No. 1 Fla. must state its case

September 01, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

There's been a saying in Florida in recent years that you can't win college football's not-so-precise national championship without first winning the state championship. This year should be no different.

With a slight twist.

The preseason favorite has moved north of Coral Gables and east of Tallahassee -- to Gainesville.

The University of Florida, a powerhouse in the Southeastern Conference the past few years under Steve Spurrier but still an also-ran to Miami and Florida State in the national spotlight, earned its first preseason No. 1 ranking in this year's Associated Press poll.

But just as the defending national champion Seminoles, will have to go through the Orange Bowl against the Hurricanes on Oct. 8 -- not to mention the Citrus Bowl in Orlando against Notre Dame on Nov. 12 -- the Gators will have to close the season Nov. 26 at Florida State's Doak Campbell Stadium.

"I would say the national championship could be decided within the state of Florida this season," Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden said recently. "But that's not new, is it? It seems that's the way it is almost every year."

It certainly was that way last year. Florida State beat Miami at home and Florida on the road, and those victories all but canceled out the team's lone defeat -- at Notre Dame in mid-November.

And then Florida State needed some help to defeat Big Eight champion Nebraska in the Orange Bowl on New Year's night. "An act of God," Cornhuskers coach Tom Osborne said of his team's 18-16 defeat, which ended with a 48-yard field-goal try sailing wide.

It will take some similar intervention -- not to mention a more consistent defense -- for the Gators to move through their treacherous schedule undefeated. Especially in the SEC, a decidedly more difficult league than either the Atlantic Coast Conference or the Big East.

It can be done, and has been as recently as two years ago, when Alabama won the national championship by going unbeaten. But Florida, which opens Saturday at home in "The Swamp" against New Mexico State, suddenly has seen its role reversed with fourth-ranked Florida State and sixth-ranked Miami.

Not that the normally confident Spurrier is predicting any championships, in-state or out.

"The way the schedule falls right now, the odds are not as great for us as they might be for other teams," said Spurrier, whose Gators must also play Tennessee in Knoxville. "It doesn't mean we can't do it. But we have to recognize what the odds are."

Don't discount Florida State's chances because of all the tumult that has taken place in Tallahassee since January. The Sports Illustrated expose and subsequent investigation that resulted in the suspension of five players might not have as large an impact as replacing Heisman quarterback Charlie Ward.

And don't dismiss Miami, either. The Hurricanes are coming off a disappointing 9-3 season that ended with an embarrassing 29-0 defeat to Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl. Dennis Erickson also has spent the off-season putting out off-the-field brush fires and answering insinuations that the country's most dominant program had seen its better days.

"We're going to show everybody last season was a fluke," said quarterback Frank Costa, who has won back his starting job, if not the confidence of Miami fans after his arrest.

Said Erickson, who has won two national titles in five years, "There are a lot of people who have questions about this program. Can we get it back to where we were? There's no question in my mind we can, and this is the year it's going to happen."

The Hurricanes will have a chance to do that early, with home games against both Washington (Sept. 24) and Florida State. Considering that several of last year's top Big East teams took a step back -- most notably West Virginia -- Miami could have the easiest road to a national championship game.

But Osborne admits that this could be Nebraska's best chance at one. Though the second-ranked Cornhuskers looked sloppy in Sunday's 31-0 Kickoff Classic trouncing of West Virginia, they should win their next 10 games before ending the regular season at Oklahoma. The only two potential stumbling blocks are home games against UCLA (Sept. 17) and Colorado (Oct. 29).

"I think we have a lot of things going in our favor that we didn't have before, or at least the last few years," said Osborne, alluding to his team's new-found respect from last year's Orange Bowl defeat. "But it's still up to us to win all our games."

That doesn't seem to be a criterion, considering what happened with Florida State and Notre Dame last year. You can bet that given the same set of circumstances, the outcome likely would be different this time. And you can bet on something else: the national championship will likely be decided within the state of Florida, either in the regular season or on New Year's night.

FIVE-STAR OUTLOOK

Here are some things to look for this college football season:

5 GAMES TO DETERMINE THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

1. Florida State at Miami, Oct. 8

2. Colorado at Nebraska, Oct. 29

3. Florida State-Notre Dame, Nov. 12 at Orlando, Fla.

4. Florida at Florida State, Nov. 26

5. Nebraska at Oklahoma, Nov. 25

5 COACHES WHO NEED TO WIN MORE TO GET (OR KEEP) FANS OFF THEIR BACKS

1. Doug Graber, Rutgers

2. Paul Pasqualoni, Syracuse

3. Mark Duffner, Maryland

4. George Perles, Michigan State

5. Dennis Erickson, Miami

5 LONG SHOTS TO WIN THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

1. Virginia Tech

2. Southern Cal

3. Wisconsin

4. Auburn

5. Penn State

5 PLAYERS WHO COULD WIN THE HEISMAN TROPHY

1. J. J. Stokes, wide receiver, UCLA

2. Rob Johnson, quarterback, Southern Cal

3. Brent Moss, tailback, Wisconsin

4. Warrick Dunn, tailback, Florida State

5. Steve Stenstrom, quarterback, Stanford

5 SECRET WEAPONS

1. Terrell Willis, tailback, Rutgers

2. Lawrence Phillips, tailback, Nebraska

3. Maurice DeShazo, quarterback, Virginia Tech

4. Leland McElroy, tailback, Texas A&M

5. Tedy Bruschi, defensive tackle, Arizona

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