Alabama, last year's No. 1 team, could be knocked out of the nation's top ten after two consecutive national titles.As many as five legitimate contenders may lay claim to the No. 1 spot when the season opens Monday night.
Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Southern California, Nebraska and Arkansas are fairly even in talent and each is loaded with potential All-america.
Ohio State quarterback Art Schlichter probably will fling his Buckeyes into their second straight Rose Bowl against a sub-par opponent (Stanford or Washington) from the scandal-wrecked Pac-10 conference. Five conference teams, including USC and UCLA, are ineligible for a trip to Pasadena.
Ohio state has 15 regulars and 44 letterman returning and a schedule which doesn't include conference title contender Purdue. The Buckeyes only have four road games, two against lowly Northwestern and Wisconsin.
To make matters worse for Buckeye opponents, Coach Earl Bruce intends to increase Schlichter's passing load. "We didn't throw enough last season," Bruce said. "We only threw 200 passes. That's not enough for a quarterback as goos as Art. We've got the receivers. If we can protect him he's going to throw the ball -- a lot."
On paper, Pittsburgh is as loaded with talent as any team in the country, if not more. But a ridiculously laborious schedule (six away games) could prevent Jackie Sherrill's team from attaining No. 1 status.
The Panthers, led by three-time All-American defensive end Hugh Green, will play Maryland, Florida State, Tennessee, Syracuse and Penn State, all but one on the road.
"We have a lot of things to prove," Green said. "Number one, that Eastern football is here to stay. Number two, that Pitt's 1976 championship wasn't a hoax and we can bring another championship to the 'City of Champions.'"
The Panthers won 11 of 12 games last season and a Fiesta Bowl. But the skeptics contended that even with all key players returning, Pitt could not challenge for the No. 1 spot without a breakaway threat in the backfield.
Now they have two. Prep stars Dwight Collins and Marc Bailey and most of the nation's coaches and recruiters drooling with their speed.
Nebraska has a flashy back of its own in Jarvis Redwine, who, if healthy for the entire season, could make the Cornhuskers unbeatable. "He's as good as any back in the country," says his coach Tom Osborne.
Nebraska should edge out Oklahoma for the Big Eight Title. "We aren't going to fall out of sight because we don't have Billy Sims," warned Sooner Coach Barry Switzer. "We'll just be a little more balanced offensively." Balanced or not, Nebraska rates the class of the conference but a suspect defensive secondary may keep the Huskers out of No. 1.
Down the road in the Southwest Conference, Houston, Arkansas and Texas will stage a three-way fight for the top spot and a trip to the Cotton Bowl.
People in Houston are talking of a Cougar dynasty. Arkansas thinks it has found the "next Bert Jones," in his younger brother Tom -- also a quarterback -- and A. J. ("Jam") Jones will run past everybody for the Longhorns, assuming his wounds from last season have healed.
South Carolina's George Rogers, a leading preseason candidate for the Heisman, runs through, over, and past defenders, making the Gamescocks one one of the nation's top independents. Rogers has a chance to become only the second running back in collegiate football history to gain 1,000 yards four straight years.
Conference probation or not, USC, the team many argued was the best in college football last season, is still the best in the west despite losing Heisman Trophy halfback Charles White and quarterback Paul McDonald.
Fullback Marcus Allen moves to the coveted tailback spot while bodyguards Keith Van Horne and Roy Foster anchor the always formidable Trojan offensive line. Coach John Robinson's biggest surprise is naming walk-on senior Gordon Adams (he threw only one pass last season) the starting quarterback.
A quarterback problem is just one of a myraid of question marks for Bear Bryant's crimson Tide, which enters the season with the nation's longest winning streak -- 21 games.
Only two players from Bryant's defending champion offensive unit are returning -- Major Ogilvie and Billy Jackson. The Tide defense is still intact but The Bear will have to rebuild his entire offense.
Bryant jokes that if he doesn't mold his offense in a hurry, Alabama's record could be 0-0-11, all scoreless ties. But he knows building an offense is easier than building a defense.
Alabama linebackers E. J. Junior, Thomas Boyd and Byron Braggs should hold off opponents until the Crimson offense is ready. Southeastern Conference coaching rivals contend Bryant has stockpiled enough talent in the last three years to field several starting teams.
Alabama's offensive problems may be more real than imagined. But Georgia, which doesn't play the Tide for the third straight year, may take the SEC title either way.
Georgia returns 18 starters and all will be needed because the team has little depth. Early injuries could plumet them to third in the conference. Buck Belue will be the Dogs' fulltime quarterback. Freshman Herschel Walker, a 220-pound speedster, will be a bonus if he is as good as the recruiters say.
What about Notre Dame?
The Irish, as usual, will have to fight their way through a grueling schedule beginning with Purdue and Michigan, winding up the season with Alabama and Southern Cal on the road.
"By then I expect the team to mature," said lame-duck Coach Dan Devine, who recently announced his retirement effective at the end of this season.
Before maturing, Devine had better find a quarterback from five candidates -- three seniors and two freshman hopefuls, Blair Kiel and Scott Grooms. Whoever wins the quarterback spot will have his job made considerably easier by a trio of receivers -- Tony Hunter, Pete Holohan and Dean Mastzak -- considered perhaps the best n the nation.
Depending on how slow they start (The Irish are usually good for an upset loss in the first three weeks) they could be top 10 material, or poor enough to make Devine even happier about his early retirement decision.