For the best college football teams in the country, the next best thing to a week off used to be a game against a team in the East, usually an entire region of weaklings, with the exception of Penn State and Pittsburgh.
The East is fighting back. Syracuse's victory over top-ranked Nebraska Saturday was the most obvious signal that college football programs in the East are vastly improved. Even before that upset, Boston College (3-0), now ranked fourth in the nation, had defeated Alabama and Rutgers had beaten Syracuse.
"I think all the teams in the East were happy about Syracuse winning," Bruce Arians, coach of Temple, said yesterday. "It's another springboard for the Eastern teams. People hear the score and they say, 'Hey, these guys must be for real.' "
Syracuse Coach Dick MacPherson tried to play down the impact of his team's victory, but acknowledged he is rooting hard for teams in his region. "After we lost to Rutgers, we say to them, 'We hope you can win some games and make your win over us look good, instead of it being just two eastern teams playing each other and who the hell cares?'
"I'm rooting 100 percent. We're a lot closer now. The coaches meet and talk . . . I think some of the Boston College kids (who had the week off) were up here rooting for us against Nebraska. They sure know we're rooting like hell for them."
Syracuse, despite its biggest victory in 25 years, was not ranked in the top 20 yesterday by the Associated Press. But that does not diminish the improvement the Orangemen (3-1) have made. Nor does it diminish the revitalization and reemphasis of Eastern college football.
Coaches yesterday cited several reasons they feel Eastern football has improved. They include the renewed interest (largely for financial reasons) among alumni and athletic directors in fielding competitive teams, the increasing impact of the NCAA's recent changed scholarship rules that prevent schools from stockpiling players, coaches' emphasis of speed rather than bulk and the trend of prominent recruits going to schools closer to home.
"It's not the coaches or some magic; the programs in the East have finally been clearly defined," said MacPherson, referring to schools such as those in the Ivy League dropping out of Division I and into Division I-AA in recent years. "You can't give a guy a Division I schedule with Division I-AA resources, then when he loses to a powerhouse on Saturday, ask, 'Hey Coach, what's wrong out there?'
"A lot of the Eastern schools don't drastically alter admission policies and entrance requirements," MacPherson said. "So it's even-steven now, for the East, in terms of everyone having to maintain a 2.0."
Jack Bicknell, coach of Boston College, said last week he noticed more recruits being receptive to schools whose reputations were made more on academics than football. Because the public is so much more aware of academically deficient athletes, Bicknell said, recruits will at least visit some of the Eastern schools.
Arians sees Eastern schools that stayed in Division I getting better resources, in terms of players and facilities. "All the Eastern teams you see getting better have reemphasized football," he said. "West Virginia (4-1) has a new stadium, Syracuse has the Carrier Dome. Rutgers is planning to have a new building. We've got some plans that are in the early stages . . .
"When one or two schools in a region start doing that," Arians said, "the others don't want to be left behind. Alums and athletic directors are aware of that." They're also undoubtedly aware of all the hundreds of thousands of dollars that will be available in television markets, the largest of which are in the East.
If reemphasis was the impetus for improvement, speed on the field has helped that process along. Temple lost at sixth-ranked Florida State Saturday night, 44-27, and was a lot more competitive than it probably would have been three years ago.
"I know there is a bigger emphasis of speed and quickness, over bulk and strength like it used to be," Arians said. "Total team speed is still the difference. The schools in the South and the West still have more speed. But I can see the gap closing."
Completely closing that gap, however, may take a while according to MacPherson. He points to a state such as Florida, which he says "has a surplus of high school talent. They're still getting the best players. We're getting the overflow."
But the overflow, with today's scholarship limitations, can help a team immeasurably, especially if the one or two players going to Eastern schools are skilled-position players, such as quarterback Doug Flutie of Boston College, the leading candidate to win the Heisman Trophy.
Arians thinks his Temple team (2-2 with a victory over Pitt) "is another upset away" from moving into national prominence. "As a matter of fact," he said, "I think several Eastern schools could say the same thing."