The first half of the 1996 season offered several surprises: the revivals of Arizona State and Cal, a growing conviction that somebody other than a quarterback or running back should be able to win the Heisman, and even a Nebraska loss. Yet in other ways this fall seems indistinguishable from last. Four of the teams that were in the top five midway through last season are there again. Ohio State coach John Cooper is still baying at the injustice of a system that threatens to deprive the Buckeyes of a national championship even if they go undefeated. And the Cornhuskers, less than a month removed from their meltdown in the Arizona desert, are still contenders for the national title.
Here's a look back at the first half of the season and a glimpse of what might lie ahead.
The Three Worthiest Heisman Candidates
Danny Wuerffel: He wins, absorbs more punishment than most fans realize and is a big-game quarterback, last season's Fiesta Bowl fiasco by Florida notwithstanding. In the Gators' most important matchups so far this fall—a 35-29 win over Tennessee on Sept. 21 and last Saturday's 56-13 bludgeoning of LSU—Wuerffel completed 28 of 47 passes for 432 yards, with seven touchdowns and one interception.
Orlando Pace: He has given offensive linemen—and the word pancake—a cachet they previously lacked. In an SI poll of 40 college football players last month, seven listed the Ohio State tackle as the player on another team they would most look forward to watching. Only Florida State back Warrick Dunn (10 votes) received more nods. It's telling that only four of those voting for Pace were linemen.
Troy Davis: With his 130-yard performance against Texas A&M last Saturday, the Iowa State back became the first Division I player to rush for 1,000 yards in the first five games of two seasons. Questions about the level of competition Davis faces should be erased by games against Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas State in the season's final month.
The Three Biggest Surprises
Arizona State: The ease with which some offenses have moved the ball against the Sun Devils is unsettling ( UCLA had more than 300 yards in the first half of its 42-34 loss to Arizona State last Saturday), but if they beat USC at home this Saturday, they'll have a clear shot at going 11-0.
Army and Navy: Why are these teams a combined 9-1? "One advantage all the academies have is that discipline and working within a team framework is a central part of their everyday lives," says Army coach Bob Sutton. More significant, in recent years Army and Navy have followed the lead of Air Force, a 20-17 loser to Navy last Saturday, and attracted more high-caliber athletes than they had previously.
Columbia: The story of the Lions, only eight years removed from a 44-game losing streak, has the feel-good quality of Northwestern's resurgence, albeit on a smaller scale. With their 20-19 overtime win over Penn last Saturday, the Lions are 4-0 for the first time since 1945.