The prospects at Colorado are brighter than they've been since 1971, when the Buffaloes finished third in the nation. Last season, coach Bill McCartney's team was a solid 8-4, losing to Nebraska and Oklahoma by a total of 10 points, and now, with 17 starters back, including linebackers Alfred Williams and Kanavis McGhee, the Buffs should be poised for a Top 10 breakthrough. Tragically, starting quarterback Sal Aunese, who accounted for 1,401 yards last season, was found to have inoperable cancer during the off-season. He did not participate in spring practice, but his understudy, sophomore Darian Hagan, developed as "even more of a pleasant surprise than I anticipated," according to offensive coordinator Gerry DiNardo.
Because of Hagan's inexperience, McCartney has changed his offense from the wishbone to the power I to place more responsibility on his huge offensive line and a deep and talented tailback corps led by junior Eric Bieniemy, a bowling-ball type (5'6", 190 pounds) who rolled for 1,243 yards, sixth best in the nation.
Such a runner is missing at West Virginia, but the Mountaineers still have the marvelous Major Harris to befuddle defenses with his strong arm and quick feet. He is so good that even without the eight seniors who were drafted by the NFL, the Mountaineers should be able to earn their seventh bowl appearance in the 10-year stint of coach Don Nehlen. West Virginia's assets will be a less-than-killer schedule, including Ball State, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati, and a defense that returns seven starters, including the linebacking trio of Renaldo Turnbull, Chris Haering and Theron Ellis. Unlike last season, when Harris & Co. averaged more than 41 points a game, the offense will struggle behind a rather green line. If he has time to look downfield, Harris will loft bombs to 6'6" wide receiver Reggie Rembert, perhaps the nation's best at his position.
The West Virginia of this season—the team that comes from the fringes to challenge for the Top 10—could be North Carolina State. When coach Dick Sheridan turned down the chance to replace Vince Dooley at Georgia, that should have been a hint that he likes what he has in Raleigh. The Wolfpack will know early whether it will be able to unseat perennial champion Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference, thanks to a crazy schedule that has N.C. State opening the season with four straight league games. Coming off an 8-3-1 year, N.C. State has an offense that's comfortably deep at quarterback and tailback, and a defense that has a couple of big-time hitters in strong safety Jesse Campbell—first team all-ACC as a freshman—and tackle Ray Agnew.
Still, Clemson won't be easy to dislodge, especially since the big Oct. 21 game with the Wolfpack will be played in Death Valley, and the Tigers will be out to avenge last season's 10-3 defeat. With Rodney Williams gone, Clemson is shaky at quarterback, but that's of little concern to the Tigers, who have run the ball 75% of the time in coach Danny Ford's 10-year career. The best of a solid corps of tailbacks, junior Terry Allen will become the school's alltime leading rusher, with 2,915 yards, when he gains his 750th yard this season—which should be no problem considering the blocking he figures to get from fullback Wesley McFadden and a strong line.
The good and bad of Barry Switzer's 16-year reign at Oklahoma will be debated for years. But give the former coach credit for stockpiling so much talent that neither the well-publicized off-the-field scandals—in which five players were charged with or convicted of major crimes—nor the three-year NCAA probation can shut down the factory. Under new coach Gary Gibbs, Switzer's defensive coordinator for eight years, the Sooners will be more imaginative with the ball and as tough as ever on defense.
Even Colorado and Nebraska, the best teams on the weak Oklahoma schedule, will have trouble scoring against a defense built around tackle Scott Evans, ends Wayne Dickson and James Goode and noseguard Dante Williams. But the offense is a question mark, in part because the Sooners will do less grinding out of their trademark wishbone and more passing out of the I. This is big news, considering that the Sooners have ranked no higher than 97th nationally in passing during the last seven years. Without Charles Thompson, convicted of cocaine dealing, the Sooners don't have a proven quarterback. The candidates include Steve Collins and Tink Collins (not related), and Chris Melson, a converted defensive back. No matter who runs the show, however, the best weapon will be sophomore tailback Mike Gaddis, whom Switzer called "the best back in the Big Eight." Says offensive coordinator Jim Donnan, "We wanted to make sure he can get the ball, and it's a lot easier out of the I."
The Sooners aren't the only traditional power to find themselves in the lower reaches of the rankings. Though it has 43 lettermen returning from a 9-3 team, Alabama has a lot to prove, mainly because both of last season's leaders, quarterback David Smith and linebacker Derrick Thomas, are gone from a team that lost two games in the final two minutes. The new Tide quarterback figures to be Jeff Dunn, who, with an ailing shoulder, completed only a third of his passes while subbing for Smith. Assisting him will be running back Murry Hill, who filled in well for the injured Bobby Humphrey, and receiver Marco Battle. On defense, Keith McCants may eventually be as good as Thomas, while coach Bill Curry calls noseguard Willie Wyatt "a center's nightmare."
Speaking of nightmares, that's what John Cooper had in his first season at Ohio State, where the Buckeyes stumbled to 4-6-1 and seventh—seventh!—in the Big Ten. Now, with quarterback Greg Frey and tailback Carlos Snow (who is expected to recover fully from arthroscopic knee surgery) leading his 38 returnees. Cooper at least should have consistency. The same team that beat Syracuse and LSU was buried by Pitt, Illinois and Indiana. Whatever its final record, Ohio State should have plenty of fight going for it. Tight end Jeff Ellis is the son of former heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis, while linebacker Derek Isaman, who once lost a Golden Gloves match to Mike Tyson, will be back after sitting out last season to try out for the Olympic boxing squad, which he failed to make.
The Buckeyes could finish higher than expected and so could Houston, which once again will use coach Jack Pardee's run-and-shoot offense to light up scoreboards all over the Southwest. The Cougars have two fine defensive players in strong safety Alton Montgomery and linebacker Lamar Lathon, but it's the thrill-a-snap attack that gets the attention. The first option in the run-and-shoot is for quarterback Andre Ware to drop back and let fly. But on those rare occasions when Ware can't get the ball to one of his receivers, he hands it to Chuck (Spoon) Weatherspoon, a 5'7", 210-pounder who took advantage of the emphasis on passing to gain 1,004 yards on only 118 carries, an amazing average of 8.5 yards a pop.