Usual teams plus 1 gear up for title run Two matchups of top-5 teams highlight today

November 08, 1997|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

There's a monumental tussle at North Carolina tonight. Why, the folks in Chapel Hill are so excited, you'd think Duke was coming in for a basketball game.

It's been a strange year for the Tar Heels, who have lost Dean Smith but are in position to win a national championship in football. Yes, that's right, football, where the Tar Heels want to crash a title chase that otherwise is crowded with the usual suspects.

Today is the most meaningful of the college football season; the list of unbeaten contenders for the national championship dwindles from five to three. There's a sixth unbeaten in Division I-A, but Peter Angelos and Davey Johnson will exchange valentines before Toledo is voted No. 1.

No. 4 Michigan is at No. 2 Penn State (3: 30 p.m., Chs. 2), and the winner gains the inside track on the Big Ten's berth in the Rose Bowl. No. 3 Florida State goes to No. 5 North Carolina (7: 30 p.m., ESPN), and that survivor could meet No. 1 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, which the Bowl Alliance has set up as this season's national championship game.

It's the most high-powered matchup in Atlantic Coast Conference history and the biggest game ever at North Carolina.

"You could say there's a lot of anticipation in the state," Carolina coach Mack Brown said. "We had a few guest tickets go on sale for students. About 500 students pitched tents [Tuesday night] to get in line. I guess they're excited."

It's new terrain for the Tar Heels, who are two seasons removed from a loss at Maryland. North Carolina is 0-28-1 lifetime against top-five opponents, but it gave Florida State fits in Tallahassee last season before falling, 13-0.

Having helped the Seminoles reach last year's national championship game, defensive end Peter Boulware and offensive tackle Walter Jones left with remaining eligibility and were scooped up in the first six picks of the NFL draft. One last shot at Florida State helped defensive end Greg Ellis and linebackers Brian Simmons and Kivuusama Mays come back to North Carolina.

Brown played and coached for the Seminoles in the early 1970s, and he's copied Bobby Bowden's business plan: recruit well, recruit speed and play pressure defense. Watch the flanks when Florida State has the ball, with cornerbacks Dre Bly and Robert Williams covering E. G. Green and Peter Warrick.

Bowden stifled a yawn while calling the Tar Heels the best ACC team he's faced since Florida State entered the conference in 1992.

The Seminoles still have to go to Florida on Nov. 22. The Gators are 6-2, but the mighty Southeastern Conference has six teams in the Top 25. Florida might be a "Sod Game," but North Carolina?

"I've got mixed emotions over that," Bowden said of the 36-year Florida State tradition of taking home a piece of turf from big road wins. "We started the sod game by being underdogs on the road. Do we declare ourselves underdogs?"

North Carolina is No. 2 in the nation in total defense, Florida State No. 4. Michigan is No. 1, and here's a shock: Penn State coach Joe Paterno doesn't have a lot of good things to say about his Nittany Lions, but the Wolverines have a defense and a player for the ages.

Paterno compared Michigan's defense to Michigan State's in the Bubba Smith days of the 1960s, Pittsburgh's in the 1970s and Miami's in 1986. With every lame performance of Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning, the Heisman Trophy chances of Charles Woodson improve, but the way Paterno talks, that would be damning the cornerback-receiver with faint praise.

"People who have played against him [Woodson] say he may be as good as anyone who's played in college," Paterno said.

For Paterno, its beginning to look a lot like 1994 -- and 1968, 1969 and 1973, for that matter, when the Nittany Lions went unbeaten, only to see someone else voted No. 1.

Penn State lost a game of hopscotch to Nebraska in the polls three seasons ago, when Paterno refused to run up the score on lesser opponents. The Nittany Lions were No. 1 after a 31-27 win over Ohio State Oct. 11, but they struggled to beat a bad Minnesota team the next week and the Cornhuskers again moved up.

"I'm not going to get into that game," Paterno said, when asked about pollsters rewarding blowouts. "I'm not going to get into that silly game you guys [the media] want to play."

Paterno has enough to worry about. This may be the toughest November schedule he's ever faced, but it also offers him the opportunity for career win No. 300 at Michigan State Nov. 29.

Speaking of coaching institutions, Nebraska's Tom Osborne seems impervious to the jockeying going on behind his Cornhuskers. They've got their most important Big 12 game of the season today at Missouri, which is unranked but coming off three straight solid wins.

Nebraska is in fine shape to claim its third national championship in four seasons. The Cornhuskers own the most impressive performance of the season, a 27-14 win at Washington Sept. 20.

The Huskies and quarterback Brock Huard have outscored their seven other opponents, 264-85, and they aren't out of it yet. Neither is Tennessee. Let's say Florida State beats North Carolina, but loses to Florida. The Volunteers back their way into the Orange Bowl, and beat Nebraska. Washington whips the Big Ten champ in the Rose Bowl.

What a lovely mess that would be.

Unbeaten contenders

Remaining games for the five unbeaten teams with a shot at the national championship:

No. 1 Nebraska (8-0)

Today at Missouri

Nov. 15 Iowa State

Nov. 28 at Colorado

Dec. 6 Big 12 championship

No. 2 Penn State (7-0)

Today Michigan

Nov. 15 at Purdue

Nov. 22 Wisconsin

Nov. 29 at Michigan State

No. 3 Florida State (8-0)

Today at North Carolina

Nov. 15 Wake Forest

Nov. 22 at Florida

No. 4 Michigan (8-0)

Today at Penn State

Nov. 15 at Wisconsin

Nov. 22 Ohio State

No. 5 North Carolina (8-0):

Today Florida State

Nov. 15 at Clemson

Nov. 22 Duke

Pub Date: 11/08/97

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