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THE TOP 20
Bruce Newman
September 05, 1988
The forecast for the fall: crowded, as usual, in the southeastern states, sunny and optimistic in Los Angeles and positively giddy in Florida. The outlook for the rest of the country is more unsettled. High-pressure situations—caused by severe schedules and turbulent quarterback situations—could send cold fronts sweeping across several campuses, casting a chill on travel plans for the New Year's holiday season
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September 05, 1988

The Top 20

The forecast for the fall: crowded, as usual, in the southeastern states, sunny and optimistic in Los Angeles and positively giddy in Florida. The outlook for the rest of the country is more unsettled. High-pressure situations—caused by severe schedules and turbulent quarterback situations—could send cold fronts sweeping across several campuses, casting a chill on travel plans for the New Year's holiday season

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For that to happen, Nebraska will have to muster outstanding performances from Terry Rodgers—son of Nebraska's 1972 Heisman winner Johnny Rodgers—who could challenge senior Tyreese Knox for the starting I-back position, and from 5'10", 240-pound middle guard Mike Murray, a walk-on who was once told he was too short to play major college football. "You'd like him to be a little bigger," concedes defensive coordinator Charlie McBride, "but he's all over the place." The Huskers just hope he's in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2, probably sitting on somebody's shoulders so he can see.

Texas A & M linebacker John Roper actually seems to prefer sitting on people's shoulders, or their sternums, or even their heads, if that's what it takes to get their attention. "I like to hear the air come out of the quarterbacks when I hit them," says Roper. Roper and Aaron Wallace—who collectively accounted for 180 tackles last season—spearhead the best collection of linebackers in the country. They'll get help from cornerback Alex Morris, who spent much of his time in opponents' backfields (eight sacks and three tackles for losses).

The Aggies began their season slowly on Saturday night in the Kickoff Classic, losing 23-14 to Nebraska. Bucky Richardson got the call from coach Jackie Sherrill at quarterback and responded by going 5 for 17, for 42 yards and two interceptions. Sherrill may be tempted to switch to sophomore Lance Pavlas. But the Roper-led defense forced four Husker fumbles. If the defense gets a little help from the offense, A & M will be hard to beat the rest of the way.

After three seasons spent either at or near the top of the weekly rankings, OKLAHOMA will not be making as strong a run at a national title this year. Only nine starters return, the fewest in 15 years, and for the first time since 1981 the Sooners will not have an All-Big Eight player returning on defense. But this is still Oklahoma, after all, where the depth chart reads like a Who's Who of Southwest high school football legends; where the '87 team's fourth-leading rusher. Patrick Collins, got drafted in the eighth round. So don't expect the Sooners to fall into the lower 10. Led by halfback Anthony Stafford, Oklahoma has the best collection of runners it has had in years, and in freshmen Mike Gaddis and Rod Fisher it will also have the big backs the Sooners have not had since the days (day?) of Marcus Dupree.

Clemson will once again defy conventional wisdom and prove that it can win with a quarterback of only modest skills. Senior Rodney Williams isn't quick and he doesn't have a great arm, but last year he led the Tigers to a 10-2 overall record and threw for 214 yards—56 of them to his favorite target, Gary Cooper—at the Florida Citrus Bowl in a 35-10 rout of Penn State. Williams gets to practice every day against the best defensive secondary in the country, which returns intact after allowing only 5.6 yards per reception in '87.

For IOWA to be a contender, quarterback Chuck Hartlieb will have to have the kind of year that people are expecting of Aikman and Peete, and there's no reason to believe he can't. Hartlieb languished on the bench in the early part of the season when all the attention was focused on alleged wonderboy Dan McGwire, who eventually flopped and transferred to San Diego State. At midpoint of a 9-3 season, Hartlieb erupted, passing for more than 300 yards on five occasions and rallying the Hawkeyes to come-from-behind, fourth-quarter triumphs four times. Forty-one Iowa lettermen return, among them running back Tony Stewart, and the schedule is favorable. "If there is still a Big Two in the Big Ten," says coach Hayden Fry, "we must be one of the two."

The other one is MICHIGAN STATE . In East Lansing there is talk of back-to-back Rose Bowl victories, something no Big Ten team has been able to accomplish since 1972, when the league first allowed a team to succeed itself in Pasadena. The veteran offensive line should do its part, particularly since the NCAA has cleared 6'6", 315-pound tackle Tony Mandarich to play the conference schedule. (Mandarich will have to sit out the first three games, all nonleague, as punishment for writing a letter to the NFL expressing his interest in adding his name to a supplementary draft, even though he withdrew the bid well before the draft.) With Mandarich around, quarterback Bobby McAllister might be able to throw long more often and take some pressure off the Spartans' running game, which is strong despite the loss of Lorenzo White, who carried the ball nearly 30 times a game last season. The defense is led by the rock-solid Percy Snow, who should probably be called Percy Sledge. "He's been blessed with the ability to really unload on people," says coach George Perles. Everybody say hallelujah, and pray for Snow.

And pray for NOTRE DAME while you're at it; the Irish have never been shy about accepting help in that department and, with seven '87 bowl teams on this season's schedule, they may need it. One miracle, divine intervention or not, has already come to pass in Indiana: Junior quarterback Tony Rice pulled passing grades in three summer classes and will be eligible to run (a lot) and pass (occasionally) for the Irish this fall.

The Irish defense should be much improved over the group that embarrassed itself in that 35-10 pasting by Texas A & M in the Cotton Bowl. The Irish have two first-rate linebackers in Ned Bolcar and Wes Pritchett, and experience in the secondary, but those units could suffer from overwork if a young line doesn't rise to the occasion. Mark Green, the team's leading rusher the last two seasons, returns at tailback, and coach Lou Holtz has moved sophomore Ricky Watters out from behind Green, where Watters was the team's second-leading rusher, to the flanker spot vacated by Heisman winner Tim Brown. " Ricky Watters is very much a Tim Brown-type player," says Holtz. "He's got Tim Brown instincts, he's got Tim Brown awareness...but I don't want to compare him to Tim Brown." Oh.

At GEORGIA there may be a lot of things going on this season that don't remind Bulldog fans of the past. Georgia coach Vince Dooley, who has returned for a 25th year despite heart problems that required three angioplasty procedures to clear arterial blockage, traditionally has chosen to build his offense around one dominant tailback. And though Rodney Hampton (7.1 yards per carry last season) could fill that role, Dooley has found himself with an abundance of talented running backs and a mobile quarterback. So, in short-yardage and goal-line situations, the Dawgs will run the wishbone. Senior Wayne Johnson, who beat out redshirt freshman Greg Talley for the quarterback job, is a conventional, drop-back passer, but he can motor when the occasion calls for it. The defense will also have a new look, going to a 3-4 alignment that will be revved up considerably by the presence of outside linebacker Richard Tardits, who grew up in France and once ran with the bulls in Pamplona.

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