Stanford has the nation's third-best passing attack and, in Guy Benjamin, the No. 1 quarterback in America. LSU has the nation's sixth-best rushing offense and, in Tailback Charles Alexander, the No. 2 running back in the country. What makes it wild is that Stanford's defense was the Pacific Eight's worst at stopping the run. And, yup, LSU's defenders were dead last in the Southeastern Conference at stopping the pass.
Alexander dashed for 1,686 yards, an SEC record, and scored 17 touchdowns, third-best in the nation. Fullback Kelly Simmons added 387 yards and Steve Ensminger kept things honest by passing for 952 yards, mostly to Carlos Carson, whose 24 yards per catch and 10 TD receptions topped the SEC.
Benjamin spreads his passes around among Darrin Nelson (50 receptions), Bill Kellar (46) and James Lofton (53), a spectacular flanker who is also an All-America long jumper. Nelson, a freshman, using the blocks of 6'6" Tackle Gordon King and pass-prevent defenses to full advantage, also rushed for 1,069 yards to become Stanford's first 1,000-yard back.
Each team has developed a solid kicking game after unsure beginnings, but neither defense stands out, although Stanford's Gordy Ceresino and LSU's John Adams make noises when they hit. Both teams crushed Oregon, but the 2-9 Ducks outpassed LSU and outrushed Stanford. So which team looks better? "Between those two, I can't predict a thing," says Oregon Coach Rich Brooks.
Against Wyoming, the best passing team LSU met, the Tigers exploded 66-7. Stanford was drubbed 49-0 by USC, the strongest running team it met. Wyoming may not be up to USC standards, but good ground teams are supposed to beat good passing ones, aren't they? So figure LSU.
Clemson (8-2-1) vs. Pittsburgh (8-2-1)
At first glance, Pittsburgh and Clemson seem to be mirror images. Pitt is ranked 10th, Clemson 11th. Both yield points grudgingly, 11.7 and 11.9 a game, respectively. Both finished 8-2-1. Both lost squeakers to Notre Dame. Both have new coaches. On top of that, Pitt's Jackie Sherrill and Clemson's Charley Pell played together, at Alabama in 1962. Sherrill was a freshman, Pell a senior. Says Sherrill, "I remember he put a few knots on my head."
In truth, the defenses are slightly different. Up front Pitt is big and pushy. Clemson is smaller and quicker, especially at linebacker, where Randy Scott fills holes as quickly as they open. Clemson's secondary was patched together this fall while Pitt's Bob Jury, J. C. Wilson, LeRoy Felder and Jeff Delaney are a 2-year-old unit, giving the Panthers an edge there.
But the biggest dissimilarity is on offense. With Matt Cavanaugh, arguably the nation's best quarterback, throwing to flashy Gordon Jones, Pitt has an attack that struck for 35.8 points a game, fifth best in the nation. Jones also is a dazzling punt returner. Clemson grinds it out, mainly over the right side behind Joe Bostic and Lacy Brumley. Tailbacks Warren Ratchford and Lester Brown produced 1,032 yards rushing between them. Quarterback Steve Fuller ran for 578 more. Should the rushing game bog down, Fuller, who was selected ACC Player of the Year, will not be stymied; he threw for 1,497 yards in the regular season.
This is the first meeting between the Panthers and the Tigers, but Pitt is 17-10 against other ACC teams. These Panthers have an edge in bowl experience, seven starters having played in last year's Sugar Bowl, while Clemson was 3-6-2 and stayed home. Notre Dame players say Pitt is much stronger and predict that the key to this matchup is whether the Tigers' offense can control the ball. "Clemson can't get into a 1-2-3 punt contest with them," says Irish Coach Dan Devine. "Pitt's strength is its defense, and they are going to force a turnover." Don't expect any more knots to appear on Jackie Sherrill's head. It seems to add up to a Panther victory.