It looks like Tennessee's time in South; UCLA sniffing roses again

When Johnny Majors took the reins at his alma mater nine years ago, Tennessee backers envisioned almost an immediate return to the school's former football glory. It hasn't exactly worked that way. After twice earning national Coach of the Year honors at Pittsburgh, where his Panthers won the 1976 national championship, Majors has labored unsuccessfully to build Tennessee into a major national power. There have been no major bowl appearances, no Southeastern Conference championships, and no selection to any final Top 20 polls.

Now, at last, the 16th-ranked Volunteers are cornering some national attention. Quarterback Tony Robinson made the cover of Sports Illustrated after Tennessee upset Auburn in late September, and barring an upset, the Vols could wind up winning their first league title since 1969 and securing an automatic Sugar Bowl berth with victories in their last two games

Tennessee, 6-1-2 overall and 3-1 in conference play, finishes out its season against two of the SEC's weaker teams, Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Louisiana State and Alabama are still in the running too, but LSU is 4-1-1, Alabama 3-1-1, and those ties could make all the difference. (Despite a conference-leading 5-1 record, Florida is ineligible for both the SEC championship and post-season action as the result of an NCAA probation.)

Though Tennessee has the inside track in the conference race, there is one fly in the ointment. Robinson has been sidelined by an injury and won't return for the remainder of his senior season.

In Robinson's absence, however, senior Daryl Dickey has proved an adequate, if less flashy, replacement. Interestingly, his father, Doug, coached the Vols to their last SEC crown and is currently the school's athletic director. On Saturday, Daryl enjoyed his best day as a starter, completing 11 of 17 passes for 203 yards in Tennessee's 34-14 victory over Mississippi.

The offense also received a lift from Sam Henderson, a running back who fits in perfectly with this year's ``Refrigerator'' craze, caused by bulky pro lineman and cameo runner William Perry. Normally a fullback, the 250-pound Henderson scored his first touchdown runs in two years as a fill-in tailback.

Tennessee's young, untested defense, a question mark when the season began, has come on strongly and helped hold things together. Enthusiasm has grown for this unit, which is the focus of a name-the-defense contest in the Knoxville Journal. Among the names under consideration are Orange Swarm, Orange Peelers, and Orange Squeeze.

In case you hadn't guessed, orange is the school color, and Neyland Stadium turns into a sea of it on Saturday afternoons. The riverfront structure, named for former coach Bob Neyland, holds 91,249 spectators, making it the second largest on-campus stadium in the country.

This has been a very quiet year on the West Coast, with few teams or players making national waves. About the only exception is eighth-ranked UCLA, the Pacific-10 Conference's sole representative in the writers' latest Top 20 poll. By beating Southern California on Saturday -- a strong possibility given the disarray the Trojans find themselves in -- UCLA would secure its third Rose Bowl trip in the last four years. And whatever team the Big Ten sends to Pasadena, the Bruins stand a good chance of prevailing given their recent history. They are a spotless 4-0 in the Rose Bowl under Coach Terry Donahue, and they have earned New Year's Day bowl victories in each of the last three years, an achievement no other school can claim.MDNM

Donahue has rather quietly built a rock-solid program, one that has been a greater source of pride than the Bruin basketball team in recent years, a feat once hard to imagine. When hired as Dick Vermeil's successor in 1975, Terry was just 31, making him one of the youngest head coaches in the country. Now, 10 years later, he is the winningest football coach in the school's history.

Maybe the most remarkable indication of the Bruins' competitiveness in league play is not just their 32-9-5 record since 1980, but the fact that no defeat has been by more than a touchdown.

One luxury Donahue has enjoyed the last four years is an almost automatic placekicker in John Lee, a former member of the Korean national Little League baseball team. Although Lee's string of 22 straight field goals was broken last week, when he was 2-for-5 against Oregon State, he is now just one shy of tying the NCAA record of 78 career field goals set by Arizona State's Luis Zendejas in 1984.

This year's Bruins are a very well balanced team, a Donahue trademark. Both the offense and defense are ranked second statistically in the conference. UCLA has the league's most efficient passer in David Norrie and one of the circuit's exciting, young runners in Gaston Green. The defense, meanwhile, gives ground grudgingly and has not allowed a run longer than 16 yards all year.

Now that Boston College's Doug Flutie has turned pro, the East doesn't really have a quarterback who receives much national attention. What it does have, though, is perhaps the country's most underrated quarterback in Penn State junior John Shaffer, as well as an underclassman people may wind up talking about a lot over the next few years in Syracuse sophomore Don McPherson. Their styles are very different, Shaffer being a classic dropback passer, McPherson a wheel-and-deal option operative.In their own ways, however, each is a winner.

Certainly no one can argue that point about Shaffer. He has none of the glamrous statistics often associated with best players at his position, but obviously has the necessary intangibles. He is 12-0 as the starting quarterback of the top-ranked Nittany Lions and has been on the winning side in 53 consecutive starts, dating back to eighth grade.

His high school football, incidentally, was played at Cincinnati Moeller, where Gerry Faust, now the beleaguered coach at Notre Dame, was in charge. Against Faust's Fighting Irish last week, Shaffer led Penn State to a 36-6 victory, its most decisive of a 10-0 season.

McPherson, who is no relation to Syracuse head coach Dick MacPherson, started the season on the bench, but was inserted in the lineup as the team struggled early. Since taking over, the Orangemen have gone 5-1 and could be headed for the Cherry Bowl in Pontiac, Mich.

He is just what bowl selectors love, a guy who is fun to watch. When he keeps the ball, he has the instincts of an open-field runner and leads the team in rushing with 356 yards. But he is equally dangerous passing, as he showed in completing 12 of 18 attempts for 291 yards in last Saturday's win over Boston College.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.