The first half of the 1996 season offered several surprises: the
revivals of Arizona State and Cal, a growing conviction that
somebody other than a quarterback or running back should be able
to win the Heisman, and even a Nebraska loss. Yet in other ways
this fall seems indistinguishable from last. Four of the teams
that were in the top five midway through last season are there
again. Ohio State coach John Cooper is still baying at the
injustice of a system that threatens to deprive the Buckeyes of
a national championship even if they go undefeated. And the
Cornhuskers, less than a month removed from their meltdown in
the Arizona desert, are still contenders for the national title.
Here's a look back at the first half of the season and a glimpse
of what might lie ahead.
THE THREE WORTHIEST HEISMAN CANDIDATES
Danny Wuerffel: He wins, absorbs more punishment than most fans
realize and is a big-game quarterback, last season's Fiesta Bowl
fiasco by Florida notwithstanding. In the Gators' most important
matchups so far this fall--a 35-29 win over Tennessee on Sept.
21 and last Saturday's 56-13 bludgeoning of LSU--Wuerffel
completed 28 of 47 passes for 432 yards, with seven touchdowns
and one interception.
Orlando Pace: He has given offensive linemen--and the word
pancake--a cachet they previously lacked. In an SI poll of 40
college football players last month, seven listed the Ohio State
tackle as the player on another team they would most look
forward to watching. Only Florida State back Warrick Dunn (10
votes) received more nods. It's telling that only four of those
voting for Pace were linemen.
Troy Davis: With his 130-yard performance against Texas A&M last
Saturday, the Iowa State back became the first Division I player
to rush for 1,000 yards in the first five games of two seasons.
Questions about the level of competition Davis faces should be
erased by games against Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas State in
the season's final month.
THE THREE BIGGEST SURPRISES
Arizona State: The ease with which some offenses have moved the
ball against the Sun Devils is unsettling (UCLA had more than
300 yards in the first half of its 42-34 loss to Arizona State
last Saturday), but if they beat USC at home this Saturday,
they'll have a clear shot at going 11-0.
Army and Navy: Why are these teams a combined 9-1? "One
advantage all the academies have is that discipline and working
within a team framework is a central part of their everyday
lives," says Army coach Bob Sutton. More significant, in recent
years Army and Navy have followed the lead of Air Force, a 20-17
loser to Navy last Saturday, and attracted more high-caliber
athletes than they had previously.
Columbia: The story of the Lions, only eight years removed from
a 44-game losing streak, has the feel-good quality of
Northwestern's resurgence, albeit on a smaller scale. With their
20-19 overtime win over Penn last Saturday, the Lions are 4-0
for the first time since 1945.
THE THREE BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS
Southern California: The Trojans are college football's version
of Robert Downey Jr.: talented, tanned and possessed of an
appetite for self-destruction. Last season three USC players
were suspended for a total of 18 games for NCAA violations. This
fall six players have been suspended for a total of 10 games.
The Trojans are 4-2, with Arizona State, UCLA and Notre Dame
The Big 12: Its teams have lost all four of their games against
nonconference Top 25 foes. Especially egregious have been the
performances of the six teams in the South division (notably
Texas and Texas A&M), none of which are ranked in the Top 25.
Michigan: It's not the Wolverines' 4-1 record that's
disappointing, it's the all-too-familiar way they have put it
together: by winning a big one early, then blowing one by the
second week in October. Three weeks after a stunning road win
over Colorado on Sept. 14, Michigan squandered a 16-0
fourth-quarter lead and lost to Northwestern 17-16.
THE THREE TOP (TRUE) FRESHMEN
Andy Katzenmoyer: Everybody knew the Ohio State middle
linebacker was a player. After all, it had been more than two
decades since the Buckeyes had given Archie Griffin's number 45
to anyone. With 34 tackles and three sacks this season,
Katzenmoyer has at times been the best player on an excellent
defense. Late in the first quarter of Saturday's win over
Wisconsin, he stuffed tailback Carl McCullough for a seven-yard
loss on fourth-and-goal from the one. The play was crucial for
the Buckeyes in a 17-14 squeaker.
Chris Claiborne: The arrival of this Southern Cal middle
linebacker also was greatly anticipated. Keyshawn Johnson even
offered Claiborne his number 3 as an inducement to sign with
USC, although the school, which has the final say on such
matters, gave the number to wideout Billy Miller. Since becoming
a full-time starter three games ago, Claiborne has had 36
tackles and an interception.
Ron Dayne: How highly does Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez regard
his first-year running back? Against Ohio State, Alvarez started
the 5'10", 260-pound Dayne, who has 412 yards rushing and 5.3
yards per carry, over the talented McCullough, who rushed for
1,038 yards last season.
THE THREE BEST PLAYERS YOU NEVER HEARD OF
Jason Taylor: In the last two weeks four NFL personnel directors
and 13 scouts have passed through the Akron campus to get a peek
at the Zips' senior defensive end. Taylor, a likely low
first-round or high second-round pick in next April's NFL draft,
has given the visitors plenty to talk about: He has 45 tackles
and seven sacks this fall.
Brandon Stokley: To avoid accusations of nepotism, Southwestern
Louisiana coach Nelson Stokley tried to steer his son toward
another program two years ago. When no other Division I school
offered Brandon a scholarship, his dad took him on but refused
to start him last season. Nevertheless, Brandon led the team
with 75 catches, an NCAA record for freshmen. This fall Brandon
is starting at wide receiver and is averaging 125.5 yards
receiving per game, third best in the nation.
Damon Jones: With his 4.7 speed in the 40 and with Downy-soft
hands, the Southern Illinois tight end will likely be drafted no
later than the second round.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH IN THE SECOND HALF
Two-Way Players: Nobody will mistake today's two-way players for
Chuck Bednarik or even Deion Sanders. However, 23 Division I
players have gone both ways in the same game so far this year,
an increase of 11 from last fall. While the most famous double
threat is Pace, who is used as a defensive lineman in short
yardage and goal line situations, cornerbacks have enjoyed the
most crossover success. Michigan's Charles Woodson (93 yards
rushing), Kansas State's Chris Canty (two catches for 48 yards)
and Louisville's Sam Madison (three catches, 143 yards and a
touchdown) are among the standouts.
The New Overtime Rule: Evoking thoughts of hockey and soccer
shoot-outs, overtime has provided an unmistakable element of
entertainment. Case in point: Florida A&M's 59-58 six-OT win
over Hampton on Oct. 5, after the game was tied 20-20 at the end
of regulation. Although Texas's 30-27 loss to Oklahoma last
Saturday was the first OT game involving a Top 25 team, expect
to see other games between ranked teams extend beyond the fourth
quarter come bowl time.
A Not-So-Happy New Year: Even if Ohio State goes unbeaten, the
Buckeyes will probably be ranked No. 2 behind the winner of the
Florida-Florida State game on Nov. 30. The Buckeyes then would
play in the Rose Bowl, while the Gators-Seminoles winner would
go to the Sugar Bowl, designated by the bowl alliance system as
this season's national-championship game. That could put Ohio
State in the same position in which Penn State found itself
after the '94 season, when it had gone 12-0 but didn't win the
national title because No. 1 Nebraska beat Miami in the Orange
Bowl, while the No. 2 Nittany Lions were relegated to the Rose
Bowl by the Big Ten's decision not to participate in the
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE Wisconsin's Dayne (33) got a load of two-way Buckeye Pace (left). [Orlando Pace and Ron Dayne in game]