College football '99: a coach's game
How do you predict success on the field? Look for a team led by
COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — At a banquet celebrating the creation of the Mountain West Conference, the nation's 12th major college football conference, Brigham Young University coach LaVell Edwards had a smile so big it looks as if his face might crack.
Thrilled with the new league - longtime friends and rivals Air Force Academy, BYU, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV, Utah, and Wyoming - Edwards, entering his 28th year as head coach in Provo, Utah, chortled, "When you get to be my age, it's really great to have something to be excited about."
The audience bursts into laughter. That's because everyone knows that as life whipsaws and too often defeats, it gets harder to be excited. But, somehow, it's seldom hard to be excited about the college football season.
The years can't dim the joy of anticipating - be still our hearts - Michigan-Ohio State, Alabama-Auburn, Texas-Oklahoma, USC-UCLA, Army-Navy, Texas A&M-Texas, Florida State-Florida. Even after years of distressing news of illegalities and inexcusable shenanigans, the college game endures and prospers.
Among the 10 best teams this year, there is a common thread: veteran coaches, who average 14.8 years as the boss. At the college level, the head man still seems to hold enormous sway and influence - with the players, with university administrators, with the fans.
It will be the 12th of Never before football followers forget about Alabama's "Bear" Bryant, Nebraska's Tom Osborne, Texas's Darrell Royal, or Arkansas's Frank Broyles. But this is not the first rodeo for the coaches of this year's Top 10, either. A number of them are legends in waiting themselves.
1. FLORIDA STATE
The Seminoles are coached by Bobby Bowden, in his 24th year as Seminole coach, 34th overall as a head coach. Bowden is wily, crafty, funny, grandfatherly - and very, very good.
Bowden looks in control these days, and a tad bit smug, as well he should. This could be his best team ever. His previous teams have finished fourth or better in the national rankings for 12 straight seasons.
So good is FSU that one of Bowden's sons, Tommy, who coaches at Clemson, tells everyone his dad has no excuse for a less than perfect season. The offense should blaze, with Heisman Trophy candidate Peter Warrick at wide receiver and Chris Weinke at quarterback, assuming his neck injury isn't a problem. The defense, anchored by lineman Corey Simon, looks as if it belongs in the NFL.
2. PENN STATE
The Nittany Lions are coached by Joe Paterno, with 34 years as head coach and 50 years on the staff. No words do credit to Joe Pa, a man with all-American character to go with extraordinary football savvy. While other coaches say they must adjust to the times and freewheeling attitudes of players, Paterno will have none of it. His view is the players can adjust to him. They do. That's why, within about a year and a half, Paterno will pass Bryant as the winningest major college coach in history.
Just how stable is Penn State? Offensive coordinator Fran Ganter has been an assistant in State College, Pa., for 28 years, defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky for 31.
The Nittany Lions will win the Big 10 - the toughest conference in the nation - because they have the best offensive line in the league and because they get to play Ohio State and Michigan at home. Just as helpful: They don't have to play the league's second-best team, Wisconsin. The team anchors are two phenoms at linebacker, talk-all-the-time LaVar Arrington and wrong-side-of-the-tracks Brandon Short.
Penn State's ripping 41-7 win over supposed national championship contender Arizona last Saturday sends a serious shot across the bow of all others who envision themselves as contenders for the national title.
The Gators are coached by Steve Spurrier, beginning his 11th year as boss, 14th year overall.
There's long been a wide body of thought that Spurrier is the best coach in the game. He seems content with the accusation. Proof: Spurrier long ago searched for the best offensive coordinator. He settled on himself.
Spurrier's arrogance would peel paint if it weren't for his laudable ability to rack up wins.
The problem this year is that while Florida will be able to whip 10 teams on its schedule, it won't be able to handle the 11th - Florida State. Spurrier intimidates almost every other coach around, except Bobby Bowden. Most of Florida's difficulties are on defense, where all seven starters up front on defense from last year are gone. Perhaps most seriously, so is former defensive coordinator Bob Stoops, who's the new head coach at Oklahoma.
The Volunteers are coached by Phillip Fulmer, beginning his eighth year, following 19 years as an assistant coach, 13 of them in Knoxville, Tenn. The Vols upset Florida State last January to win the national championship. It was semi-vindication for Fulmer who, perhaps unfairly, is not regarded as one of the land's premier coaches by insiders.
The good news is that Tennessee has wheelbarrows full of talent, including quarterback and Heisman candidate Tee Martin, who plays behind a solid offensive line. The defensive line needs to grow up fast, but linebacker Raynoch Thompson, likely the hardest hitter in the college game, can cover up plenty of shortcomings. The biggest hurdle is that the Vols have to go to Gainesville Sept. 18 to play Florida, where they haven't won since 1971.
Here's how you know how that game will turn out: Fulmer hopes he can win. Spurrier knows he will.
