No matter how scrambled the competition seems these days, at least one college football team traditionally finishes the regular season sunnyside up. Somebody in the major ranks has produced an unbeaten, untied campaign every year since 1936.
Nebraska and Texas turned the trick last season, before losing bowl games, and conceivably could do so again. However, their paths are more treacherous this time and a defeat may be hard to avoid for the first- and third-ranked teams.
So which schools stand the best chance of eluding the banana peel?
Clemson and Brigham Young, the Nos. 2 and 6 in this week's writers' poll, have to be the top candidates, with No. 5 Ohio State a reasonable dark horse.
Despite their best efforts, Clemson and BYU have sometimes been overlooked on the national scene. Clemson claimed an undisputed national championship only three years ago with a 12-0 record, but the Tigers quickly went into the closet when the NCAA meted out a two-year probation, which has meant no bowls or live TV, and cold-shoulder treatment from the UPI poll. The NCAA penalty will end Nov. 21, but the Atlantic Coast Conference will bar Clemson from making a post-season appearance for a third straight year.
Brigham Young's lack of visibility is more a case of geographical circumstance. The Cougars are based in Utah, which is off the beaten path, and play in the good, yet unglamorous Western Athletic Conference against the likes of Wyoming, Hawaii (Saturday's foe), and Colorado State. What attention they receive usually comes as the result of a prolific aerial attack, one that finds quarterback Robbie Bosco the latest in a lineage of fine passers.
In case you hadn't noticed - and most people haven't - BYU owns a 14-game winning streak that dates back to first game of last season and is currently the country's longest. There's no end in sight either, with eight WAC foes and outmanned Utah State left to play after victories over Pittsburgh, Baylor, and Tulsa.
Brigham Young and Clemson have owned their conferences in recent seasons, almost as much as Nebraska has in ruling the Big Eight with a 21-0 mark since 1981. BYU has won its league championship the last eight years, and Clemson is within a victory of tying Maryland's record 21-game ACC winning streak.
Clemson's biggest test of the season, and the one on which a perfect record could hinge, occurs this Saturday, when the Tigers travel to Athens, Ga. Their opponent, the University of Georgia, has one of its most inexperienced teams in years. Even so, Coach Vince Dooley has a knack for stamping out winners, and this year's squad got off to a good start two weeks ago by beating Southern Mississippi 26-19.
Then, too, Georgia is 15-1 against Clemson playing between the hedges of friendly Sanford Stadium. That record should negate any cockiness Clemson might feel about outscoring Appalachian State and Virginia 95-7 in its first two games. The Tigers shouldn't lack for confidence, though, not with an excellent field general in Mike Eppley, and a stingy defense led by 320-pound William Perry, whose nickname is ''The Refrigerator.''
After Georgia, the Tigers meet Georgia Tech in Atlanta, another game with potential trouble written all over it. The Yellow Jackets, after all, did upset Alabama last week. But before anyone jumps to conclusions, remember that Georgia Tech is no certified power, and, in fact, lost all 10 remaining games after upsetting Alabama in its 1981 season opener.
No. 4 Miami dropped out of the unbeaten, untied derby with a loss to Michigan , which in turn fell to the University of Washington. That, however, brings us to Ohio State's sixth-ranked Buckeyes, who may be capable of producing another 11-0 campaign, just like the one that began Earl Bruce's Ohio State coaching career in 1979. (That season ended, incidentally, with a Rose Bowl loss to Southern Cal).
Considering its rigorous round-robin against Big Ten rivals, OSU wouldn't seem to have much hope for a repeat of '79. But fans who jam the school's horseshoe stadium have several reasons for optimism. Not the least of these is a schedule that has Ohio State playing conference contenders Michigan, Iowa, and Illinois at home.
Further good news is the return of quarterback Mike Tomczak, who injured a leg in spring practice. He saw his first action of the season last week, when he helped guide the Buckeyes to an easy 44-0 victory over Washington State.
Besides Tomczak, though, Ohio State has a terrific running back in Keith Byars, a 6 ft. 2 in., 230-lb. junior who could become a serious Heisman Trophy candidate as the season progresses. After two games, he is among the leaders in the national ''Gallop Poll,'' with a 163 rushing yards per outing.
Byars, Tomczak, and Company face a major challenge this Saturday against Iowa , which is coming off a loss to Penn State. The Nittany Lions had looked uninspired in edging Rutgers the previous week, but they are historically dangerous on the road, particularly against teams that recently beat them at home, as Iowa did last year.