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Cal also got the message. Under rookie coach Bruce Snyder, the Bears were 3-6-2 in the Pac 10 in 1987; in '88 they finished last in the conference, and duplicated the feat in '89. It was at that point that athletic director Dave Maggard added another two years to Snyder's contract. On Saturday, although the Bears were edged in a wild finish by rapidly improving Stanford 27-25, they wound up 6-5 and are headed for the Copper Bowl, their first bowl appearance since 1979. To be sure, though stability counts for a ton, some schools still don't get the message. Witness Pitt, which year in and year out has superlative talent. However, the Panthers, 3-6-1 with one game left, against Penn State, have struggled mightily under four coaches in the past 10 years.
•Coaching malaise. If upstart schools have benefited from new faces, some established powers may be suffering from tired blood. Can Terry Donahue still cut it? And what about Auburn's Pat Dye? Though 7-2-1, he seems to have suffered a failure of nerve, going for a tie rather than a win—the final was 26-26—against Tennessee just as he has done in similar situations in past seasons. Success can do that to a guy. Virginia Coach George Welsh had the Cavs pass up a chance to score a fourth-quarter touchdown from the six-yard line against Georgia Tech, instead kicked a tying field goal, then watched as the Yellow Jackets came back with a field goal of their own to win 41-38. Dye, incidentally, may be playing it too safe in other ways as well. The Tigers were 3-0-1 in their first four games as freshman Stan White hit on 91 of 161 passes for 1,142 yards and eight touchdowns. In the next six games, in which Auburn was 4-2, White was only 72 of 146 for 915 yards and four touchdowns. Why did Dye become cautious? "We're a football team searching for an identity and a personality," he says.
•Tougher academic standards. Iowa State coach Jim Walden thinks they finally are kicking in. Proposition 48, which was implemented in 1986 and requires entering scholarship football players to score at least 700 (out of a maximum 1,600) on the SAT, or 15 on the ACT, could be affecting the distribution of talent. Says Walden, "Before Prop 48, the great players went to 20 percent of the schools, the ones that did all the winning. Now a lot of these great players, who unfortunately liked football more than they liked history class, can't get in. So there are fewer great players qualifying."
Some of these Prop 48 casualties, like Texas A&I's Johnny Bailey and Albert Fann of Cal State-Northridge, end up playing lower-division ball. While it takes 22 athletes at a time to play a game of football, the loss of even one supremely talented player can make the difference between a win and a loss. Consider Notre Dame's futility when Ismail is on the bench (he also missed the Stanford game), then imagine what a Bailey, who broke nearly every collegiate rushing record during his career with the Javelinas—he's now with the Chicago Bears—would have meant to a top-level Division I team.
Second-year coach Fred Goldsmith of Rice thinks the tougher standards have helped schools that are on the top rung academically—Rice, Georgia Tech, Virginia. That's because the players are required to get themselves better educated in high school and that, in turn, helps them score better on entrance tests.
•Fewer anabolic steroids. Some of the biggest, toughest college football teams of the past decade had lots of chemical help. Some schools refused to get involved—or were not sophisticated enough to figure out the pharmacological technology—and thus were being manhandled not by opposing players but by science. These days, while nobody is professing that steroids are a thing of the past, the feeling is that bodybuilding drugs are on the wane. That has helped level the playing field.
•Emotion. It still counts for a lot, and as the level of talent evens out, a little bit more heart can provide the edge. Don't forget that on Oct. 6, Fresno State, ranked 24th, was embalmed by Northern Illinois, 73-18, one week after the Huskies had lost to woeful Northwestern; don't forget that on Oct. 20, The Citadel, a I-AA school with barely 2,000 students, beat South Carolina 38-35, in Columbia.
Illinois's Mackovic says that Iowa was able to beat his team 54-28 on Nov. 3 because the Hawkeyes were "much more ready emotionally." Never mind the hard facts that by any other measure Illinois is a better team than Iowa. Yet Iowa has the Rose Bowl bid all but locked up and Illinois will be playing in the Hall of Fame Bowl.
Two weeks ago, Washington, with an 8-1 record and headed for the Rose Bowl, was a 21-point favorite against UCLA. The Bruins, 4-5 and on their way to their second straight losing season for the first time since 1963-64, defeated the Huskies 25-22. Nobody thinks UCLA is better than Washington.
•Players leaving early for the pros. Clearly, USC was badly hurt when linebacker Junior Seau and defensive back Mark Carrier entered the NFL draft after their junior seasons. With them, the Trojans almost certainly would have been back to the Rose Bowl. Without them, USC has had to settle for the John Hancock Bowl. At Illinois, quarterback Jeff George, the NFL's No. 1 pick last spring, would have made the Illini a strong national title contender. At Pitt, All-America defensive tackle Marc Spindler departed early for the pros, leaving a huge hole. Altogether, 38 underclassmen bailed out, and the ripple effect is still being felt.