Pitt takes college football leadership, with a self-conscious grin

Has a team ever risen more sheepishly or uncertainly to the top of both major wire service polls than the University of Pittsburgh? Probably not. Pitt very nearly lost to Boston College last week in a tremendous upset, yet remained undefeated as top-ranked Penn State lost to Miami of Florida. Consequently the Panthers moved up from No. 2, though not particularly gleefully.

Five teams have already found the air on football's summit too thin and repaired to lower ratings, if not off the charts entirely, as Notre Dame (3-4) has done.

Pittsburgh, which owns the nation's longest winning streak (14 games), stands a good chance to endure as the No. 1 team for several weeks. Having learned their lesson, the Panthers should bring new resolve to upcoming games against Rutgers, Army, and Temple. Getting up for Penn State, of course, is never any problem, and this year their Nov. 28 matchup could be a steppingstone to a national championship.

Pitt has won several over the years, including two under Coach Jock Sutherland during the 1930s. Those powerhouses shut out Notre Dame four times in five years, supposedly prompting the Fighting Irish to drop Pitt as an opponent.

A decade ago the Panthers revived their sagging football tradition under Johnny Majors, who brought Pitt a national championship in 1976 with Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett at running back.

Jackie Sherrill, an assistant coach who played a major role in recruiting Dorsett before leaving for Washington State, succeeded Majors when he moved to Tennessee in 1977. If anything, the program has grown stronger under Sherrill, whose coaching background also includes stints under Bear Bryant at Alabama and Frank Broyles at Arkansas.

As Pitt's head coach, he has guided the Panthers to 9-2-1, 8-4, and a pair of 11-1 seasons. Last year's squad wound up second in the polls and sent Heisman runnerup Hugh Green, a defensive lineman, and a flock of other players to the pros.

Despite the losses, Sherrill had plenty of talent waiting in the wings, plus a schedule ''concocted by a pastry chef'' - Sports Illustrated's way of alluding to the creampuffs.

Pushovers are a disappearing breed in today's college game, however, due largely to scaled-down scholarship limitations. Pittsburgh obviously found this out against Boston College.

And speaking of Boston College, it is impossible not to mention Doug Flutie, the Eagles' freshman quarterback. Last Saturday, in only his third start, the unheralded Flutie outplayed junior Dan Marino, the Pitt signal caller Sherrill compares favorably to a couple of his old college teammates at Alabama, Joe Namath and Ken Stabler.

Labeling Flutie ''a player to watch'' is risky business, considering how many young hot shots never really develop. But this one appears to have the poise, instincts, and arm that very few upperclassmen ever package.

At times, playing at Boston College can be a frustrating experience, with the school caught betwixt and between gaining respect facing nationally prominent opponents one week and lesser regional foes the next.

As a result of this roller-coaster scheduling, BC has been a rather erratic performer on the field. Flutie could help change that by eventually erasing the passing marks of such former Eagle stars as Jack Concannon, Gary Marangi, and Mike Kruczek. Some random notes

* Iowa has suddenly lost the inside track on a Rose Bowl berth by losing back-to-back games to Minnesota and Illinois. Not only that, the team's first winning season in 20 years is not even a certainty, with three games to go and the Hawkeyes 5-3.

* Miami's 17-14 upset of Penn State was good news for Hurricane fans, but only days later came the bad news. The school's football team has been put on probation for two years and barred from accepting a bowl bid this season. The National Collegiate Athletic Association took action because of numerous alleged recruiting violations.

* Georgia Tech, the only team to beat Alabama this season, has lost seven straight since its opening game upset.

* Only three of the nation's five unbeaten major college teams are ranked in the Top 20 - No. 1 Pittsburgh, No. 3 Clemson, and No. 18 Southern Mississippi, which has been tied. Playing in the shadow of the national polls are Yale (7-0) and Hawaii (6-0).

* Say what you will about the quality of Ivy League football, but never say it's uninteresting. Harvard Coach Joe Restic makes sure that doesn't happen by running an elaborate offense that finds even the quarterback going in motion.

* Northwestern would just as soon not set a record for futility this weekend. The Wildcats are one defeat shy of 29 straight losses, which would break the NCAA record held by Kansas State and Virginia. The first priority against Michigan State will be to score, which they haven't done in their last three games.

* Wake Forest Coach Al Groh could have accused Clemson of running up the score in last Saturday's 82-24 defeat. Instead, he said, ''It was our job to stop them, not their job to stop themselves.''

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