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College football takes center stage with full slate this weekend

By Ross AtkinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 11, 1986

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.

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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.