with a 73-7 loss to Florida.
It is possible early this season to take a rebuilding project on the road, the way John Robinson took USC to Penn State, and fall behind by five touchdowns before losing 38-14. And it is possible for a resurrected program to visit old burial grounds, the way No. 5 Miami did at Sun Devil Stadium, and to so thoroughly stomp on a respectable opponent—47-10 over Arizona State—that Hurricane wideout Jonathan Harris said, "I ain't going to say we're back, because we ain't never left."
How long does a blowout take? Check out the Penn State-Iowa game. Sometimes it takes only the first quarter.
Less than three minutes gone. Senior quarterback Kerry Collins hits senior tailback Mike Archie with a 20-yard pass. Brett Conway kicks the point after, and it's 7-0, Nittany Lions.
Five minutes later, Archie breaks through the line of scrimmage, fakes out Hawkeye corner-back Damien Robinson and springs 35 yards to the end zone. Lions, 14-0.
It takes all of another 1½ minutes for Penn State to block an Iowa punt and for Lion senior outside linebacker Phil Yeboah-Kodie to get his hands on the ball in the end zone. Conway's kick is good, and it's 21-0.
With 5:31 to go in the quarter, after a Yeboah-Kodie fumble recovery. Penn State senior tailback KiJana Carter sprints 41 yards untouched for a touchdown. Make it 28-0.
Fifty-six seconds left in the period. Four-yard run by Carter. Conway kick. It's 35-0.
Three weeks into the season, six teams have scored enough points every time out to beat Princeton in basketball. There is Florida, which took a 71.5 average into the Tennessee game. There is Penn State, which has outscored Big Ten opponents Iowa and Minnesota by 117-24. (On Oct. 1, the Nittany Lions play Temple. Lay the 65½.) There is Florida State, perhaps so weighed down by negative publicity that its average margin of victory in three games is only 32 points. There's also Miami, which is averaging 51.5 points; Colorado, which turned Wisconsin into the walkover it promised to be when the game was scheduled in 1990, back before the Badgers got better; and Nebraska, which began emptying its bench one play into the fourth quarter, already leading UCLA 49-14.
Two other teams belong among the elite, but both No. 4 Michigan and No. 9 Arizona (SI's preseason No. 1—you didn't think we were ready to bail out just yet, did you?) hang on the periphery of the sluggers because they keep track of their points on regular scoreboards and not on CD-ROMs. Between them, the biggest blowout was Arizona's 44-0 win over the same New Mexico team that lost to Florida 70-21.
How to explain these beatings and the sudden chasm separating the teams at the top of the polls from the second-tier teams? In some cases it's easy. Florida State is Florida State, bruised by scandal but still bursting with talent. Ditto for Miami, whose tumble may indeed have been prematurely declared. But the next few weeks will tell, because the Hurricanes are about to play Washington (Saturday), Florida State (Oct. 8) and Virginia Tech (Oct. 29), all at home. Miami's toughest road game is at rebuilding Syracuse (Nov. 5), where the Hurricanes will very likely be a two-touchdown favorite.
In other cases, good programs simply have peaked. Witness Florida and Nebraska, which have already traded places atop the AP poll. Florida coach Steve Spurrier knows he can no longer coach offense, ignore defense and ride heavy on quarterbacks. This year he has switched defensive coordinators and gotten the expected superb play from quarterback Terry Dean. A shutout at Tennessee, even a wounded Tennessee? Unthinkable. "Our defense," said tackle Ellis Johnson after making it thinkable, "is definitely picking it up." This is the single most daunting signal of the season.
Nebraska, meanwhile, looks only like a better version of itself. Its offensive linemen are typically hulking (three starters weigh 300 or more, two others are at 280), but four of them can dunk a basketball, and the fifth, Rhodes scholar candidate Rob Zatechka, runs the 40-yard dash in 5.06. They rolled over UCLA's defense for 484 yards on the ground. "We'd just smash them off the ball, drive them back 10 yards, get up and celebrate," says Nebraska guard Joel Wilks.
There is a little of the smash-drive-and-celebrate at Penn State, too, as Carter runs behind a veteran offensive line. There is also Collins throwing to dangerous wide-outs Bobby Engram and Freddie Scott. The Nittany Lions have scored on their first two drives in all three games. The blowout first quarter against the Hawkeyes was the Lions' highest-scoring first period since 1968, when they poured 35 on Pitt en route to a perfect season. "I can't find any weaknesses with Penn State," Iowa coach Hayden Fry said Saturday. "This club has got it all."
But if you really insist on mining for warts, Penn State's defense is mediocre. So is Colorado's, but when you can score 55 against a Wisconsin team that is expected to contend for the Big Ten championship, mediocre defense is more than good enough.
As for the rest of the season, it works two ways.
The good news. Only one of the top eight teams, Arizona, doesn't have to play any of the others. Colorado plays two (Michigan and Nebraska on the road) and also travels to No. 15 Texas. Florida State plays at Miami, takes on Florida at home and also faces Notre Dame in Orlando. The upshot of this scheduling is that much of the warp-drive offense we have seen will be brought into sharper focus during an eight-week period that begins next Saturday when Colorado visits Michigan.
The bad news. Even though these head-to-head matchups likely will pare down the roster of the elite, there are numerous permutations that could get us to the New Year without a clear national championship game. That would leave the ultimate decision of who's No. 1 in the hands of—shudder, loud cymbal crash—the Voters. But let's not pull out the calculators just yet; any man speaking the words bowl coalition in September should be strapped to a goalpost and pelted with oranges.
The season is young. There is time aplenty for upsets, for some interloper to crack the Elite Eight and restore some credibility to hypotheses of parity. Perhaps Kansas State, which has a 14-0-1 home streak but hasn't beaten Nebraska in Manhattan (where the two teams meet Oct. 15) since 1959. Perhaps Notre Dame (the Fighting Irish as interlopers—is that wild?) will beat Florida State. USC and UCLA both have to play Arizona. Relax, there's time.
But for now, in the early days of fall, there is a clear gulf between this one group of teams and all the rest. UCLA had been expected to challenge for the national title, but the Bruins left Lincoln a sobered group. "After a performance like that," Edwards said, "I guess you'd have to say we're not national championship contenders."
Cheer up, man. Who is a contender? It's a small group at the top.
Nebraska I-back Damon Benning somersaulted into the end zone for six of the Cornhuskers' 49 points against UCLA.
Before Wisconsin could say "Whoa," quarterback Kordell Stewart and Colorado were off to the races.
Stop Gator tailback Elijah Williams? There were no Volunteers for the job.
E.G. Green's 15-yard touchdown catch got the Seminoles started in their rout of Wake Forest.
Penn State's Carter found the end zone twice; Iowa defenders may still be looking for him.