The Cornhuskers are coached by Frank Solich, an assistant for 19 years heading into his second year in charge.
Nebraska was 9-4 last season, a satisfactory season most places but a debacle of extraordinary proportions in Lincoln. Whispers instantly started that maybe Solich is another of those terrific assistants who is not of head coach caliber. This year will be important to Solich's job security.
Fortunately for him, he has plenty of talent, especially quarterbacks Bobby Newcombe and Eric Crouch. However, three of the four starters in the defensive line are gone. Best of all for Nebraska, the Big 12 is not up to its usual standards. Kansas State, following its miraculous climb to the conference championship game last season, is sinking. Texas will be excellent a year from now, and Colorado needs more than fine tuning. Only Texas A&M poses trouble.
"We just need to go out and play good football," Solich says. That would be a major change from last year.
The Badgers are coached by Barry Alvarez, in his 10th year as head coach.
Slowly, methodically, Wisconsin has moved to among the elite of the Big 10. Twice in the last six years, it has gone to the Rose Bowl - and won. And Alvarez is coaching better and with more dedication after being passed over to be head coach at Notre Dame, a job to which many thought he was heir apparent.
The team is solid, but the big story is Ron Dayne, the running back who plays like a road grader, which is why he's the early choice to win the Heisman. In the Rose Bowl last January, Dayne ran for 246 yards and four touchdowns in a win over UCLA. He could have been a high draft choice of the pros, but chose to come back to Madison for his final year.
Good choice. He needs just 499 yards to surpass Archie Griffin of Ohio State as the league's all-time leading rusher. Conceivably, he could rush for 1,717 yards and become college football's most prolific runner ever.
7. TEXAS A&M
The Aggies are coached by R.C. Slocum, in his 11th year.
Slocum is an extremely able coach, but fans haven't always thought so. Regardless, he perseveres. It's a tribute to the depth he has created that his team is highly thought of this season despite losing all manner of stars from last year, when the Aggies were Big 12 champs.
Randy McCown should be a vastly improved quarterback. Someday running back Dante Hall will make Sundays wonderful for some NFL team. So will fullback Ja'Mar Toombs. Punter Shane Lechler can correct offensive ills with one swing of his leg.
The Wolverines are coached by Lloyd Carr, in his fifth year, an assistant for 16 years before.
Michigan probably won't end up in the Top 10. But it is one of the nation's Top 10. Confused? See, Michigan - to its enormous credit - plays a difficult nonconference schedule, including Notre Dame and Syracuse. That it schedules itself like this is something others need to take a lesson from.
A memo to athletic directors: Fans like good games. Michigan could be 1-2 after the first three weeks and still be a fine team. Meanwhile, UCLA schedules Boise State and Fresno State.
The Wolverines also are coping with an off-season of misbehaving players. They need inspired effort from running back Anthony Thomas, who has starry talent but often seems to run as if he'd rather not. And while the Wolverines have an alarming tendency to give up big plays, they do have decent quarterbacks. Of course, better than having decent QBs is to have one really good QB, which they don't.
9. OHIO STATE
Buckeyes head coach John Cooper is in his 12th year (23 years total as a head coach).
Folks in Columbus continue having trouble getting used to the idea that the late Woody Hayes isn't still the coach. Hayes's last year was 1978. Like Slocum at Texas A&M, Cooper has done a laudatory job but has had a hard time winning over detractors.
Last year, the Buckeyes were 11-1 in the regular season, which wasn't good enough to get them to the national championship in Tempe, Ariz. This season, they'll line up without five all-Americas, including three who were first round pro picks, and with big concerns at quarterback. But OSU is one of those places where there is no rebuilding, only reloading.
The Razorbacks are coached by Houston Nutt, in his second year in charge in Fayetteville and his seventh overall as a head coach.
This is a long shot. Yet the Hogs have 22 seniors and many strengths. Returning QB Clint Stoerner returns off a good year in '98 and looks much improved. He is surrounded by talented receivers, probably too many to keep happy. Arkansas long has been way too slow. No more. Two big problems could be a young offensive line and an iffy kicking game.
It will be rough early when the Hogs play at Alabama. But there's good news later when Tennessee has to come to Arkansas to play.
A key will be to win a lot early. With so many seniors, the veterans might give up if there are too many early loses.
While there is no guarantee Florida State will win it all, at least it's certain that No. 1 will emerge from this group of 10, right? Nope.
The season's twists and turns can derail anybody. Suddenly, a team thought to be lying roadside in the weeds can jump up and start strutting in prime time. Maybe Edwards and BYU? Sure. In an odd turn of events in 1984, the Cougars found themselves national champs without appearing in a major bowl game.
Others looking nifty early: Georgia Tech, Miami, UCLA, Georgia, Virginia Tech, and Alabama. So now all bases are covered? Not necessarily ... which is why fall Saturdays definitely are something to be excited about.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society