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FSU's the leader, but the pack's not far behind

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000


Only an exhibitionist, straining to be different in an outrageous era of mass tattooing and ghastly piercings, should be picking any football institution but Florida State to win the national championship.

Didn't the 'Noles beat everybody last season, roosting at No. 1 from Labor Day through Sugar Bowl judgment day? Aren't they just as imposing this year?

Even coveting pressure.

"I like being voted preseason No. 1, especially when we back it up from September until January," said FSU coach Bobby Bowden. "If you're undisputed heavyweight champion, shouldn't the title be yours until somebody takes it away in the ring, not in some poll?"

Amen, Rev. Robert.

Checking the survivors on Bowden Island, even with NFL rookies Peter Warrick having moved on to Cincinnati and Sebastian Janikowski to Mars, the 'Noles wagon is still loaded.

Across the exploding Internet, in magazines and newspapers and on TV, we're seeing a world of non-FSU picks. Nebraska getting a lot of calls. Beano Cook likes Texas. Probably been listening to George W. Bush. Alabama hearing some No. 1 noise. So many stabsters trying to be different. Considering the generally nonsensical August forecast history of Sports Illustrated, I was looking for a No. 1 canonizing of Utah or East Carolina.

At such heights, nobody is mentioning FSU's at-home challengers, the Florida Gators and Miami Hurricanes. Which is proper. Neither merits summertime consideration for No. 1, but our sunny triumvirate does continue to cook. All three are popular Top 10 choices.

I'm wondering if Steve Spurrier's offense will regroove. His coaching wizardry has a new level of challenges. SEC murmurs suggest defensive strategists have caught up with the Florida coach's unique tactics.

We'll see, but I never figured to see Vanderbilt hold S.O.S. Gators to 13 points before UF was lavishly embarrassed by 'Bama in the SEC final. Florida must refind its offensive style, like G-ville trendsetters of the earlier '90s, or an 8-3 record is predictable, a result now deemed a downer in our uptown neighborhood.

I've been convinced by Miami coach Butch Davis that, while FSU may still be out of reach, the Hurricanes are back to full, poll-contending muscle. Equal to the Gators, maybe better. Closing the gap on Bowden. Miami is notably potent with runners, topped by James Jackson. Few pass receivers on the NCAA continent are the equal of Santana Moss.

Across the national landscape: Georgia is back, itching to outdo SEC East strongboys Tennessee and Florida. Wisconsin lost Heisman Trophy running bull Ron Dayne but hopes are top-heavy with quarterback Brooks Bollinger. Nebraska is indeed strong, as are Texas, Alabama, Michigan and those heroes of the bounceback, Kansas State and TCU.

There will be no more intriguing study than at Notre Dame, where football excellence is traditional and expected but now so seemingly out of reach. Who could have figured, as a new century blossomed, that the Irish could be so removed from chatter about going for No. 1? Not even the Pope is expecting such giddiness. Making the Top 25 has become a stout challenge in South Bend.

So lukewarm are Notre Dame expectations that seven wins, or surely eight, likely will spare coach Bob Davie from being fired. If he goes, Bill Clinton will be available. Nah, would the outgoing president want a job that's even tougher?

Odd as it might seem, the most popular suggestion, if Davie perishes, is Jacksonville Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin. It won't be for the money. Irish paydays aren't a fourth of what taskmaster Tom makes in the NFL.

But there's always been a charm to the N.D. job. Still is. There's no better place to be a football winner, but it's become more difficult than Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, Devine and Holtz ever knew.

Getting only a whimper of poll importance is Virginia Tech, the 1999 upstart darling who demonstratively challenged FSU for a good swatch of the national championship game in New Orleans.

Unlike with the 'Noles, personnel losses in Blacksburg won't be amply covered, but the Hokies still have the planet's most exciting amateur player, Michael Vick.

Never has a quarterback, in college football or the pros, showed escapability to match Vick. This season, he will be outpassed by Drew Brees of Purdue and outwon by Chris Weinke at Florida State, but nobody will be more invigorating to watch than the Hokie Houdini.

Among all freshman talents, not just in Florida but across America, the kid I'm most eager to see is D.J. Williams, 240-pound linebacker from Berkeley who also was California's best high school running back. Sounds like LaVar Arrington II. As he plugs in at UM, the stated Williams goal is something even more potent, to become Lawrence Taylor II.

On the field, he means.

There's nothing quite the zealous equal of a big-time college football atmosphere. You feel the full, invigorating load in Tallahassee, Gainesville, Knoxville, South Bend, Tuscaloosa, Lincoln, State College, Ann Arbor, Auburn, Austin, Athens, Columbus, Provo and so many places.

Sure, it stimulates to be in grand NFL arenas, including Green Bay and Dallas and Tampa and Denver, but there are obvious differences from top collegiate venues. More professional, but not quite so much like a high-voltage family picnic.

Let the raging Saturdays begin.

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