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No doubt you, the serious fan, are intensely interested in how the Miami Hurricanes will do without Jimmy What's-his-name on the sidelines and whether it bothers Michigan's Bo Schembechler that he's now one national championship behind his school's rookie basketball coach. You may even be intrigued by the knowledge that Dixie's best team will once again not come from the proud Southeastern Conference and that Nebraska's schedule is a joke. Of course, you've probably noticed that Oklahoma has become State Pen U while Penn State U has become Rutgers, or something, that West Virginia quarterback Major Harris could be demoted to private behind this year's offensive line and that Notre Dame's Tony Rice might be only the second-most-serious Heisman Trophy candidate in his own state, behind Indiana's splendid tailback Anthony Thompson.
But you know what? Notre Dame, for one, doesn't care about any of these distractions. All the Irish really care about is building on the serendipity of last season's completely unanticipated 12-0 record and national championship.
The Irish are playing for a place in the record book—no college team has won back-to-back consensus titles since Oklahoma accomplished the feat in 1955-56—and the truth is, Notre Dame can be better than last year, even without getting the sort of breaks the '88 squad got in its 31-30 home win over Miami. That game, and not the easy 34-21 victory over overrated and over-hyped West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl, was the real battle for the title.
The losses of linebacker Michael Stonebreaker, tailback Tony Brooks, defensive tackle George Williams and defensive end Arnold Ale have stung the Irish (page 38), but that still leaves 14 returning starters, led by Rice, the athletic quarterback whose 700 yards rushing smashed Joe Theismann's old school record of 384, set in 1970. Rice's once-shaky passing has improved to at least the point of respectability, which is fortunate, because two of his brilliant young receivers, flanker Raghib (Rocket) Ismail and tight end Derek Brown, both are back for their sophomore seasons.
Ricky Watters, a flanker last season, will line up at tailback, and Anthony Johnson, a South Bend native who once worked as a runner for stadium ushers, is "the most underrated fullback I've ever been around," said coach Lou Holtz.
On defense, end Frank Stams and linebacker Wes Pritchett, two buddies who liked to crack jokes when they weren't cracking ballcarriers, have been lost to graduation. But linebacker Ned Bolcar, a fifth-year senior, is cocky enough to believe his unit still will be plenty tough. After a spring scrimmage, Bolcar said this to Johnson: "Anthony, you're one great fullback, and that makes us one great defense, because we kicked your butts today."
The only problem with picking Notre Dame to win it all is that the verdict could be overturned as early as Sept. 16, when the Irish visit Michigan. A year ago, remember, the Wolverines' Mike Gillette was a smidgen wide on a 49-yard field-goal attempt on the last play of Notre Dame's season-opening 19-17 victory in South Bend. That heart-breaker, another 31-30 squeaker to Miami and an inexplicable 17-17 tie with Iowa were the only blemishes on an otherwise brilliant season that was capped by a 22-14 romp over Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl, Schembechler's second win in Pasadena in nine tries.
Schembechler can't be too jealous of basketball coach Steve Fisher's national title, because, as athletic director. Bo is the guy who booted Bill Frieder out the door before the NCAA tournament for taking the Arizona State job. To the contrary, Bo was so delighted with the championship that he was heard to growl, in a rare moment of optimism, "Maybe, just maybe, we can carry it over to the fall." The strongest tie to the basketball team is cornerback Lance Dottin, a cousin of Final Four hero Rumeal Robinson and his back-court partner in high school.
Dottin is only one of many fine athletes wearing the maize and blue, so pay no attention when Schembechler grouses about his kicking game, his offensive line and his secondary. "It's a mind game," says safety Tripp Welborne, "but that's why he's a great coach." Welborne, tackle Mike Evans and linebacker J.J. Grant will anchor the defense, while the offense will be built around the likes of flanker Greg McMurtry, tailback Tony Boles (the nation's fourth-leading rusher, with 135.9 yards per game) and fullback Leroy Hoard.
New starting center Steve Everitt, a sophomore, earned Schembechler's affection in the spring when, after smashing his right hand in a door and losing two fingernails, he learned to snap with his left hand and didn't flub a single exchange during the spring game. Until last week, Schembechler's biggest dilemma was deciding who would take most of Everitt's snaps: Michael Taylor, who was leading the conference in passing efficiency when he broke his collarbone on Nov. 5, or Demetrius Brown, who filled in admirably and engineered the Rose Bowl win. As it turned out, Bo's decision was made for him when Brown flunked out of school.