Let's be honest about this. Either something very peculiar is going on or a lot of people are suffering the effects of global warming in their hats. This season's college football Top 20 is ruled by the sun kings of the sport. The top four teams—Florida State, Miami, UCLA and USC—play in places where people have traditionally gone to get away from where they play good college football. Places where your sun tan lotion SPF rating has usually mattered more than your Top 20 ranking.
Barring a total eclipse of the sun, the best college football this season will be played in Tallahassee, a town where the average high temperature during the three football months is 79�.
is No. 1, and the Seminoles will almost certainly hang on to that lofty ranking at least until this Saturday, when they play Miami in their very first game of the season to decide who has the nation's best team. Thanks to the network television folks, who evidently just couldn't bear the suspense and moved this climactic contest to the top of the schedule, the winner will deserve to be called the supreme and undisputed sun king of the sport—at least until Nov. 19, when UCLA and USC stage their own duel in the sun.
For the Seminoles and their All-America cornerback Deion Sanders, playing Miami, the national champion, on the road and with their top ranking at stake is the kind of challenge they relish. Sanders, whose nickname is Prime Time, owns enough hats to cover two walls of his room, and they are always worn cockeyed. "That's just me," he says. "I can't wear a hat straight on." Or a ballcarrier. Sanders loves verbally baiting opposing ballcarriers, although he adheres to a strict code of ethics. "I won't say anything about a player unless I have a quote already, him about me," he says. Sanders and the ominously monikered Stan Shiver, a savage tackier at strong safety, will make the Seminoles' defense tough to crack.
If there is a question about Florida State, it is at quarterback. Danny McManus is gone, so his backup, senior Chip Ferguson, and junior Peter Tom Willis will probably alternate on a yank-the-struggling-starter basis. With Sammie Smith, who rushed for 123 yards per game last year, to hand off to, and with 300-pound offensive tackle Pat Tomberlin anchoring a line that allowed only six quarterback sacks during the regular season, it might not matter much who plays quarterback.
, of course, it always matters intensely who plays quarterback, and this year even more so. With the emergence of junior quarterback Steve Walsh, nobody left games last fall talking wistfully about the likes of Kelly, Kosar and Testaverde. Walsh threw for 2,249 yards and 19 touchdowns, and he showed an uncanny ability to audible the perfect play at the line of scrimmage. "We're not a 10-2 team," Walsh says serenely. "That wouldn't be successful."
Of course, that might not even be realistic with a road schedule that includes Michigan. Notre Dame and LSU, but the Hurricanes are road warriors, winners of 19 straight away from home, the best visiting record in the land. And coach Jimmy Johnson has built such a powerhouse that those sober "starters lost" figures don't mean a thing in Miami. The 'Canes rolled up so many lopsided scores last season that the subs saw nearly as much playing time as the first-stringers, and there is a defensive front wall that Johnson believes may be the best he's ever had. The cornerstone of that line is defensive end Bill Hawkins, who will start work on a master's degree in business this fall. Hawkins says the team has developed a strategy for handling the pressure in big games. "We just try not to do anything stupid," he says.
In Los Angeles they just try not to do anything boring, and let stupid take care of itself. L.A. has always loved a good quarterback controversy, and this year it should have one in trying to decide whether Troy Aikman of
or Rodney Peete of
is the best quarterback in town, and—on a slightly less provincial level—if one of them isn't the best in the whole blessed country. Aikman finished second in the nation in passing efficiency last year, throwing for 2,354 yards and 16 touchdowns, while Rodney (Sweet) Peete—the name is actually a testament to his sweet tooth—threw for 2,460 yards and 19 touchdowns, and finished fourth in passing efficiency. "Without question, Aikman is the best pure passing quarterback in the Pac-10 since John Elway," says USC defensive coordinator Chris Allen. But Peete is not far behind.
Aikman's gun arm might not do the Bruins a lot of good if he doesn't have targets, and UCLA has only one wide receiver returning who had more than four catches last season. He is Mike Farr, who had 24 receptions but also had surgery during the off-season to remove a bone tumor from his left leg. At tailback, in a change of colors, Brian Brown has replaced Gaston Green. Like Green, Brown can get outside, downshift and burn his alliterative name into the turf. Meanwhile, Aikman should help to make the defense better, mostly by keeping it off the field. Last year he threw just six interceptions, and only three in the first 10 games.
Peete's most remarkable achievement has been making people forget that Southern Cal is Tailback U and that the Trojans are the Thundering Herd. USC, which celebrates its 100th year of football this season, is no longer embarrassed to put the ball in the air, and the reason for this lack of embarrassment is Peete. The Trojans also return their top five rushers, including Steven Webster, who gained 1,109 yards last season, and their top three receivers from a year ago. The offensive line, as usual, will be larger than life, and the entire front wall of a defense that led the nation in turnover margin is back. A national championship to celebrate the centennial would be, well, sweet.
Out on the plains of
they have lately come to equate excessive sun with the drought and the crop failures that it has caused. But in their heart of hearts, Nebraskans have felt few droughts more acutely than the 16-year dry spell their beloved Cornhuskers have suffered through without a national championship. "The hunger has set in so deep it's down to the bone now," says Broderick Thomas, the Huskers' superb outside linebacker. Thomas saw the anguish in Nebraska coach Tom Osborne's eyes when yet another shot at a national title slipped away with a 17-7 loss to Oklahoma last November. "I've got a B.A.—bad attitude," Thomas says. "I'm on a mission now. I want to leave here with the man smiling."