College football's battle for No. 1 looms as wild scramble again

Despite what some people might say, competitive parity hasn't really come to college football. Nobody is chanting ''We're No. 1'' at Northwestern, for example, and Texas-El Paso may not contend for national honors until the next millenium.

Still, the deck isn't as stacked as it used to be. The cards are better shuffled, and Perennial Power University often finds itself sharing the high ground with Nouveau Strong State.

No team has repeated as the country's No. 1 team since Alabama in 1978 and ' 79, and the the last four national champions were first-time titlists - Georgia in 1980, and Clemson, Penn State, and Miami thereafter.

Clemson and Miami, in fact, leaped over the Old Guard to the top, Clemson dispelling the notion that Atlantic Coast Conference football was second-rate and Miami distinguishing itself from its namesake school in Ohio, which probably had the better program for awhile.

Scholarship limitations have distributed the talent just enough to make for the delightful confusion we find this year, with hardly anyone agreeing on the pre-season favorite. The wire services picked Auburn, Sports Illustrated selected UCLA, and various other sources had Texas, Arizona State, Clemson, and Nebraska sitting on their prediction poles.

The divining rods were finally put away Aug. 27, when the 116th college football season commenced with the second annual Kickoff Classic, which highly touted Auburn lost to Miami 20-18 in the New Jersey Meadowlands.

The Hurricanes, it seems, had not blown out to sea after their dramatic upset of Nebraska in last January's Orange Bowl. Not even the defection of Coach Howard Schnellenberger to a pro job, which is now in limbo, could rattle the 'Canes, who have regrouped behind new mentor Jimmy Johnson and returning quarterback Bernie Kosar.

The first full week of action begins Saturday, with the regular season ending Dec. 1, but Miami has already notched two victories while most teams waited to take the field. The Hurricanes made amends for their only 1983 loss by beating intrastate rival Florida a week ago, and now seek to make it 3-0 against Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The strong start has led to their No. 1 ranking in the regular season's first Associated Press poll. Rounding out the top 10, in order, are Nebraska, Clemson , UCLA, Texas, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Auburn, Alabama, and Iowa.

If the Hurricanes should repeat as national champion, everyone from John Houseman on down will know they earned it.

Johnson has called his team's schedule ''the most difficult in college football this year and one of the most difficult I have ever seen.'' Few would argue. After three games in 12 days they still must play Purdue before opening at home against Florida State. Later opponents include Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Maryland, and Boston College.

Even if coaches cringe at such schedules, they are great for TV viewers, who relish big matchups and are expected to see more of them than ever before this year. That's because the National Collegiate Athletic Association has lost its power to control the TV rights of member schools, paving the way for individual institutions and groups of schools to draw up their own television deals.

The Big Ten and Pacific-10 Conferences have signed a contract with CBS, while the 63-member College Football Association has sold its wares to ABC and ESPN. And this only covers a specified 31/2-hour time slot each Saturday. Beyond that schools can hunt around for cable coverage whereever they find it.

If this sounds like a bonanza for the colleges, it really hasn't been. In fact, projected TV revenues could be halved for CFA schools, who will receive far less than they did under the old NCAA-negotiated contract.

Even so, landing on TV is still a plum, and the best teams and most exciting players have a way of attracting the network cameras.

ABC feels it's got a beauty this Saturday, when it televises Boston College at Alabama (9 p.m. EDT). The quarterback duel alone should be worth the price of admission, with Heisman Trophy candidate Doug Flutie taking the snaps for B.C. and Mike Shula, the son of Miami Dolphins Coach Don Shula, making his first start for the Crimson Tide.

Flutie, a nifty little field general who has been called the King of the Broken Play, has lifted Boston College up by his cleat straps during the past three seasons.

To some degree, what he's done at the Heights has lent prestige to Eastern football generally, which now boasts two other Heisman candidates in Navy running back Napoleon McCallum and Pitt lineman Bill Fralic.

The award, which goes to the nation's outstanding player, could find a whole host of players putting in bids before the season ends. Not the least of these will be Auburn's Bo Jackson, a runaway freight who reminds people of Herschel Walker. If Heisman voters should forget their predilection for running backs, though, Flutie or Miami's Kosar or even a dark horse quarterback like Iowa's Chuck Long could lead the voting.

Team-wise, a lot of folks will be keeping their eyes on Nebraska to see how the winningest team of the past five years does without its dream backfield, which made last season's squad one of the mightiest in many years. The 'Huskers are known for finding replacement parts. Their chief competition in the Big Eight probably will come from Oklahoma, which returns to the Wishbone attack this year, with Missouri given a chance to break up this traditional two-team party.

Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer could be on the spot if the Sooners don't end a ''three-year recession.'' But if Switzer feels the heat, Gerry Faust and Ted Tollner could feel more. Faust is in the fourth year of a five-year contract at Notre Dame, and the Irish have been little better than mediocre since he arrived. Under Tollner, Southern California turned in its first losing season in eons last year. The alums are restless. Of course, the old grads will be fidgety just about every place this Saturday, a sure sign the season is beginning.

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