College football 1985: battle for No. 1 appears wide open again
New Englanders are fond of saying, ``If you don't like the weather, wait a minute.'' The region's fickle weather has nothing on college football, though, which is just as chameleon-like. With a rapidly changing cast of characters, each season naturally takes on a different look. And with the greater competitive balance that has come into the game, it is harder and harder to predict what this look will be.
Last season, for example, hardly anyone imagined that Brigham Young would go undefeated and earn the No. 1 ranking, or that former lightweights Army, Texas Christian, and Virginia would go to post-season bowls, while traditional heavyweights Penn State, Pittsburgh, and Alabama stayed home.
The last five national champions, in fact, have all been first-time winners -- Georgia, Clemson, Penn State, Miami, and BYU.
So who will it be this year?
Possibly Maryland, a team that has never ventured to the top, but is loaded with talent. Or maybe Washington or Auburn, a pair of recent powers that are the respective pre-season choices of Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News.
Resurgent Southern California, which came out of the NCAA's penalty box last year to win the Rose Bowl, is in the picture again, as is Oklahoma. So too are Southern Methodist and Florida, two schools which are ``serving time'' for NCAA violations and cannot go to bowl games.
These deliquents will go ignored by the coaches in UPI's weekly poll. The writers, however, will continue to consider them in voting for the AP's Top 20.
The major reason college football is so hard to figure these days is the parity brought on by scholarship limitations, which have essentially legislated the wider distribution of talented players. The limitations have been in place for awhile, but each year the coaches claim their impact becomes more apparent.
The trend toward passing has enhanced this egalitarianism too.
``The best way -- maybe the only way -- to beat teams that are stronger than you are is with the pass,'' says BYU Coach LaVell Edwards, a long-time advocate of flying the friendly skies to victory.
The theory is that a good quarterback and a few good receivers can do wonders -- and skilled players at these positions are in greater supply than ever before.
After eight consecutive years of increased passing yardage at the major college level, the statistics took a slight dip last year. Some have interpreted this as the first sign that the pendulum may start swinging back to greater emphasis on running the ball. Football, after all, has historically been a cyclical game.
Interestingly, however, the coaches themselves can't seem to agree on what the game's future direction will be. In an NCAA survey, 67 percent predicted passing would increase, partly because liberalized blocking rules make it easier to protect the passer. A significant number, though, see run-oriented attacks returning to fashion, since blockers will be able to extend their arms on running as well as passing plays. This might make for a safer, less collision-filled game, but there is growing concern th at the rules now encourage clutch-and-grab football.
Some coaches even believe illegal use of the hands is taught at certain schools, partly because referees are hard pressed to detect it amid the blur of bodies. ``I don't fault the officials,'' says Minnesota Coach Lou Holtz. ``Everything is so rapid, it's unbelievable. But if we don't do something about it, we'll soon have the players cuddling.''
There won't be much of that on the field tonight, when Brigham Young takes on Boston College in the Kickoff Classic at the Meadlowlands in New Jersey. BYU, nine-time defending champion of the Western Athletic Conference, hopes to extend the nation's longest winning streak to 25 games against a team that may be emerging as the Notre Dame of the East.
The matchup would be even more appealing if B.C. still had Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie at quarterback. The Eagles, however, are eager to prove that they can be just as effective with 6 ft. 4 in. Shawn Halloran replacing Flutie.
BYU lost a fair number of players, but not its most important one, quarterback Robbie Bosco. Last year, as a junior, he finished third in the Heisman balloting. This season his considerable skills will be put to the test against a beefed up schedule that includes UCLA and Washington.
With Flutie and Miami's Bernie Kosar playing professionally, Bosco appears the class of the the '85 quarterbacking class.
Based on what they've seen of Iowa's Chuck Long, folks in the Hawkeye State probably wouldn't agree. Long recovered from injuries to throw for six touchdowns against Texas in last season's Freedom Bowl, then passed up the NFL draft. ``The Rose Bowl means a lot more to me than money,'' he says.
There's certainly no assurance he'll make it to Pasadena, though, not when last season's Big Ten champion, Ohio State, returns Heisman runner-up Keith Byars to its backfield. Byars won the ballcarriers' triple crown last year by leading the nation in rushing, scoring, and all-purpose running, which includes yards gained rushing, receiving, and returning kicks.
Actually, there is a surplus of riches at running back this year, with five consensus All-Americas dotting the landscape. Byars, Texas Christian's Kenneth Davis, and Washington State's Rueben Mayes achieved that status in '84, while Auburn's Bo Jackson and Navy's Napoleon McCallum, back after injury-shortened seasons, were All-Americans in '83.
The well doesn't run dry there, either. Nebraska has Doug DuBose, Penn State D. J. Dozier, Iowa Ronnie Harmon, SMU Reggie Dupard, LSU Dalton Hilliard, Boston College Troy Stradford, and Notre Dame Allen Pinkett, who leads all current players in rushing yards with 3,031.
After four so-so seasons, Notre Dame isn't attracting the attention of yore. The school has been patient with Coach Gerry Faust, but some think he now will repay it with a big season or be gone.
At Grambling, Eddie Robinson is under no such pressure, except that provided by the record books. With four more wins the veteran coach will surpass Bear Bryant's all-time high of 323.
At Louisville, Howard Schnellenberger has been given the job of building a winning tradition where none previouisly existed. Cardinal rooters hope he still possesses the Midas touch, which he used to turn Miami's Hurricanes into national champions two years ago.
Bobby Ross obviously has the knack at Maryland. His Terrapins were the Comeback Kids of 1984, rebounding from 31- and 21-point deficits to beat Miami and Tennessee. Maryland is seeking a third straight Atlantic Coast title, but first must play Penn State in an important Sept. 7 opener. The Nittany Lions own a 27-1 advantage in the series.
Last year, the Pac-10 proved that reports of its demise were greatly exaggerated when USC, UCLA, and Washington won major bowl games. This trio should carry the conference's banner high again.
As usual, Oklahoma and Nebraska are the teams to beat in the Big Eight, where Oklahoma State is bidding to join them. The Southwest has become one of the hardest leagues of all to call, but SMU, Arkansas, and Houston appear to have the inside track. In the Big Ten it's expected to be dogfight among Illinois, Iowa and Ohio State. With Florida ineligible for the Southeastern Conference title, Auburn should emerge as the winner, while Florida State, Miami, and South Carolina shine as the region's best in dependents.