It is being called the blast from the past, an old-school resurrection. Whatever the label, the reemergence of traditional national powers -- Notre Dame, Alabama, Nebraska and Penn State -- has provided fresh storylines for storied programs.
Because all earned significant victories Saturday, it has virtually guaranteed that the national title picture will be shaped by the four schools that rank among the top seven in all-time victories. The scenario that has unfolded -- they are a combined 18-1 -- appeared far-fetched at the close of last season, when none won more than six games or finished the season nationally ranked.
Notre Dame was spurned by Urban Meyer. Penn State drew criticism for its loyalty toward 78-year-old Coach Joe Paterno. Nebraska fans viewed Coach Bill Callahan as an outsider. And the patience of Crimson Tide faithful was wearing thin, even for an Alabama alum like Coach Mike Shula.
The four schools have not had this much cumulative success this early in a season since Oct. 3, 1994, when the Associated Press poll had all ranked in the top 11. At the time, Alabama, Nebraska and Penn State were undefeated, while Notre Dame had just one loss, the same situation that exists today.
The most impressive victory Saturday among the four occurred in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where the Crimson Tide silenced Meyer's new spread-option offense, beating then-No. 5 Florida, 31-3. The triumph was particularly meaningful for Shula, who returned to his alma mater in the summer of 2003 to take over a program that had been humbled by NCAA probation and embarrassed by the events that led up to the firing of coach Mike Price.
"We were hoping to get off to a start like this," Shula said yesterday in a conference call. "We've played well at times this season, we've played inconsistent at times. The biggest thing is the confidence this win will give our team for the second half of the season."
In Lincoln, Neb., Cornhusker players rejoiced after an overtime victory against Iowa State, an outcome that eased the scrutiny on Callahan's West Coast offense and made Nebraska the favorite to emerge from what has recently been an inferior Big 12 North Division.
"It's amazing how close we're coming together," Nebraska defensive end Jay Moore said after the game. "The main thing is in the locker room after the game, everyone's hugging each other, guys have tears in their eyes. We love each other so much on this team."
Among the four schools, the team that could have the largest impact on a national scope is Notre Dame, which pounded a Purdue team that had been a trendy pick to be the Big Ten champion. "I did not expect us to play as well as we did," Coach Charlie Weis said after the 49-28 victory.
Considering the rest of the Fighting Irish's schedule, which includes five consecutive home games, Notre Dame could be in position to qualify for the Bowl Championship Series by beating either Southern California on Oct. 15 or Tennessee on Nov. 5. What's even better for Irish fans is that Weis now has two weeks -- Notre Dame is off this week -- to hole up in his office and dissect USC's explosive offense.
Speaking of offense, what has happened to the Penn State offense that scored 13 points only four times last season? Through five games this year, the Nittany Lions have scored over 40 points three times and have not been held to fewer than 23.
As Paterno will be the first to note, however, Penn State still has four teams on its schedule that were ranked last week, and that does not even include a Michigan team that is more potent now that running back Mike Hart has returned from injury.
"I wouldn't get carried away," Paterno said. "We've got a long way to go. We've got some tough games ahead for us."
Baylor, Indiana, Vanderbilt Fall
So much for the unbeaten records for Baylor, Indiana and Vanderbilt. All lost Saturday. Most disappointing was the Commodores' 17-15 defeat to a winless Middle Tennessee State team that had been unable to score more than seven points in three previous games.
Before the game, Middle Tennessee State Coach Andy McCollum inspired his team by noting that Alabama, his team's first opponent, had dominated Florida. "I told the kids, 'You remember going toe-to-toe with that team?' " McCollum said. " 'Look what they are doing. We've got a good football team here and you've got to believe in yourselves.' " . . . Grambling State quarterback Bruce Eugene set school records for passing yards (618) and touchdown passes (seven) in a 50-7 defeat of Prairie View A&M. Eugene raised his career touchdown total to 95, eclipsing Doug Williams, the former Washington Redskin and Grambling quarterback. . . . Alabama will have to find a replacement for wide receiver Tyrone Prothro, who underwent surgery Saturday night after breaking his leg against Florida. Shula said yesterday he hopes Prothro is back by spring practice.