This year's college heroes won't come ready-made. Goodbye, Herschel Walker and John Elway. Hello, Ernest Anderson, Robert Lavette, Mike Rozier, Tom Tunnicliffe and Andy Ponseigo.
With all the new faces dominating, it would be almost fitting--and altogether feasible--for Auburn to intrude upon the traditional powers and win the national championship.
As Maryland quarterback Boomer Esiason says about the upcoming season, "Just because it will all be new to people doesn't mean it will be bad. They just have to get used to the new things real quickly."
Not all the familiar names have disappeared. Rozier, obscured by Walker and Curt Warner the last two years, has the ability to run Nebraska right through a relatively easy schedule to the No. 1 spot for much of the year. Texas and Auburn probably have better teams, but play no fewer than six games each against bowl-caliber teams.
Again, there are hopes as high as cornfields in the Midwest, where Ohio State tries to continue a seven-game winning streak and Notre Dame, with 11-all-America recruits and quarterback Blair Kiel returning, tries to live up to its lofty preseason ranking (No. 1 in Sporting News) and keep Coach Gerry Faust from losing his job.
Then, there are the traditional powers with the untraditional questions. How good will Alabama be with Ray Perkins replacing the late Bear Bryant? Probably better. With what amounts to seven home games, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Tide challenge Auburn for the Southeastern Conference title.
At Oklahoma, where they should be filming an on-location daytime soap, is the Norman campus big enough for Coach Barry Switzer and tailback Marcus Dupree? Is there a uniform in Norman big enough for Marcus Dupree?
Can Penn State replace two first-round NFL draft picks--Warner and Todd Blackledge--or even come close to defending its national title with only nine starters returning?
Will Southern California, under first-year Coach Ted Tollner, find passing fancier than running from the I? Probably, since USC is thin at the tailback position, and Tollner is a former offensive coordinator at San Diego State and Brigham Young.
There isn't much question, however, that Nebraska, Auburn and Texas are the best teams in the nation.
Auburn, 9-3 last year, is probably the best team in unquestionably the best conference in college football. Seven teams from the SEC went to bowl games last season. Without Walker at Georgia this year, Auburn appears to be the strongest team, a distinction Coach Pat Dye doesn't mind.
"We all know it's more important where you finish than where you start," he said recently. "But predictions can serve as a goal, something to shoot for."
Auburn's offense, which committed a collegiate-low 14 turnovers last year, returns virtually intact, although it was shaken by the death of running back Greg Pratt on the first day of practice. The Tigers' stars are Bo Jackson, who rushed for 829 yards last year (6.5 yards per carry), and Lionel James, who led the nation in punt returns and also averaged 6.9 yards per carry for 779 yards. "I don't see how Lionel could get any better than last year," Dye said.
Auburn's only problem is a big one: the schedule. The Tigers play seven bowl teams--Texas, Florida State, Florida, Maryland, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. The good news is that only the Georgia and Tennessee games are being played out of the state of Alabama.
Texas has a solid defense and freshman running back Edwin Simmons, who some say will be the school's best rusher since Earl Campbell. Critics say Texas may have trouble replacing quarterback Robert Brewer, but since when did a quarterback mean much at Texas, anyway? Coach Fred Akers also has a schedule problem, and all his tough games are on the road. Besides playing Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, the Longhorns play at Auburn, Arkansas, Southern Methodist, Texas A&M and Houston. Enough said.
That gives a slight edge to Nebraska. With quarterback Turner Gill and Rozier (1,689 yards rushing last year) returning, the Cornhuskers have probably the best offensive backfield in the nation. Four linemen graduated, but every time the Cornhuskers lose linemen, their replacements come in the next year and Nebraska leads the nation in rushing. And Nebraska plays only four legitimate teams, if you count Minnesota.
"We've missed national titles the last two years by this much," said Gill, holding his fingers an inch apart. "I'm tired of losing."
Penn State just has too many players to replace and too tough a schedule--Nebraska, Iowa, Alabama, West Virginia, Boston College, Notre Dame and Pitt. "I don't think there is any question that winning the second title is easier than the first," said Penn State Coach Joe Paterno, "but to even think about winning consecutive titles is asking too much."
Many of the top individual performers are not on top 20 teams.
Navy's Napoleon McCallum was the nation's fifth-leading all-purpose runner last year and should challenge Sam DeJarnette of Southern Mississippi and Ernest Anderson of Oklahoma State this year. Anderson, who led the nation in rushing last year with 1,877 yards, isn't even considered the best running back in his own state when Oklahoma sophomore Dupree is in shape.
Two of the nation's top running backs are hardly known outside their own campuses. Lavette of Georgia Tech rushed for 1,208 yards and 19 touchdowns last year and was his team's leading receiver. And DeJarnette rushed for 1,545 yards and was the nation's eighth-best kick returner.
Navy, in Andy Ponseigo, has a player many feel is the best linebacker in the country. And Long Beach State, which had the nation's No. 1 passing offense last year, returns senior quarterback Todd Dillon.
But you don't have to go west, for a change, to find good quarterbacks. Three of the nation's best--Ben Bennett of Duke, Esiason of Maryland and Wake Forest's Gary Schofield--will play against each other in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Bennett needs 3,009 passing yards to break the NCAA career record of Jim McMahon (Brigham Young). Doug Flutie of Boston College and Jeff Hostetler of West Virginia are two more of the fine quarterbacks playing in the East. As usual though, the West does have several good passers. Besides Dillon, there are Steve Young of Brigham Young, second to only Dillon among the nation's leading returning passers, and Arizona's Tunnicliffe, who may be the best in the Pac-10.