The college football season, which starts in stages, will go under a full flame this weekend. Most major teams are slated for action. Some Fortune 500 types have already got their cleats wet, and in big games, too.
Alabama beat Ohio State 16-10 in the Aug. 27 Kickoff Classic, then waltzed by Vanderbilt. Oklahoma, almost everybody's choice to defend its national championship, took on Rose Bowl champion UCLA last Saturday and came away a 38-3 winner. Miami, ranked No. 2 in the latest polls, knocked off rival Florida 23-15, and Nebraska defeated Florida State, 34-17, in a game that had a bizarre prelude.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association said Nebraska had to suspend 60 players for at least one game because of improper use of game passes. Tennessee found itself in a similar situation, and held 10 players out of its 35-21 victory over New Mexico, but Nebraska appealed and played with a full roster. The appeal was upheld this week, and the punishment was changed to loss of pass privileges.
Under NCAA rules, only family members and students may use player passes. Nebraska's own investigation indicated they were falling into the hands of girlfriends and family friends, but not being sold -- and the school argued successfully that such minor misdeeds warranted a lighter penalty than suspension.
Still, Nebraska coach Tom Osborne expressed concern about the negative attention the incident could engender. ``. . . every time you are involved in some kind of NCAA violation, there is always an assumption that there are a lot of heavy things going on,'' he said. ``It can hurt your recruiting and hurt your general image, which we have worked pretty hard to keep clean.''
The situation served as a reminder that big-time football programs, even when run by well-intentioned individuals, can easily spin out of control.
Some programs, most notably those at Southern Methodist and Texas Christian, have plunged into the icy waters of NCAA probations, and many others appear to be tippy-toeing on the edge of trouble.
Operating in a gray area, after all, is not all that unusual at the major-college level, where the temptations are great to keep up with the competition.
While aware of the excesses, the public generally seems unconcerned with them come Saturday, when millions simply want to watch good football.
The largest crowds are traditionally found in the Big Ten Conference, which has led the nation in attendance every year since records began being kept in 1957.
The University of Michigan sets a mean pace and should attract a crowd of 100,000-plus for the 67th straight time when the Wolverines host Oregon State in their home opener Sept. 20.
But first comes this Saturday's ballyhooed visit to Notre Dame, where new coach Lou Holtz tries to reteach the Fighting Irish to ``shake down the thunder.''
In case you'd forgotten (and wouldn't the subway alums love to?), Notre Dame ended its 1985 season with an ignominious 58-7 loss to Miami. Thus concluded the controversial five-year coaching term of Gerry Faust, who arrived from a high school job with tremendous enthusiasm, but little big-time football know-how, and whose 30-26-1 record didn't make it by Irish standards.
Holtz, on the other hand, has been around, and comes armed with plenty of savvy acquired touring America's football landscape, having honed programs at North Carolina State, Arkansas, and most recently Minnesota.
Faust, incidentally, has exited the limelight, but not the game. He has taken over at the University of Akron, where, in his debut, the Zips zapped outmanned Salem College 35-0 last weekend.
Coaching turnover has generally picked up since the end of last season, with about 1 of every 5 major-college teams under new leadership this year. The demands of the job make coaching a rather insecure calling, except at a place like Penn State, where Joe Paterno has become an institution.
The Nittany Lions hold the record for consecutive non-losing seasons with 47, and Paterno has been coaching at the school 36 of those years, including the past 20 as head coach. Last year he did a particularly masterful job, guiding his team to an 11-0 regular-season record following a disappointing 6-5 campaign.
Penn State lost to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, but looks loaded again in this, the school's 100th, football season, an event celebrated with three ``Century of Excellence'' banquets in August.
As far as current excellence is concerned, no team can outstrip small Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., which seeks to extend the nation's longest winning streak to 38 games when it faces Elmhurst Saturday.
There have only been three longer winning streaks in NCAA history at any level, the longest being the incredible 47 wins Oklahoma strung together under Bud Wilkinson from 1953 to 1957.
Oklahoma is on a modest nine-game roll now, but it may have the horses to at least temporarily approximate the Sooners' juggernaut of yore.
Sophomore Jamelle Holieway has emerged as the ideal person to operate the powerful wishbone running attack. He rushed for 120 yards a game after becoming the starter in last season's fifth game. As good as Holieway is, though, the real driving force is linebacker Brian Bosworth -- perhaps the most intimidating presence to lurk behind the line of scrimmage since Dick Butkus at Illinois.
Some are calling this the year of the linebacker, with a long list of standouts that includes Texas A&M's Johnny Holland, Ohio State's Chris Spielman, California's Hardy Nickerson, Air Force's Terry Maki, and Penn State's Shane Conlan.
These guys all stop people in their tracks, and sometimes even throw them in reverse.
As usual, however, there are plenty of players who know how to gain yardage, and with flair, too.
One guaranteed to receive a lot of attention is Michigan State's super junior, Lorenzo White, who led the nation in rushing last year with nearly 2,000 yards. His coach, George Perles, loves him -- and not simply for his skills on the field. ``Here's a kid who doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, doesn't cuss, and has his mother as his best friend,'' the Spartan mentor remarks.
Fourth in last season's Heisman Trophy balloting, White could become that rarity in the award's history -- a non-senior winner.
Some feel his main competition will come from Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who is helping the Hurricanes build a reputation for turning out superior passers (Jim Kelly and Bernie Kosar succeeded him).
And many other ball carriers or passers will be in the spotlight. Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh, last year's national passing efficiency leader, returns, as does Fresno State's Kevin Sweeney, who has a shot at breaking Doug Flutie's all-time total offense and passing yardage records. Alabama's Mike Shula, son of Miami Dolphins coach Don, is as heady a field general as you'll find. Running backs D. J. Dozier of Penn State, Thurman Thomas of Oklahoma State, and Steve Bartalo of Colorado State are also expected to do big things.